The Bristol Channel Sailing Pilot “Skiffs”

In the October 2007 issue I ran a feature on the pilot gigs of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. That feature was based on information contained within a, long since out of print, book called “Azook” by Keith Harris who kindly permitted me to freely use his research for my article. In addition to the gigs, the waters of South West England were also frequented by another famous pilot craft, the Bristol Channel sailing skiff, or cutter as it now more commonly known as. Despite the ongoing massive popularity of this sailing design, the only authoritative book on the craft was written in the 1970’s by Peter Stuckey. The book was updated and re-published in 1999 but again has long since been out of print and used copies rarely appear and attract very high prices. At the time of writing there is one copy on the internet in the USA with an asking price of $216! In what was probably my best investment in recent years, I purchased a copy in 1999 when it was republished and Peter Stuckey has kindly granted me permission to use extracts from the book for this article. As an introduction, I cannot better Peter’s own which dedicates the book to: those brave men of the Bristol Channel who, with their stout boats, went seeking “downalong”

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The Pilotage History

In order to better understand the role of the Bristol Channel skiff it is useful to understand the pilotage area that they covered since the pilots also served vessels trading to ports in S Wales as well as Bristol. The picture however is not as clear cut as the name suggests because due to the competition between pilots in those days there are records in the Welsh ports of their own pilots and in a further complication, the Bristol Channel pilots were not based in Bristol at all but at the small village of Pill at the mouth of the river Avon.

The records of pilotage out of Pill go back to 1497 when barge master James Ray was appointed by the Mayor and Corporation of Bristol to pilot John Cabot’s Mathew on its historic voyage to the New World. Pill subsequently became the centre for Bristol Channel pilots but the relationship between Pill and Bristol was not a happy one and this strained relationship could probably fill a book of its own so suffice to note for period covered by this article that the pilots operated under the Bristol Channel Pilotage Act of 1807 from which the following extract defines the pilotage area as;

from a certain Place about Four Miles Eastward of King Road and so down the River Severn and Bristol Channel to the two small islands called the Stipe Holmes and the Flat Holmes … (and their authority shall) be extended to the Appointment of Pilots for the conducting of Ships and Vessels into and out of and upon the whole of the Bristol Channel, and the several Ports, Harbours and Creeks belonging to and issuing from the same … (that is) all Vessels passing up and down and upon the Bristol Channel to and from the Eastward of Lundy Island, and in or upon the several creeks of the said Channels.

The fact that theirs was a tough life can appreciated by the photo of Pill pilots and “Westernmen” taken around 1880!

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Pill Pilots & “Westernmen c 1880

The Sailing Skiffs

There are no historical records of skiffs and their construction prior to the early 19th century but like many craft the evolution would have been gradual over the centuries to met the three main requirements of speed, seaworthiness and ease of handling. The very nature of pilotage in those days where pilots were in direct competition with each other would have meant that any design element which gave a new boat the edge over existing boats would have been incorporated by others and there is no doubt that this constant drive to gain advantage over others is what caused these remarkable vessels to not only become the best sailing craft of their day but also for the design to be still one that is world renowned as one of the best blue water sailing craft in the 21st Century.

The earliest reliable record is from the 1795 Register of Ships which was instigated by the Corporation of Bristol that year and lists 12 Skiffs and provides their tonnage which ranged between 14 and 24 tons but no other details. Other records from the early 19th Century provide more details of some skiffs still surviving from the 1780’s & 90’s and the lengths of the craft ranged between 33 ft (10m) and 40 ft (12.2m). The sail plans weren’t recorded but the skiff James and Samuel which is listed in the 1795 register was sold in 1812 and the equipment included 1 mainsail, 2 foresails, 4 jibs, 1 squaresail, 1 gaff topsail and 1 topmast steering sail.

The earliest photograph of a skiff is that of the Trial which belonged to pilot T Vowles (1847 -78). and shows the squaresail yard which was seemingly a common feature on the early skiffs..

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The Trial : An early skiff

It may be thought that detailed plans would exist for the cutters, especially those built in the late 19th and early 20th century, but such plans are virtually non existent because the construction lines were either taken from existing hulls or from half hull models. Also there was no “standard” model with lengths generally varying between 40ft ( 2.2m) and 50 ft (15.2m). Despite the variation in length the method of construction and timber used was fairly standard and the construction was usually of English oak, English elm and pitch pine with interior fittings of teak. Despite the lack of detailed drawings there is the following specification for the Kindly Light, a cutter built for Barry pilot Lewis Alexander dated1911:

General Dimensions: 52ft overall, 141/2 ft. beam, about 81/2 ft. draught. Length of keel, 38ft. Vessel to be built with round forefoot and elliptic stem. Cabin to be fitted with 2 berths and usual lockers. Forecastle fitted with 2 berths, lockers and racks for sails. Materials to be the best of their respective description and to be fitted in a workmanlike manner.

Keel: To be of English elm. (Generally the elm keels were in one length and about 18 inches deep and 6 inches wide)

Stem & Stem Posts: Of English oak.

Floors, frames, stanchions and beams: Of oak.

Keelson: Of pitch pine.

Planking: 1 oak plank round top, pitch pine to bilge, stout elm bilge 21/2 inch, remainder of plank of elm or pitch pine l1/2inch.

Rails: To be of elm or oak with greenheart capping.

Decks: Best yellow pine.

Fastenings: To be galvanized iron.

Masts: To be cutter-rigged with pole size as required.

Bowsprit, boom, gaff, topsail yard, two oars, boat hook. Booming out spar. Ironwork on Keel: Ballast iron.

Rigging: Three shrouds each side of 2in wire, forestay 31/2 inch wire running tackle.

Sails: One mainsail, one foresail, two topsails, three jibs, one balloon foresail, one spinnaker.

Painting: Vessel to be scraped, cemented and concreted up to bilge, to have two coats oil paint, two coats paint on bottom and top sides. Cabin to be varnished, forecastle to be grained.

Brasses for rudder head and collar for trunk and head of stem post.

Sundries and Utensils: Four plates, four mugs, cooking stove, knives, forks and spoons, saucepans etc. Foghorn, bulb flashlight, Morse lamp, combination lamp, water tank 60 gallons, table in forecastle. A

As an interesting note, I understand that Kindly Light still exists and is currently being fully restored in time for her centenary.

The performance of any sailing vessel is as dependent upon the cut and set of her sails but especially for pilots since their livelihood depended upon getting out to the boarding ground ahead of the competition.

The mainsail was of cotton in summer and flax in winter and they were fitted with four sets of reef points and were loose footed.  An indication of the extreme conditions that these craft had to work in, when set to the fourth set, the gaff jaws were almost down to the boom gooseneck. Later, some cutters were fitted with roller-reefing and so were laced to a wooden jackstay or ‘combe’ along the boom. The disadvantage of this reefing was that as the sail was rolled the leech exerted a load on the boom between the gooseneck and mainsheet and the stronger the wind the greater the stress. However, the risk of a broken boom was more than offset by the ease of handling.

The number of headsails carried depended largely on the affluence of the owner, but in all boats it was usual to have a working foresail, which had two sets of reef-points, a balloon foresail and three jibs, namely the large jib or ‘spinnaker’, working or ‘slave’ jib and storm or ‘spitfire’ jib. One or more topsails were also carried

Pilots didn’t normally tan or ‘cutch’ their sails as it was essential that their number or port initial should stand out clearly, but one Welsh pilot apparently carried a tanned jackyard topsail for reasons of strategy. When cruising amongst the numerous tan-sailed fishing craft, he would set this tanned topsail to disguise himself as one of them, and work out to the westward of a rival cutter, resetting his normal sail when the advantage had been gained. Some pilots made their own sails using skills gained on deep-water sailing ships during their required ‘sea-time’ .

When steamships made their appearance the pilots rapidly exploited the possibility of using the ship to tow the skiff back to port in order for it to be available immediately for the next job! This resulted in the unique structural fitting of heavy towing bits being added to the foredeck of the craft.  Somewhat understandably, the crews apparently hated being towed because with the ship steaming at full speed it was exhausting to keep the skiff under control with the foredeck awash!! Pilot Frank Trott actually fitted a proper tug’s towing hook to the fore side of his cutter MargueriteMarguerite is also still sailing today.

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The cutter Cymro under tow!  photo N Alexander

The Skiffs at Work

The other important aspect of the skiffs was that handling should be manageable by a cox’n and deck hand so the deck fittings, rigging and layout were designed with the same eye for efficiency as the hull and sail plan.

The mainmast was a stout spar wire shrouds but no backstays, and was usually surmounted by a short fidded topmast which was supported by a topmast forestay and a pair of wire shrouds, but often no spreaders and, again, no topmast backstays. The spars were of pine and very heavy in order to eliminate as much supporting rigging as possible, as in the case of the bowsprit which, although sometimes fitted with an adjustable bobstay wasn’t fitted with shrouds in order to facilitate the frequent adjustments necessary to change jibs or reef jib. The bowsprit was normally shipped through a hole in the bulwark to starboard of the stem post.

Just abaft of the aforementioned bitts was the fore-hatch which gave access to the foc’s’le and forepeak and aft of that a little forward of amidships was the mast. Spare spars and sweeps were stowed fore-and-aft in two vertically mounted iron hoops. Aft of the mast a companion hatch was situated at the fore end of the self draining cockpit.  There was usually just one seat athwart-ships at the after end of the cockpit and as additional useful feature, the cutter Pet had a lavatory pan built into one comer of the cockpit seat!

Behind the cockpit coaming was the mainsheet horse and rudder post. The lower mainsheet block was not on a running traveller but was located at the centre of the horse by two very heavy flanking coil springs, or buffers. These buffers were highly necessary as the cutters were frequently gybed all standing as a standard manoeuvre when working and there was seldom time -or hands -to spare for the refinement of overhauling the sheet to ease the load. Generally speaking, the horse was about 2ft to 2ft 6in in length and was mounted between two very strong iron uprights, just high enough to allow clearance for the tiller arm.

The pilot’s boarding punt was kept on the port side, abaft the main rigging, stowed in chocks right way up. This was usually a clinker-built boat about 13ft length  often painted white so as to be easily identified at night.

Skiffs generally had fairly high bulwarks, of about 1ft 6in to 2ft, with a removable section through which the punt was launched to be rowed to and from the ship, Many punts had a standing wire strop fastened between the inside of the stem and transom at the point of balance, and to get the punt back on board the cutter a burton from the masthead was made fast to the eye in the strop, thus making it comparatively easy to hoist it inboard.

There were a few deadlights flush mounted into the deck to provide daylight below and there were rarely any ventilators ( they got enough fresh air!) fitted so the decks were clear  of obstructions for working.

On station the cutters were required to display a pilot flag which in 1849 became the white over red flag still in use today. At night an all round white light was displayed supplemented by a kerosene flare every 15 minutes with each port having a sequence code for displaying the flare. For example the flare code for Bristol was two shorts and a long. After 1858 the cutters were required to display sidelights at night when underway but contemporary accounts indicate that this was frequently ignored, especially in calms when it was not unusual for cutters to extinguish all their lights and get the sweeps out and row the cutter to gain a Westerly advantage over other cutters. Once a ship was encountered that required the services of the pilot, the ship would heave to while the cutter would work into the lee of the ship and “out punt” to transfer the pilot across for boarding. One man and the pilot would do the rowing whilst the man remaining on board would sail clear single handed and once the pilot had shipped return close under the lee of the ship to  recover the punt and other man. The cutter would then either sail or be towed back to the home port ready for the next run out. Occasionally more than one pilot would be on board so the cutter would remain out on station looking for other work. I refer to both the cutter hands as “men” but it was normally the case that these cutter hands were related to the pilots and were pilot apprentices themselves so there was no on board distinction of cox’n and deck hand

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“Out Punt”    Painting by Peter Stuckey

There are some today who question whether the skiffs were actually sailed by two men but  this was definitely the case. Peter Stuckey wrote the book when some of the old sailing pilots were still alive and he undertook interviews which has left us a valuable records of those days. These first hand accounts reveal not just a life of hardship and danger but almost unbelievable accounts of seamanship skills.

The following are extracts from the story of Captain George Buck who served his apprenticeship skiffs in the early 1900’s.

Once we were hove to about 5 miles SW of the Wolf Rock, the wind had died away to a flat calm, the sea like a mirror, very dark without a cloud in the sky and the stars shining in the water the same as in the sky, all the lighthouses showing their lights all around the horizon and the Lizard light flashing in the sky. I was on 12 to 4 watch when a ship’s masthead light came in sight. I took a bearing and saw she would pass a long way to the north of us and, having no wind, the only thing I could do was show the Bristol signal on the flashlight, though as the flashlight was usually used by fishing boats in this area ships generally gave it a wide berth. We were expecting one of Pyman’s ships along, called the Cober, she being five days out from Gibraltar. I decided to call one of the pilots (we had two on board) and when he came on deck I suggested calling the other pilot, launching the punt and pulling as far as possible to get as close as we could, then to show the flashlight and hail her with the megaphone. We pulled until she was abreast of us, still more than a mile away, showed the flashlight and started to hail her, but eventually had to give up and had started to pull back to the skiff when we saw her port light come in sight and she came towards us, and sure enough it was the Cober bound for Bristol. I put the pilot on board and he towed me back to the skiff. The next night we still a flat calm. In the 12 to 4 watch I heard my mate come below and tell the other pilot a ship was in sight a long way to the north. I turned out and suggested another pull, the pilot agreed and this time he took an oar and we made the punt fly through the water, stopping now and again to show the flashlight. We were just deciding to give up when she went hard-a-starboard and steamed towards us. She was bound for Bristol and of course I expected to be towed back to the skiff, but when the pilot suggested this to the captain he told him had lost a blade and a half of his propeller and wanted to make sure of his tide. The pilot looked over the bridge and told me but I did not care, being happy to think we had another ship, and started to row back. After pulling for some time I stopped to see if I could pick up the skiff’s light but with so many stars reflected in the water I could not find it but I could see the Wolf light and knew if I pulled in that direction I was bound to find her. It seemed I had been rowing for hours alone in the world and I started singing to keep myself company. Then I stopped rowing, looked around and saw a light and was close to the skiff. My mate was pleased to see me back and I often wonder how many miles I rowed that night.

….It was very dark as we were approaching Barry entrance when suddenly a blue light (a signal for a pilot), was shown from a large ship at anchor in the roads. We sailed off to her and she was the Everton Grange (twin-screw) bound for Avonmouth. We hailed her, told them to put a ladder over and we would put a pilot on board.

The weather had by now got worse with a strong west wind and confused sea, with the tide ebbing west. The ship was lying across the tide, with the tide running on her lee side at about three knots. This meant we had to keep well to leeward, drop the punt with the pilot and myself, and the man in the skiff would have to get back into the wind, then come back and pick me up. If he lost the wind under her lee the tide would set the skiff down on the ship and do some damage. Everything went along fine. I put the pilot on the ladder and the skiff was coming back to pick me up with sufficient way to take her in to the wind again. I was about to jump aboard with the painter when the pilot hailed us to come back and take the Liverpool pilot in as he wished to catch the first train back to Liverpool in the morning. I rowed back to the ladder and then saw that the skiff had lost the wind and was setting down on the ship and we could do nothing to stop her going alongside. We managed to get a couple of fenders over and she brought up on the ship’s starboard quarter close to the propeller, the tide pinning her there. I made the punt fast to the skiff and asked them to pass us down a rope to heave us clear of the ship’s quarter as every time she rolled she smashed our bulwarks and the propeller was very close. But before we got the rope the propeller started to revolve and we yelled for them to stop it. The engines were stopped right away, they passed us down a rope and as they hove us amidships the pilot looked over the ship’s side and asked what all the shouting was about. I told him we had been close to the propeller and felt sure it had touched our bottom. The pilot, using the ship’s engines, then brought her head to tide and we were able to sail away from her.

I pulled up the floorboards in the steerage to make sure we were not making water as the blades of the propeller had been whizzing round abreast our cockpit. When we found everything was all right we asked if the Liverpool pilot still wanted us to land him. The reply being ‘Yes’, I rowed back to the ladder and took him off. We got alongside the skiff and having hauled the punt on board, set more sail and as we shaped course for Avonmouth I made a pot of tea.The next day the pilot came on board to survey the damage. It was not serious, about six feet of bulwark damaged. We pulled up the floorboards over the pump-well and found she had not made any water. The pilot then asked me why I had been shouting and I told him if he had been on board the skiff with that propeller churning round alongside he also would have done some shouting and I was still of the opinion that the propeller had touched our bottom. About three weeks later we put her on Ilfracombe Strand to scrub and tar her bottom and we found the bottom scored to to a depth of about 1/2 inch over a 3 foot length! It was the only time I was really frightened.

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Pilot skiffs at Pill circa 1910

..We were cruising about 30 miles west of Lundy Island in a strong westerly wind and rough sea, expecting the Dominion liner, Manxman. We knew there were no skiffs to the westward of us and if she came along she would be ours. We had three rolls in the mainsail, reefed foresail and storm jib. About midday the pilot decided to run towards the island as the wind was increasing, as sometimes, when blowing hard, the wind would decrease to leeward, but when we got abreast the north end of Lundy the wind increased, so, putting another roll in the mainsail, we decided to run farther up Channel. About 8 pm we rolled the mainsail down with the jaws of the gaff on the mainboom, double reefed the foresail and hove-to, being now between the Nash and Foreland Point.

We never cared to give up the chance of a ship and we were certain if the Manxman came along she would be ours and, being a large ship and loaded, we should manage to board her. At 10 pm the pilot came on deck and the wind seemed to be increasing, with heavy squalls and confused sea, so he told me to put the helm up and run for Barry Roads. This skiff was the old Glance and she would run in any sea and never take any water over the stern. Just before midnight the pilot came on deck again and told me to make a pot of tea and call my mate. This I did and was on my way to the cockpit with a cup for the pilot when I heard a crash and when I got to the cockpit I found that the mainboom had snapped like a carrot. The mainsheet and the end of the boom were towing in the water and the mainsail was in ribbons. We had a difficult job getting the broken piece of boom on board and were afraid it might hit the side and break a plank} but we finally got everything secured and again running before the wind. I thought we should go to Barry but the pilot said we would go to Pill as we would require a new mainsail and mainboom.

Lowering the foresail and jib, we put a spare foresail fore side of the mast, hoisted it up and were away like a scalded cat. When we reached the river we hoisted the reaching foresail aft side of the mast for a mainsail, set the foresail and arrived at Pill just before high water. While we were mooring, the havenmaster’s office hailed the boatman’s shelter to say that the Manxman was in King Road and had asked for a pilot. We had not only lost a mainsail and mainboom but also a good paying ship. That was just the luck of the draw in the days of competitive piloting

This is just a small selection of accounts from George Buck and others in the book but provides a valuable insight into the life of pilots who earned their livelihood from the skiffs. Although several pilots and boatmen lost their lives in this service their losses were remarkably low considering the conditions they suffered and were probably no more than those of other occupations in those times. The testimony as to the seaworthiness of of the skiffs and the relationship between the men and their craft is summed up by George Buck as follows:

….when boarding ships at night during dirty weather, we were always glad when we had the punt back on board. In the daytime we took little notice of the weather and it had to be very bad when we could not board and it was not very often we had to run for shelter. The skiffs were fine craft and in bad weather would heave-to with the fore sheet to windward and the helm lashed a little down and they would work to windward off a lee shore.

Off Duty

The pilots relationship with their skiffs contnued even when they were off duty and racing “Reviews” were held at each port and were enthusiastically supported by the local community. Occasionally the skiffs raced against professional sailing yachts and frequently beat them especially in windy conditions. When on service, speeds of 10 knots were frequently achieved and this speed was often exceeded during racing when the additional sails were set.

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Off duty racing.

Ilfracombe was the popular holiday resort for the Bristol Channel and the flat firm sands provided a good place for repairs and sprucing up of the skiffs. The pilots andf crew’s families would be lodged ashore in boarding houses and carnivals and other entertainments were enjoyed by all.

The 21st Century

The remarkable sea keeping qualities of the Bristol Channel skiffs and cutters has ensured their survival, with many original craft having been fully restored and maintained. Although during the latter half of the 20th Century the advent of fibre glass cruising and racing yachts somewhat eclipsed these wonderful craft, in recent years there has been a revival of interest and as well as restorations, lines are being taken from original hulls for new builds. In particular they are increasingly popular for the charter market. In ocean races they continue to win trophies when competing against modern yachts and since 2006 an annual pilot cutter “Review” has been held at St Mawes in Cornwall which is seeing an increase in turnout, despite the economic downturn. Meanwhile the reputation of the design for serious “blue water” cruising remains unsurpassed. Such a legacy is a fitting tribute to those hard working pilots and men who earned their living from these legendary craft.

JCB. With thanks to Peter Stuckey for permission to use extracts from his book.

Read the story of Alfred William Venn, one of the last sailing pilots here (page 8 )

49 Responses to “The Bristol Channel Sailing Pilot “Skiffs””

June 14th, 2010 at 16:19

What a good site you have. I am very delighted that you have portrayed so much functional info that I have not discovered elsewhere. I desire that you continue to present this info for free so I can come back and browse again another day


Jaci Hooper
October 24th, 2010 at 21:45

I was o excited to find this site, Captain George Buck was my paternal grandfather. I have other history tha he wrote about his time at sea and journeys to Rio de Janero to deliver coal from cardiff. Je loved to tell us of his profession and wanted to leave a legacy that others could read.


November 8th, 2010 at 11:57

8th November 2010.

After searching for a long time, perhaps some-one can help me find any information on the BRISTOL CHANNEL CUTTER “IOLANTHE” which belonged to my channel pilot grandfather, JOHN RUSSELL of Cardiff. After she was sold and taken to Pill, I can find no further information about her.Also any information regarding the CATTERSON FAMILY, also channel pilots and related to me, would be nice. Thank you.


Mike Halliday
November 28th, 2010 at 03:55

Hi Jaci,my name Mike Halliday and i’m Capt.George Bucks grandson
my email address is please contact me
i would love to hear from you


January 24th, 2011 at 22:29

message for grandfather was thmas catterson of witchurch cardiff,whose father was superintendant of cardiff steam boat pilotage.please feel free to contact my email.gareth.


May 28th, 2011 at 09:57

IOLANTHE 95154 1887 Built in Cardiff 1888 by F. Phillips owned by pilot John Russell Transferred to Bristol 1914


January 11th, 2013 at 21:01

my great great great grandfather james reid and his son also james were both channel pilots about 1890 1910 and were working out of either cardiff or barry.My four times great grandfather george reid was a tug boat agent from cardiff.any information on these people will be appreciated


February 4th, 2013 at 22:00

I have interests in the Russell & Catterson families. Not directly related to them but my aunt is.


September 15th, 2013 at 15:40

Hello Gareth,
My grandfather, John Russell was a channel pilot with a cutter called Iolanthe, and my father, John (Jack) Russell served his apprenticeship on steam cutters, mostly under Juno Catterson. It would be great to have any family history your Aunt could give me. Thank you.


September 16th, 2013 at 15:27

Sorry, I should have been talking to Bob!!!!


Gareth (Williams)
September 20th, 2013 at 17:09


This will be a little confusing. I am also Gareth but not the same Gareth who has posted above, BUT I share some of the same ancestors by way of the Reid line from Whitehaven.
My great-great-grandfather was George Reid,(Tug-Boat Agent).
There are also ‘Reeds’ (probably the right Reids but spelled in umpteen different ways over the years).
His sons / grandsons were Bristol Channel Pilots / Ships Captains, etc. working out of Cardiff / Penarth as far I know. The names of the boats which were in the family, (Bristol Channel Pilot Cutters), were:-
Surprize, (Skiff No. 37) – foundered & sank off Ilfracombe in 1875, crew saved.
George REED operated Skiff No. 34 ‘Era’
William REED operated Skiff No. 36 ‘Emulation’
In 1850 Thomas REED operated Skiff No. 11 ‘Perserverance’, while William REED operated Skiff No. 10 ‘William and Ann’.
In 1911, John REED operated Skiff No. 25 ‘Ivy’.

My email address, in case anyone wants to get in touch;

Gareth (Williams)


Ceri Louise
March 19th, 2014 at 19:44

Hi….I am Carol’s daughter and am interested in talking to anyone with further information on the Russell family. Bob could you tell us more?


Bill Berry
March 28th, 2014 at 14:29

Hi, Have just discovered your site and am tracing my family tree have got back to 1760’s and discovered that most of my ancestors till 1900 were Pill Pilots, have managed to trace one boat The Eilza that was owned by one of my relatives, I believe they took part in the storming of the steam Tugboat ‘The Fury’ would be very grateful if anyone can trace the Berry family fron Easton Gordano, who lived and died on the river. My email adress in case anyone wants to get in touch is
Great site Thanks so much


Sarah Crellin
April 12th, 2014 at 13:30

I have recently found evidence of my great great grandfathers death, a “pilot boat” lost in the channel January 1851, the pilot John Morgan, JOHN WILLIAMS (my gggrandfather)
Joseph Wright (John Williams brother in Law) and John Webber and the pilots “boy”.
This is from the Cardiff and Merthyr a Gazette on January 25, 1851. In a previous article, January 18th 1851 they are described as a “pilot and four hobblers”. In a vessel called the Liskeard out of Plymouth. If anyone could point me in the right direction as to more information it would be great. I know often there is a lot of family connections with other crew members, I would like to find out if there is any relation between the others on board. My gggrandfather ended up being a Cardiff Channel Pilot under the apprenticeship of his step fathers nephew? Evan Morse.


Roberta Stenner Hutchings
December 8th, 2014 at 03:58

I am the grandaughter of Robert Morle Stenner,Pill Channel pilot and Mabel Isabel Stenner nee Buck of Pill, Somerset and related to William Hunt, skiff #13
I am looking for a picture/copy of my grandfathers boat ‘The Greta’ which sank circa 1918 or the similar sized skiff the ‘Mary’, #17, or any other Pill skiff resembling them.
I reside on a small island in the Pacific Northwest, USA, and am interested in the Bristol Channel pilotage history. I do have copy of Peter Stuckey’s book which has been very informative.
I would appeciate advice as to how I might procure a copy of such a skiff.
Roberta Stenner Hutchings, Lummi Island, Washington, USA.


Bill Berry
January 3rd, 2015 at 13:41

My gg grandfather was a Pill pilot as was his son, He was Jeremiah Berry


Heather McDonald
March 9th, 2015 at 22:00

have found that many of my paternal great grandfathers, uncles were born in Pill at were either shipwrights, pilots or custom officers. Several of them having the unusual name of Gammage Andrews. Is there any local history about them – I m sure there may be at least one of them in the photo of the pilots. All information greatly appreciated


Paul Tippett
March 28th, 2015 at 15:58


My interests are in the Tippett and Thayer pilots of Easton in Gordano and Pill whom I have been researching for some time.



Tom lovering
May 24th, 2015 at 20:41

Hi everyone my sister who now lives in Houston and I had a great time discovering our connection to the Bristol Channel pilots and earlier the god old smugglers out of infra come john kestral Lovering in the 1750’s used his boat to off load from the merchant ships returning from the West Indies caught not convicted as gargoyle was on display on deck! Sold the boat to Swansea man and we seem to have list track but they I believe were the origins of the Bristol pilots as we originate from Cardiff with the family name being Lovering and a middle name kestral they all lived worked around the docks with the Francis family
Anyone with any updates would be welcome news


Bill Berry
July 6th, 2015 at 20:09

I have a Thayer in my family tree from easton gordano she married my great(7) grandfather Jeremiah Berry who was a pill pilot with his own boat


Bill Bunting
July 12th, 2015 at 13:22

Hi all boat lovers,

I have been in love with the Bristol Channel Cutter lines since discovering it in Bruce Bingham’s design collection. J R Benford’s 17′ “Cruising Cat Boat”, Puffin, is a delightful interpretation of this awesome piece of sailing history. I have taken the lines of a 27′ Bristol channel cutter and scaled them up to 37′ for construction in ferro cement. This will be my second ferro boat if I live long enough to get it in the water. My first was a Bingham 44′ C’Quoia which I built in the seventies when self built boats were a common sight. It was a lovely boat to live on, and I am desperate to get back on the water. I have been an industrial animal for far too long.


david wrennall
September 2nd, 2015 at 16:41

Hi,is there anybody out there who could come to a local Sailing Club and give us a talk about this? The channel skiff and pilot boat is a major part of our local sailing history.


David Grainger
November 27th, 2015 at 20:37

Hallo, Paul Tippett,

I have only just come across this web-site.

In the 1950s I kept a small gaff sloop in St Pierre Pill, just above the Shoots on the Chepstow side and I lived in Worcestershire. From April to October each weekend I would sail “Downalong”, normally to Portishead as I knew a girl who lived there.

In Portishead Hole I would come alongside the “Berkeley Castle”, the Gloucester Pilot Cutter permanently moored there. She no longer sailed, but lay without her mast and rigging as a depot ship. On duty pilots slept aboard and two pilot apprentices lived on her, cooking for the pilots and ferrying them out to ships in a motor cutter (a converted lifeboat). One of these was Peter Tippett and the other was, I am sure, another Peter whose surname I don’t recall.

They were always very kind to me, taking me ashore to the Pier in their big punt and keeping an eye on “Swift” when I was away. At low water they would often row the punt down the Walton Bay shore to examine and learn the channel.

Could Peter Tippett be related to you – I have often wondered about him.


Paul Tippett
February 4th, 2016 at 10:16

Thank you for the comments. I had previously heard of a Peter Tippett, a registered Gloucester Pilot, but I know of no connection with my line of Tippetts who worked from Pill, Bristol and Cardiff. It was interesting to read of your experiences in and around Portishead (significantly changed since the 1950s !) which brought back many childhood memories.
Best wishes


Roberta Hutchings
February 5th, 2016 at 23:24

Paul Tippett, I am wondering if you by any chance are related to Geraldine Tippett who lived as a child in Church Path Road Pill?
As a child I frequently visited my grand parents in Church Path Road and got to know Geraldine and her parents. If I remember correctly Geraldine had a younger brother. Geraldine’s parents had a piloting office in their home. Not sure exactly how and what that entailed I just remember having to deliver messages back and forth.
I visited Pill last summer with with my husband and son.The tide was out as it always seemed to be in my younger days. Plenty of memories!
We currently live on a small Island in the Pacific North West and am interested in finding out more in regard to those early years along with my grand fathers piloting days and his skiffs.
If you are of the same family and have any information to share I would be interested in hearing from you.
Sincerely, Roberta Hutchings


Paul Tippett
February 11th, 2016 at 10:55

Hello and thank you for your interest. I don’t believe that Geraldine Tippett is of my immediate family (from Joseph and Elizabeth Tippett b 1886 Easton in Gordano) but would need some more information to be absolutely sure. Maybe this is not an appropriate forum to share these details but you can email me directly if you wish.

August 16th, 2016 at 18:08

Crockerne Pill & District History Society have published two booklets on World War One and World War Two telling the stories of the men killed and named on the village war memorials of Pill and Easton-in-Gordano. This maybe of interest to your readers, especially Paul Tippett as our WW1 book covers family history of the Thayer family. Also included in this same book is family history on the Reed family. If anyone is interested in buying one of our booklets (all proceeds to CP&DHS) the price is £4 plus postage and you can contact me on the above website, select ‘Organisations’ and ‘History Society’.


Carolyn Slade
September 4th, 2016 at 01:05

In 1841 my Great grandfather, James Chappell/Chappel was apprenticed at the age of 12 to John Parfitt, a Bristol Channel pilot. His Mother was Mary Reed, uncle John Reed – a pilot, and I think his grandfather William? Reed was also a pilot. Mary Reed married John Chappell, a mariner and probably a pilot. No trace of him has been found beyond the wedding and Mary herself (under the name Irwin) was transported to NSW for stealing a vat of butter. James was taken to NSW about 1845 to be with her – thus the Australian side of the Chappell family. I am interested in the book you refer to containing the history of the Reed family. Could I have more details please. With thanks. Carolyn Slade (Mother’s maiden name Chappell.)


Jenni wall
March 14th, 2017 at 10:47

I have a locket which belonged to my great grandfather.It is inscribed Channel race October (5th, I think) 1875.Won by Anita. & what appears to be, IL to CH.inside there used to be a photograph of the Anita & a photograph of the crew. Only the faded photo of the crew still exists. Am I likely to find any further information anywhere? Thanks


Jenny Crofts
March 18th, 2017 at 22:51

My relative was Frank Trott owner of the ‘Marguerite’ of Cardiff. I would be very grateful for any more information. Very interesting site Thanks


Bram Nash
May 4th, 2017 at 15:02

Ancestral research shows me to be distantly related to the River Pilot families of THAYER & TIPPETT (amongst others in the complicated family ties in Pill!) Do any photos of these intrepid men exist?


Lou Alaimo
May 29th, 2017 at 09:43

My mother, Rita Thomas’ great grandmother was Priscilla Berry (dob 1828), daughter of George? Berry (dob abt. 1806), Bristol Channel Pilot. George’s wife was Mary Wilson (dob abt. 1804)?

Priscilla’s husband was William Thomas (dob 1828) also Channel Pilot. The families lived in Pill/Easton in Gordano. Priscilla’s son, John Berry Thomas immigrated to Melbourne, Aust in 1882. Bill are you related to this Berry family?
Regards, Lou Alaimo


philippa page
August 3rd, 2017 at 00:53

to Jenni Wall Yes the race was oct 5th 1875 won by Anita. It was a private duel between the Newport Pilot Boat J.N Knapp and Cardiff Pilot JONATHAN LEWIS Boat ANITA. The race was around LUNDY ISLAND. J Lewis was my grandfathers uncle, we have no photos of boat or the lewis family, but a oil painting was done by Edward Payne of the Anita along with one of the mabel.They are the property of the nat mus of wales cardiff, the mabel is on show, You can see it on line,but the Anita is being restored so name there but no panting. I have a friend name Anita whos relation was one of the crew on the Anita his initial was PC, Jonathans wife was Ann. There is a book by Peter J Stuckey, called The sailing pilots of the Bristol Channel. In it is has a page about the event provided a gala day, I would love to find out who IL to Ch was. If you go to the museum they will tell you where the painting is. I believe this Edward Payne only did these two its under Images of industry


Angus Buck
October 18th, 2017 at 20:10

My Grandfather was George Buck who lived in Waverly Cottage next to the chapel on the green in Pill. Both George and one of his sons Donald were pilots and I think they sailed out of Avonmouth. George’s wife Madeline was a school teacher but not sure where. There were two families in Pill with the surname Buck. We were also related to a local family called Uncles.


Angus Buck
October 18th, 2017 at 20:20

I should add that the two families called Buck were not related, at least it has not shown up in any research


Carolyn Slade
October 23rd, 2017 at 22:56

To those who run this website, are there any apprenticeship records I could access for 1840-1844? My great grandfather James Chappell was apprenticed to a pilot in Pill at the age of 11 or 12 and I would like to find out a little more about him if it i possible.
Thank you for the interesting website.


Mark Bullock
November 10th, 2017 at 15:57

Hi my name is Mark Bullock and I am trying to gain any information about my family who were pill pilots. I have traced back to Edward Bullock ( his boat was the Pet) who married Harriet Durbin in 1843 any information would be great.


Adrian Green
November 30th, 2017 at 23:41

I am interested in finding members of the family related to Samuel Humphries (1818-1876), my great-great-grandfather, who was a pilot living in Pill. The 1871 census shows him living at Myrtle Hill, describing him as a “Bristol Channel Pilot” and one of his sons (also called Samuel) as a “Western Man.”

In his book book The Bristol Pilots (Rich.J, The Bristol Pilots, 1996, Atlantis33, ISBN 0 9528082 0 X), John Rich lists the pilots, boats and boat numbers referred to in various historical documents. This list shows that between 1866 and 1876, Samuel Humphries used the following boats:-

Year Boat Name No
1866 Victor 27
1867 Active 33
1868-72 Rhoda 18
1869 Tartar 44
1871-74 Victor 27
1875 Samuel 21
1876 Active 33

Adrian Green


Meryl Dobson
March 1st, 2018 at 22:08

Re Jenni Wall and Phillipa Page. I have a photo of the painting of the Anita which I would be happy to email if you provide an email address. I also have a copy of Peter Stuckey’s book. My father the late Captain Thomas Morgan, provided negatives of pilot cutters of the Bristol Channel and other pilot stories to Peter when he was doing his researching for the book. My father was also a Cardiff pilot (1950 – 1975) as was my grandfather Thomas Morgan Senior. He sailed on the Kindly Light as an apprentice under Lewis Alexander. My great grandfather John Morgan was also a pilot and owned his own boat, The Cardiffian, number 51. My father used to give an illustrated talk entitled ‘Liquid History’ on piloting in the Bristol Channel. I have only just started transcribing it from an old and muffled cassette tape. He mentions Pill pilots in his talk too and the names of Buck and Reed/Reid. There are about 50 slides of old pilot cutters and I am hoping to have the slides transferred to computer and link them to the cassette talk, all of which will eventually be on a CD. Its quite a task as the slides are no longer in order.


March 5th, 2018 at 11:42

Do you know if you had a relative John Morgan that drowned in the Bristol Channel off Penarth roads in 1851 during a “fierce gale?” My great frat grandfather is listed in a news article as having drowned as an “hobbler”. With his brother in law Joseph Wright, and a man John Webber and a “boy”.


Meryl Dobson
April 3rd, 2018 at 16:20

Hi Sarah

My great grandfather, channel pilot John Morgan was born in 1855 in Cardiff, son of a Thomas Morgan. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was related to your great grandfather in some way. There is a history of John and Thomas Morgans running through the family. Given the date of your great grandfather’s death, its possible he could have been an uncle of my great grandfather. It would be interesting to find out. Do you know where he lived?


Carolyn Slade
April 3rd, 2018 at 22:46

I often wondered why my mother was named Ivy. There was no instance of it in the family until Mum and her cousin – also on the Chappell side. Then I saw on the Pilot site that Bristol Channel pilot, John REED operated Skiff No. 25 ‘Ivy’. John Reed was my grandfather’s great uncle. My great grandfather James Chappell probably sailed on the Ivy with his uncle to pilot ships through the channel. I wonder if this was where Mum’s name “Ivy” came from?


Cecilia Wright
June 7th, 2018 at 10:34

Do you have any in formation on the Bruton family who for 3 generation worked as pilots in the Bristol Channel who were are named Henry and were landlords of the Mariners Arms Berkeley.


Bram Nash
September 11th, 2018 at 15:07

Family ancestry researches have revealed that I am the 7x Great Grandson of John BUCK who was born in 1665. He married Mary White at St.Peter’s Church, Portishead on the 19th April 1688. Clearly there must be countless Bucks related to me by now! Can anyone go further back from John 1665?
Other names coming to light in my maternal ancestry include BERRY, THAYER, HUNT and RICE – all from the same area.
Any info by email gratefully received!


Bram Nash
September 11th, 2018 at 16:09

I am now able to add at least BAKER, PAINES, PIPPETT, CURTIS, SHEPSTONE, ANDERSON and MOXHAM names to my St George Parish ancestry. I clearly have quite a task ahead!!


Paul Tippett
September 13th, 2018 at 18:54

Hi Bram

Is that TIPPETT ?




Phil Pepper
October 3rd, 2018 at 13:05

Msg for Meryl Dobson
Can I get copy of the Anita photo.
Very interested as Evan Davies raced on this boat and was drowned in an accident off Nash point 1876
Phil Pepper


Meryl Dobson
October 7th, 2018 at 17:10

I have a black and white photograph of a painting of the Anita. I also have a photograph of the crew from 1875. If you would like to forward your email to me via the editor, I am happy to provide you with copies of both.

Best Wishes



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