250 Years of the Liverpool Pilotage Service: 1766 – 2016 (Part 1): Geoff Topp


Liverpool 1

‘The entrance to the Port of Liverpool is very dangerous without a skilful pilot, and many ships and lives have, of late years, been lost owing to the negligence and ignorance of persons taking upon them to conduct ships and vessels into and out of the said Port.’ So runs the preamble to the first Act of Parliament relating to Pilotage at Liverpool. And it was against this kind of background that in January 1765, the gentlemen, merchants and tradesmen of Liverpool met at the Exchange to consider the establishment of a Pilotage Service, since ‘A proper regulation of the Pilots at the said Port and the ascertaining of their rates and prices would tend greatly to promote and encourage trade and navigation, and be a publick utility.’

It appears that until the organisation of a Pilotage Service local guidance was available from fishermen. But while a part-time service may have been good enough as long as the trade was largely in the short seas, when the expansion of foreign trade began in the eighteenth century, this proved insufficient to ensure the safety of life and property in the approaches to the Mersey.

Livwerpool 2

Since the beginning of the eighteenth century the trade of the port had greatly increased, but during the year 1764, with no organised service of pilots available, eighteen ships stranded and no fewer than 75 lives were lost. In January 1765 the gentleman, merchants and tradesmen of Liverpool met to consider the establishment of a formal regulated Pilotage Service. This brought about the enactment of the 1766 Liverpool Pilotage Act, establishing the Liverpool Pilot Service. The association between the Town and the Service was marked when the Pilotage Committee met for the first time on June 30th 1766. On the 25th July 1766 the fifty or so newly-licensed pilots began to offer their services.

The Pilotage District comprised that part of the Irish Sea – more than 2,500 square miles of it – bounded by the coasts of Cheshire, Anglesey and Wales, the east side of the Isle of Man, Lancashire and Cumberland as far as St. Bees Head. While this might appear to be an unnecessarily large area in which to operate, sailing vessels had to consider weather hazards, so that good seamanship required that a pilot be taken aboard well to seaward of the port, and if possible in the shelter of the coast. The association of the Service with Point Lynas, in Anglesey, stems from this and the fact that it offers the closest available shelter from prevailing westerly winds. Although today ships need not fear the wind so greatly, the Station at Point Lynas still provides a sheltered place for boarding and shares the service to shipping with the Pilot Launches at the Mersey Bar.

When the service was first organised the pilot cutters were small vessels of as little as 30 tons and less than 40 feet long were owned privately, and usually by the pilots themselves. But as the result of a loss in 1770 of three of these small vessels, together with many lives, the Pilotage Committee began to concern itself with the kind of boats employed in the service. It was decided that a minimum size of 40 tons should be set for any new Pilot Boats, and that such boats should carry six or seven pilots. Following on from the early steam pilot cutters were the three post-War diesel electric Liverpool pilot cutters, considered to be among the finest of their type in the world. They were 700 tons and able to carry four times as many pilots. But though the early pilot cutters were small, they were seaworthy and well served.

In two further Pilotage Acts of 1797 and 1824 provision was made among other things for the better sharing of earnings and for the establishment of an Annuity Fund. Although it is worth noting that the original Act provided that forfeitures by pilots for misdemeanours could be applied to the relief of sick, injured or retired pilots, and to the widows or children of poor pilots.

During this period, however, various important matters of principle were maintained. In 1836 there was an attempt to abolish compulsory pilotage, which was successfully resisted, partly on the grounds that a service required in foul weather had to be maintained in fair. An attempt in 1838 to put all pilotage in the United Kingdom under the control of Trinity House met similar resistance and failed. Liverpool pilotage, however, was to remain under Liverpool control. In the following year, 1839, a new prestigious and influential office of Superintendent of Pilotage was instituted, and it was to remain in existence for 129 years, being abolished in 1988.

In 1858, the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board was formed, and on the 1st January 1859 became the Pilotage Authority. In 1881 the an Act was passed to enable the MD&HB to purchase all the pilot boats from their one hundred and fourteen pilot and pilot family owners. The transfer of ownership was concluded in 1883 for a total of £84,476 set by an independent arbitration procedure. At the same time the combined charging system of a Pilot Boat Rate and a pilots’ Pool of Earnings was introduced. In the same year the magnificent new pilotage building was built at Canning Pierhead North overlooking the River and was duly occupied by the Superintendent of Pilotage and his staff. The building continued in this capacity until 1978 when pilotage administration was moved to the MD&HB Building at the Pier Head. It now forms part of the Liverpool National Museums, Albert and Canning docks complex.

Liverpool 3

The pilotage service had always had apprentice pilots from its earliest days, these apprentices having previously been indentured for seven years to be trained as a pilot. But in 1884 the MD&HB ended the indentured apprentice system, and apprentice pilots from then on were officially designated as ‘Boathands’  until the system of apprenticeships was ended in 1979.

A very sad feature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the all too frequent loss of the lives of pilots and apprentices, often in the course of the hazardous transfer between pilot cutter and ship. Of course, it has to be recognised that during these years the occupation of all seafarers was fraught with danger on the high seas.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century there was a desire amongst shipowners and others on the pilotage authority to modernise and have steam pilot boats, unsurprisingly really, since there had been steam tugs on the river since the 1830s. But, apparently as late as 1891, most pilots were opposed to having them built, and it was not until 1896 that progress did eventually prevail and two steam pilot boats the Francis Henderson and the Leonard Spear were built. In 1898 they were quickly followed two more steam pilot boats. But, although the sailing pilot cutters were withdrawn from service in 1898, the last of the sailing cutters, Mersey, was sold in 1904, having been retained for the pilotage committee’s annual survey cruise.

In 1894 Liverpool pilots assisted the new port of Manchester by piloting ships on the newly opened Ship Canal. This continued for some years until its own separate service was sufficient in numbers. The last licence held by a Liverpool pilot was not withdrawn until 1919.

On Wednesday 13th January 2016 Liverpool City Council, at an Extraordinary meeting, the Council resolved ‘to grant the Freedom Roll of Association Award to the Liverpool Pilotage Service in recognition of its contribution to the City of Liverpool and its residents’. The Freedom ceremony will take place during the Thanksgiving Church Service to be held on Thursday 28th July 2016 at 1200 at St Nicholas Church, Pier Head, Liverpool.

On Friday 22nd July 2016 an exhibition opened at the Maritime Museum,  Albert Dock, Liverpool for twelve months to mark the 250th anniversary of the Liverpool Pilotage Service.

Later this year a commemorative book will be published – details at: www.liverpoolpilotsbook.uk

Editors note The work of the Liverpool Pilots was shown on national television BBC Sea Cities. Pilots Chris Brooker and John Slater were filmed boarding a large tanker at Point Lynas inward bound for the River Mersey Tranmere oil terminal. Much professionalism was shown by the pilots as they navigated her along the coast and in preparation for the confined navigation of the River Mersey.  

The commentary provided by both pilots was easily understandable by the public and some that even those who had never been on a ship could understand what the pilots were 

aiming to achieve during the pilotage. They explained the risks they were aware of and the hazards they had to avoid and how they were achieving the results needed to safely navigate and berth the tanker carrying its hazardous cargo. Both should be congratulated on portraying the onerous responsibilities and difficulties of pilotage and demonstrating why properly trained pilots are essential to each voyage.

The next edition of The Pilot will contain the second part of the 250 years of the Liverpool Pilot Service and a report on the Freedom of the City awarded to the Pilots.

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