250 Years of the Liverpool Pilotage Service: 1766 – 2016 (Part 2) Geoff Topp


In both World Wars the pilots continued to do their business under unusually arduous conditions of enemy activity and blackout. In each of these conflicts a cutter was lost with heavy loss of life. The Alfred H. Read was sunk by enemy mine in the vicinity of the Bar lightship in December 1917, with the loss of thirty nine pilots, apprentices and crew, and then, in November 1939, the Charles Livingston was driven ashore on Ainsdale beach in a violent storm, with the loss of twenty-three pilots, apprentices and crew. 

Quoting from the MD&HB publication ‘Port at War’ published in 1946. ‘Some of the most arduous and dangerous tasks which any of the Board’s employees (pilot boat crew members and boathands) had to carry out fell to members of the Pilotage Service whose job, onerous and responsible enough at all times, was made infinitely more difficult by war conditions. The complete blackout of the riverfront and the drastic reduction of lighting on ships would have been handicap enough by itself. It was aggravated by the fact that the river was frequently crowded beyond all normal experience with ships cleared of the docks and lying at anchor awaiting an outward convoy. The added strain which this put on a pilot bringing in a ship, in complete darkness, and especially in thick weather, can be imagined and it is an achievement that collisions were not frequent.


Following on from the early steam pilot cutters were the three post-war diesel electric pilot cutters, considered to be among the finest of their type in the world, being of 700 tons and able to carry four times as many pilots.

Since the end of the Second World War the Pilotage Service has adapted to changes in shipping, and in recent years has kept pace with the ever-increasing requirements of trade at the port. Pilots have constantly kept abreast of developments in ship design, types of propulsion, communications and electronic aids to navigation, which have both posed and helped to solve the problems of pilotage.

In 1962 the beginnings of a new era arrived with the acquisition of two tender launches, the Puffin and Petrel, which replaced the tender pilot boat, or ‘running boat’ as it was colloquially known.


When a Point Lynas shore station was established in 1974 the Western Station ceased to be operated by a cruising pilot cutter. Operated by fast launch this western station is still essential to the safe and efficient operation of the pilotage service. Additionally, throughout their history, in strong northerly winds, pilot boats would often operate from Douglas in the Isle of Man. No matter what the direction happens to be of the strong winds experienced annually in the Irish Sea, by utilising the Liverpool Bar, Point Lynas and the Isle of Man, disruption to the pilot service by bad weather continues to be minimised to this day.


On the 1 July 1982, some 210 years after the commencement of the official cruising pilot cutter, the pilot cutter No 3 Arnet Robinson departed its station at the Liverpool Bar for the final time and ended the historic era of station-keeping pilot cutters. New faster launches had been built and a more efficient twenty four hour a day launch service established, which enabled pilots to arrive and depart the Bar station as and when ships arrived or departed.


There was a gradual decline to 139 pilots by 1986, just as reorganisation of all UK pilotage services loomed on the horizon. Then, utilising the national early retirement and port transfer scheme, the numbers were reduced by October 1988 to 65. In the next few years the number was further reduced to 55, which is approximately the number of pilots in the Service today.

The implementation of the 1987 Pilotage Act in 1988 substantially altered the pilotage arrangements throughout the United Kingdom, and port authorities acquired substantial new powers. The harbour authority in Liverpool exercised its new powers, despite pilot opposition, to impose employment on the Liverpool pilots. The desire to retain self-employment, the natural position required to complement the necessary independence of the pilot in the discharge of his duties, continued to burn strongly in the hearts of the employed pilots, and after an uneasy nine years and a difficult tussle with the harbour authority pilots returned to self-employment in 1997.

Today’s Liverpool pilots have a sophisticated electronic simulator to help hone their skills, but they have, just as those original pilots did 250 years ago, to have the knowledge and the skill to allow them to bring ships safely in and out of the River Mersey day and night, day in day out, throughout the year, whatever the weather conditions may throw at them.


The most memorable occasion for the pilots recently was the visit of the Cunard ‘Three Queens’ in 2015, a tribute to the skill and professionalism of Liverpool pilots who planned and implemented the complex choreography and movement of the three liners using their modern simulator. This was just one more of the many momentous maritime occasions over all the years on the River Mersey quietly and anonymously completed by Liverpool pilots.

Liverpool pilots have relied heavily over the years, and still do rely, on a myriad of people working throughout the port, without whom they could not undertake their task, and their role is noted with appreciation here. Amongst these are pilot launch crews, tug crews, boatmen, and others in ancillary services, all of whom were, and are, part of the complicated process of ensuring the safe movement of shipping on the River Mersey and in the Port of Liverpool.

Over the past 250 years there have been the relatively modest number of approximately 1600 Liverpool pilots, and today’s 56 pilots are looking to the future; in particular they relish the challenges of piloting the world’s largest size container ships due to frequent the new in-river container terminal ‘Liverpool 2’ later this year.

In closing, it is perhaps appropriate to conclude with words used in 1966 on the occasion of the bicentenary of the Liverpool Pilotage Service: ‘The Liverpool Pilotage Service continues to be second to none, and Liverpool can be confident that as long as the great port continues to trade, a proud Service will continue to hold itself ready to meet any future demands.’


3 Responses to “250 Years of the Liverpool Pilotage Service: 1766 – 2016 (Part 2) Geoff Topp”

Bob Scott
September 20th, 2019 at 19:25

My uncle Bob Scott was a steward on the pilot boats late 50’s into the 60’s before he went on the Cunard boats does anyone remember him he was on number four boat he tells me


John Nicholas LEICESTER
December 22nd, 2020 at 16:50

My family ancestry includes John Scott a Master Pilot in the 1800s and George Henry Rogers also a Master Pilot at the same time. Number 9 Pilot boat “Guide”. I believe several of the Scott family were Pilots and mariners. In 1880 George Henry Cook Rogers married Amelia Scott one of 6 daughters.


Steve Thomas
July 14th, 2021 at 19:43

I recently read the following:

MARINER (built 1881) and registered in the ownership of T. and J. Harrison, Liverpool collided and sank the Liverpool Pilot
Cutter No. 9 GUIDE two miles west north west of the Bar Light Vessel after sailing from Liverpool on 25.2.1882. One pilot was lost.


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