The Coastguard Service - Then and Now

The coastguard services are national organisations responsible for various services at sea. However, they have widely different responsibilities in different countries, from being heavily armed military forces with customs and security duties, to being volunteer organisations tasked with search and rescue functions and lacking any law enforcement powers.


In the United Kingdom, Her Majesty’s Coastguard is mainly concerned with search and rescue. It has no role in the maintenance of seamarks, nor with customs enforcement. HM Coastguard does not possess many of its own lifeboats, but does have several MCA Falcons, which are a type of lifeboat that are used in areas that might not necessarily have a lifeboat provided by the volunteer Royal National Lifeboat Institution. It often leases commercial helicopters and tugs to provide search and rescue cover in certain areas. It does however maintain a number of search, cliff and mud rescue teams, as well as some inshore rescue boats and is a coordinating body and public face for the maritime search and rescue services. It is part of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Department for Transport.

The Development of the UK Coastguard Service

Although the title “Coastguard” has only been in existence for about 150 years, its roots can be traced back as far as A.D. 400, when the Roman General, appointed as “Count of the Saxon Shore”, employed men to patrol the coast and warn of the approach of Saxon longboats, who were raiding the shores of Roman Britain.

Much later, in the 16th century, men were posted to stand on the cliffs of Devon and Cornwall ready to sound the alarm at the approach of the Spanish Armada and in the 17th century, matters were put in hand to combat the rise in smuggling. In 1698 the Treasury and Board of Customs established “Riding Officers” in Kent and Sussex. This was the first peace-time force for the guarding of our coasts. They operated small fleets of boats which could be backed up by the Royal Navy and on shore the Customs Officers could call upon local units of soldiers to help them. However, they were not particularly popular with the majority of the public, (who welcomed cheaper goods) and the landowners, (who were often investors in the smuggling trade).

By the early 18th century, the force had risen to around 300 and towards the end of the century it was further increased to cover most of the British coastline, including Wales. Scotland had its own fleet. At sea the small fleet of Revenue sloops could not successfully tackle the bigger and well armed smuggling vessels, but by 1780, larger, better armed and heavily canvassed, clinker built cutters, with long bowsprits, helped the Revenue Service to gain the upper hand.

In 1809, the Preventive Waterguard was formed, based in Watch Houses around the coast. Their boats patrolled their selected stretch of coast each night. Now there was a three tiered line of defence, at sea, inshore and ashore. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Captain Joseph McCulloch proposed that the three forces should be united under a single command, to guard the Kent coast, where he was commander of a Royal Navy vessel. So in 1816 the Coast Blockade Service was created, under his command, between North Foreland and Dungeness. Although this was successful, it also resulted in some confusion and eventually in 1831 all the services were absorbed into the Coastguard Service, which would be a reserve force for the Royal Navy. As a result, a set of regulations for recruitment of officers and men was issued, including a section on lifesaving and lifesaving equipment.

By 1839 there were over 4,553 Coastguards serving both on ships and on shore. Coastguard Stations were equipped with living quarters for married men, as well as single quarters. Each station was commanded by a Chief Officer and below him were Chief Boatman, Commissioned Boatman and Boatman.

At the end of the Crimean War, in 1856, control of the Coastguard Service was transferred to the Admiralty. With smuggling on the decline, the lifesaving role and Naval Reserve aspects became more significant. Their duties were extended and included the reporting on movements of buoys, beacons and light vessels and in 1866 they were authorised to “take an active part in the workings of a lifeboat”.

After the First World War there was a sharp reduction in manpower and the control of the Service changed hands 5 times after 1923. It is now regulated by the Department for Transport.

From its earliest days, one of the Coastguard Service’s greatest skills was in the field of signalling. Signalling exercises were conducted twice daily using semaphore flags, telegraphy and flashing lamps at night. In 1892, a System of Coast Communications was set up by the General Post Office. This conveyed information, about the need for lifeboats, between the signal stations and the lifeboat stations. Soon a line was installed right round the coast.

The Admiralty Coastguard Instructions of 1911 show that the Admiralty did not accept responsibility for any life-saving arrangements that existed around the coasts, but Coastguardsmen were encouraged to render any assistance to the local life-saving services, as far as it was compatible with their duties. Several private life-saving bodies were formed and the Board of Trade took over the supervision. These were the forerunners of the modern Auxiliary Coastguard Service.

During the next 70 years, the service acquired a variety of different responsibilities:-

  • Providing defence of the coasts
  • Manning the Royal Navy in the event of war or emergency
  • Protection of the revenue
  • Assisting vessels in distress
  • Taking charge of wrecks
  • Operating life-saving apparatus
  • Participating in the Lifeboat Service
  • Searching for mines and torpedoes lost at sea
  • Performing duties in connection with signals, telegraphs, buoys, lighthouses, wild birds and rare fish washed ashore

The 21st century Coastguards

Nowadays Coastguards work for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), as part of the service which co-ordinates search and rescue along the British coast and investigates illegal shipping activities and pollution incidents. The service employs coastguard watch assistants, coastguard watch officers and coastguard rescue officer volunteers whose typical responsibilities include:-

  • Receiving and handling 999 calls
  • Monitoring equipment
  • Providing information to the general public
  • Updating logs and completing general administration
  • Assisting in staffing operational centres

There are now over 1,000 regular coastguard staff around the British coastline, as well as over 3,000 auxiliary coastguards.

Recent announcements and “reforms”

In December 2010, the government announced some cuts to the Coastguard Service which were met with anger and indignation. The number of coastguard stations in the UK was to be cut from 18 to 8, with just three, in Aberdeen, Dover and the Southampton/Portsmouth area, operating around the clock. The other 5 sub-centres would only open in daylight hours and would be located in Swansea, Falmouth in Cornwall, Humber in Yorkshire, either Belfast or Liverpool, and either Stornaway or Shetland in the Scottish islands. The proposals were outlined by shipping minister Mike Penning, who argued that the service needed to change and these alterations would strengthen it, by dealing with potential weak points in the current structure and adding resilience throughout the system. He maintained that the changes would improve present levels of service to the public, while reducing costs.

It was hardly surprising that such an announcement would be met with fury. Scotland would be left with just one 24-hour manned station, which prompted the reaction, by the MP for the Western Isles, that the government were “putting saving money before saving lives”. Other criticisms were that the MCA was moving to a “call centre type operation” and that the moves would make Britain’s coasts a more dangerous place to be. Much local knowledge, held by the various stations, would be lost  when they closed or amalgamated and it was also noted that ministers had ignored the particular threats to small yachts, fishing boats and pleasure vessels, which often do not carry the most modern or advanced equipment to help them in an emergency.

The government promised to consider these criticisms before it made a final decision this summer, but Philip Hammond, the transport secretary at the time, said that ministers had already listened to sea-farers, coastal communities and coastguards, and had insisted the proposals were robust. He was confident that the original proposals would not compromise safety and included increased resources for frontline rescue services.

In July 2011 it was revealed that the government proposed to scale back their cuts and that their recommendations would now be as follows:-

  • Only 8 centres will now close.
  • The remaining 10 centres (Solent, Dover, Aberdeen, Shetland, Stornoway, Belfast, Holyhead, Milford Haven, Falmouth and Humber) will operate 24 hours a day.
  • The small London station will remain unchanged.
  • There will be one Maritime Operations Centre in the Southampton/Portsmouth area, with a back-up facility at the existing Dover site.

These proposed changes are subject to another period of consultation, ending on 6th October, so we will have to wait awhile before we find out what the final conclusion will be. However, in the meantime, a new Minister for Transport has been appointed and we wait to see if she has the same entrenched views as the last one. Whatever the outcome is, it is clear that there is a huge public and political admiration for the work of our Coastguard Service and we will not see it damaged or weakened without a substantial fight.

Watch this space for further news...

Author – Dee White

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