The Coastguard, Past and Present


By Commander The Hon. Henry N. Shore R.N.

May 15th 1896Cigarette Card

Probably no department of the Government service has undergone a more complete transformation during the brief period of its existence than the Coastguard; though the change has been so gradual as to have passed almost unnoticed. Certainly a more striking contrast could hardly be conceived than that between the smart, active, highly trained Coastguardsman of today, and his rough and ready prototype of, say sixty years ago.

But before pushing the comparison any closer, it may be as well to say a few words concerning the origin of the force, for there is a widespread impression that the Coastguardsmen - like the poor - have always been with us. As a matter of fact, compared with the Navy, to which it is now affiliated, the Coastguard is a parvenu force, dating no further back than the early part of the century.

 The establishment of the Coastguard came about in this wise. When the Napoleonic wars were brought to a close in 1815, by the caging of the master-spirit, Government found leisure once more for home affairs; and, amongst other matters which pressed for urgent settlement was the leakage of revenue caused by the depredations of the smugglers - it was estimated that one half of the spirits consumed in the kingdom paid no duty. The free-trading gentry were so numerous and influential, while the impunity with which they had been able to conduct their operations during the war, had bred amongst them a spirit so daring and defiant, that repressive measures of a very drastic nature

As a foretaste of the spirit in which the Government meant to carry on the struggle for the supremacy of the law, a blockade was immediately established along the coast of Kent and Sussex. The blockade duties were entrusted to the Navy, which now, for the first time, undertook the protection of the revenue on shore - a large force of seamen, set free by the peace, being landed and stationed at intervals along the coast.

And thus was commenced a contest - it might almost be called a war - so violent was the feeling excited by this measure, and so great was the resultant loss of life, which lasted, with but little intermission, for thirty years.

But the blockade, though successful in a way, had the effect of driving the illicit traders further afield; which showed that if smuggling was to be effectively combated, the evil must be attacked at every point that offered facilities for perpetration. As, however, the expense of extending the blockade round the entire seaboard would probably have exceeded the depredations on the revenue, which the measure was intended to check, a modified system of blockade was adopted - boat crews were landed from the revenue cutters at all the most notorious smuggling centres, and as soon as the good effects of this step began to manifest themselves the system was gradually extended all round the coast. From these humble beginnings may be traced, through a series of gradations, the evolution of the modern Coastguard.

This new system, under the title of "Preventive Water Guard," came into being almost concurrently with the coast blockade, but for some years after it was still regarded as a tentative measure. It could hardly be otherwise, seeing that the premier service - the coast blockade - was organised and disciplined as a naval force, under the Admiralty, while the Water Guard was under the jurisdiction of the Customs. The existence of two distinct preventive services, under different heads, was an anomalous state of things that was bound to come to an end, and yet fifteen years elapsed before any settlement was arrived at. As, however, many grave defects had in the meanwhile discovered themselves in the coast blockade, while the rival system had proved its superior adaptability to the circumstances of the time, it was at length decided that the whole of the forces entrusted with the protection of the revenue should be amalgamated under a single head, and re-organised on a definite system.

This resolution was given effect to in 1831, when the coast blockade was withdrawn, and its place taken by the "civilian force", as the other was called, which now, under the title - for the first time assumed - of Coastguard, was remodelled and greatly expanded, the administration being vested in the hands of naval officers, acting under the board of Customs.

As this amalgamation of the forces marks an epoch in the history of the Coastguard, it is fitting that we should try and make out what manner of man the protector of the revenue in the year 1831 really was. And here it must be premised that a force which has changed masters no less than four times in eighty year must necessarily suffer in the matter of records and such other data as supply materials for the compilation of  history. Each transfer seems moreover to have been the signal for a display of misplaced energy in the shape of "book burnings," by which many interesting particulars relating to the force have been consigned to an unmerited oblivion. Consequently the would be historian is driven to other founts of knowledge - old Coastguardsmen, and those quaint depositories of unofficial lore, the "ancients" of our villages, whose recollections of the dim and misty past are often singularly vivid.

Speaking generally, the "crews" of that period were a scratch lot for although, according to the regulations, entries were confined to the seafaring class, there were back doors through which all sorts and conditions of men crept in. thus, members of parliament, as was meet and fitting, possessed quite occult powers of overcoming official scruples on this head; even gentlemen's valets found an entree when their masters had no further use for them. "I've seen chaps get into a boat who didn't know the bow from the stern, and could no more handle an oar than fly," said an old Coastguardsman to the writer. No wonder the smugglers thought small beer of the "prewentiveman" of the period, and chuckled when they saw a boat's crew thus composed giving chase. Scholarship seems to have been little considered, even in the selection of officers sometimes when it stood in the way of merit. Thus, an Admiral who was deeply impressed with the services his coxswain had rendered to the state, brought the man's claims so forcibly before the Board of Customs, that he was at once placed in command of a station. It was afterwards discovered that the "officer" could hardly scrawl his own name,. But then, of course, as every naval officer is aware, an admiral's or even a captain's coxswain, has immense claims on the state after his patron has done with him.

Doubts have even been cast on the probity of the force, but when the influences that were brought to bear on the men by the smugglers are considered, it is no wonder some of the weaker brethren succumbed to temptation. Even "petticoat influence" was brought into play. Thus, an old official order speaks of "the attempt to corrupt our men through the medium  of  females."  Not  without  interest either  is an  old smugglers opinion - "You see, sir, it was like this, smuggling would never have gone on as long as it did, if it hadn't been that some of 'em wasn't above taking a bribe."

Under the conditions of entry that then existed, such discipline, drill, and training in the use of arms as was needed had to be acquired after enlistment. Drill was usually taught by old soldiers who went the rounds of the stations; but the knowledge acquired was exceedingly rudimentary, and it is the writer's belief that if statistics were forthcoming we should find that as many Coastguardsmen were hurt by the accidental discharge of their own weapons as by the smugglers.

We hear a great deal now-a-days of the long hours of railway men and others, but the instances that are quoted seem mere childs-play compared with what a Coastguardsman went through in the old days, - night work too, nearly all of it. Every evening at dusk, all the year round, the crews were assembled in the watchroom, equipped with pistol and cutlass, sometimes a musket and bayonet was added, and after the orders had been read out the men were marched off to the shore, where they remained till daylight next morning. The only break in the monotony of the night's vigil was the occasional visit of the officer, or an exchange of "guard." Nevertheless, the Coastguardsman of that day carried his life in his hand : the slightest relaxation of vigilance might entail a knock on the head, or the risk of being ruthlessly shot down by a band of "hired assassins," for a landing might take place at any moment - with its sudden rush of "batsmen" and "tub-carriers," who were not over scrupulous in their treatment of people who impeded their operations, On the Kent and Sussex shore the smugglers were accustomed to come down in parties of 100 or more, under cover of "fighting gangs," carrying fire-arms, and unless the patrols were quickly reinforced would drive them from the beach. On these occasions some desperate encounters took place, resulting in heavy loss of life. Many an old Coastguardsman has confided in the writer that before going on night duty he always said goodbye to his wife and family - not knowing whether he would come home alive again next  morning. "It  was killing work," is the verdict of nearly all who served in those days ; and certainly when we come to realise what it all meant - 16 hours on the stretch, night after night, fair weather and foul, on an open beach, all through the winter months, with but an occasional "spell-off," perhaps one night out of ten, and the ever present chance of being shot, why we may safely aver that a Coastguardsman's life in the old days was by no means all beer and skittles.

And yet, with all its defects, the old service produced some splendid men, who rendered invaluable service to their country at the time of the Russian war. I know one Coastguard family that contributed six members to the Fleet, all brothers, who were serving at one and the same time. Four were living until quite recently - fine specimens of manhood, who rose to responsible posts in the Coastguard service before retiring on pension. As a sample of the spirit that animated the men, take the following:- "It was six o' clock in the morning when I got my orders to embark for the war, and although my first child had only just been born, I didn't try to stay behind: and what's more," added the old man - then in his 79th year, with fire in his eye, "if I was ordered again tomorrow, I'd go, I've that much spirit left in me yet!"

As years rolled by, and the smuggler became a less common object of the sea-shore, so the idea of utilising the Coastguard as a reserve for the Fleet grew in importance, until in 1860, it took permanent shape in the absorption of the force into the Navy, of which it is now a mere department, and from whence, practically, it draws the whole of its personnel.

The altered conception of the role of the Coastguard which thus grew up, was attended with a corresponding change in the duties of the force, which now assumed a dual capacity, the duties ranging themselves roughly under two headings, Civil and Naval. The civil duties comprise first of all the protection of the revenue; for this, be it observed, is still held to constitute the raison d'etre of the Coastguard, as implied by its title, though the name has a very much wider meaning than was dreamed of in the philosophy of those who first conferred the title. The coast still has to be watched at night, but more with a view to the quick discovery of shipping casualties than interference with the operations of smugglers: and to the watchfulness of the Coastguard is largely due the excellent results which attend the life-salvage organisations round our coasts: besides which the crews have entire charge of the rocket apparatus, and they help to man the lifeboats when volunteers are not forthcoming in sufficient numbers. Now-a-days the Coastguards are the police of the coasts: they take charge of all wrecked property, enforce the fishery laws, and perform many "unofficial" duties for local authorities who invariably turn to the ever-ready and willing Coastguard when in want of intelligent help.

But if the civil duties constitute the raison d'etre of the force there can be no doubt that in the view of its role as a reserve, the drill, training and discipline of the men is gradually assuming a position of paramount importance; and as such engages the most earnest attention of the Admiralty. Hence the importance that attaches to the embarkation of the men, every year, in the ships of the Reserve Fleet, where they are afforded every opportunity of rubbing up their gunnery and torpedo knowledge, and keeping in touch with the ever changing conditions of naval life and warfare.

There is one department of Coastguard duty on shore which is little appreciated, because almost unknown to the public - the drill and training of the Royal Naval Reserve, which is carried out under the supervision of the chief officers of the various drill batteries which dot the coast. These officers are all men of high ability and intelligence, who have worked their way up through the various grades of the Naval and Coastguard service, and constitute a body of men whose value the country, and even the Naval service, but faintly realises. If the responsibilities attaching to the position and duties of a chief officer on shore were more fully understood by the officers of the Fleet, we should be spared the absurd spectacle which has sometimes been witnessed of these officers being told off for duties which are usually performed by boys fresh from the "Britannia".

Taking a general survey of the modern Coastguard, there can be no doubt that it constitutes a reserve force of the utmost value, and of which any nation might be proud, comprising as it does, within its ranks, by far the most capable, intelligent, and valuable all-round men in the service of the Crown. Those officers who know the force will, I feel sure, endorse the following encomium which was passed on it by an officer of high rank, on giving up the command many years ago:- "I believe Her Majesty has not a more respectable body of officers and men in her dominions. And should the hour of trial ever arrive, I am convinced that Her Majesty may securely rely upon the loyal efforts of the Coastguard to aid in any operations, offensive and defensive, which shall be undertaken for the protection of the country."

1 Comment · 14753 Reads · Print  -> Posted by Tony on April 29 2007


#1 | MargaretCollins on 22/09/2016 16:52:36
Very interesting article, which answered just about all my questions.

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