Trinity House Pilotage Service in the 1890s

The following description of life as a pilot in the 1890s is taken from an archived edition of Trinity House’s in-house Flash journal (Vol. 5.1, 1962). Until the 1987 Pilotage Act, the superintendence of local pilotage was a major function of Trinity House, and indeed its oldest official function, the cornerstone of the original guild’s 1513 petition to Henry VIII being its concern over the unregulated state of pilotage on the River Thames. Today, Trinity House retains in along-standing involvement with pilotage in its capacity as a Deep Sea Pilotage Authority providing expert navigators for ships trading in Northern European waters.


“Hoist the gaff topsail!”

It is a sunny day, with a bright, choppy sea, and the sparkling waves break in a white foam on either side of the pilot cutter’s prow as she ploughs rapidly through the water. Her broad canvas is of almost dazzling whiteness in the sunshine, as the breeze stiffens it heels over at so acute and angle that the end of the main boom almost touches the water. The pilot cutter Nautilus is a comfortable enough vessel of some forty tons. She has just started on her cruise.

In the main cabin are six pilots on the lookout for employment. Very different men they are in appearance. The oldest, with his white hair and weather-beaten countenance, must be close on sixty, while the youngest, a man with keen eyes, rich brown beard, and stalwart frame, can be no more than thirty-five. The others are men of middle age. One short and plump; another tall and wiry; one loquacious; and another silent. But not withstanding their apparent dissimilarity, it is easy to discern that they have their own characteristics. Boldness and decision are depicted on every face, and the same qualities are traceable in their voices and manner of speech.

These characteristics indeed are essential to the pilot’s calling. In guiding a ship through narrow and difficult channels, like those which lead into the Thames, the slightest hesitation would probably lead to disaster. The pilot’s head must be clear, his judgement must be firm, and he must be unruffled even by such disquieting influences as storm or fog.

The most difficult duties of the pilot are performed by a kind of intuition. Continual practice has taught him almost instinctively to tell the exact bearings of his ship, the state of the tide, and the depth of water beneath him; so that even in darkness, fog, or storm, the pilot is able to steer through complicated channels in a manner that to a landsman seems miraculous.

It is of course to the pilot’s interest to bring his ship into port as rapidly as possible, for his payment depends upon the size of the vessel and draft of water under his charge, and not upon the time he takes to guide her into safety. He must, therefore, do his best to catch the tides, and to avoid delay, so as to complete his task as soon as he can, and be ready for another engagement.

The pilot is himself liable for any damage that may be sustained in collision consequent upon his own negligence, but only to the extent of £100; and if the ship should be stranded or otherwise accidentally delayed, he must remain on board till she can resume her voyage into port. Once on board a ship, in fact, the pilot must not quit her until he has completed the task that he has undertaken—namely, to guide her safely to her destination. Seeing the risk he has to run of adverse atmospheric influences, as well as other causes of delay, the pilot’s life is one of great anxiety, and it is therefore but just that he should be liberally remunerated. Eight hundred pounds a year is by no means an unusual income for a pilot to make, and sometimes his earnings amount to more. In some ports, however, where the demand for pilots is limited and the supply is excessive, they have to put up with very much smaller earnings, and in order to remedy the evil of over competition among pilots the Trinity House authorities are careful not to grant pilotage certificates for ports to which a sufficient number of pilots are already attached.

The pilots seated in the cabin of the cutter Nautilus have all been masters or chief mates, and have had a long experience of the sea. They have just finished their midday meal, and are seated round their table with pies and glasses, while they listen, with more or less credence and attention, to each other’s anecdotes of seafaring life. The atmosphere of the cabin soon becomes thick with smoke, and as the air grows more hazy, the stories become more marvellous.

“I was exhausted by swimming and the vessel was still a mile off, when, to my horror, I perceived through the darkness that she was steaming away. I looked round, but there was no help. Something was glistening in the moonlight to my right. It came nearer. It was a shark—”

“A big steamer on the port bow!”

This announcement interrupts the story at the exciting moment. The pilots all rise to their feet and go on deck. Yes, there is the steamer, and by her course she is probably bound for the Thames. Of course she will want a pilot, and the regulation is that she must employ the first that offers. The cutter scampers over the sea, and is soon within hailing distance.

“Do you want a pilot?” sings out a stentorian voice.

The answer comes back no less distinctly. “No we’ve got our own pilot on board.” There is a look of disappointment on the pilots’ faces as they return to the cabin.

“It’s a scandalous shame, and the law ought to interfere,” says the talkative pilot when they have resumed their seats and refilled their glasses.

“The ‘choice’ system isn’t fair on us,” says another.

“It is hard on us; but you can’t blame them. They must look after their own interests; and it’s no use grumbling,” remarks the elder pilot, philosophically.

It may be well to explain that this excites the disapprobation of the pilots. Several of the great shipping companies employ special pilots to go down and meet their vessels at the first port they touch in this country, and to bring them on from there to their destination. This is undoubtedly a great convenience, and very often mean an important saving of time. A vessel, for instance, on her way to London, calls at Portland, takes on board the pilot who is awaiting her, and completes her voyage without any further delay. Every hour is of importance. If the vessel had to wait for a chance pilot to offer his services, or to signal for a pilot, perhaps during the night when it is dark and blowing hard, and to wait for the signal to be answered, she might very easily miss a tide, and her arrival in dock London be thereby delayed for twelve or twenty-four hours.

The value of a ship per day varies from £30 to £100, according to her size; and the wages of the crew, which are paid on arrival, perhaps amount to £50 a day. It is obvious therefore that any delay means serious loss.

The system also has other advantages, for these special pilots, being regularly employed, have the interest of the company at heart, and can be relied on not to undergo needless risk for the purposes of getting rapidly into port. They are, moreover, men in whom the utmost confidence can be placed, both in regard to their steadiness and ability. When a vessel is bringing in a valuable cargo, it is necessary to minimise risk and at the same time, to ensure the utmost speed compatible with safety.

The danger of engaging a pilot to habits of insobriety is perhaps small, yet it is sufficiently important to be carefully avoided. Pilots, as a rule, are perfectly trustworthy and hard-working men; but intemperate members of the profession are sometimes to be met with. There have been instances of pilots while under the influence of drink bringing a ship safely through difficult channels into port. The shipping companies, however, very properly prefer the subject the life and property under their charge to no risk, however small, if it can possibly be avoided; and they therefore employ men who, being acquainted with the captains of their ships, will work harmoniously with them, and can be relied on to do their duty. The law makes it compulsory on vessels coming into port (with certain exceptions) to be navigated by a pilot. When the pilot comes on board, the captain ceases to be responsible for the navigation. He however, retains control of the ship, and if the pilot’s behaviour be unsatisfactory, he may refuse to give effect to his orders.

To qualify as a pilot, a man must first have had a very considerable experience as a master or mate. He must be thoroughly acquainted with the channels at the port where he intends to practise, and must pass an examination before he can obtain a certificate at Trinity House.

Many of the captains and officers of ocean-going ships hold pilots’ certificates, but the channels leading to some of our principal ports are so difficult that unless a man is constantly navigating them he cannot be assured of doing so in safety. It generally happens, therefore, that even those captains who hold pilots’ certificates prefer to employ one familiar with the locality on arriving into port. Not the least anxious portion of a voyage is the getting into port, and this is generally the case where the channels are complicated and the shipping is numerous. The master of a vessel who has perhaps encountered the difficulties of a stormy passage across the ocean is therefore glad to be relieved of anxiety and responsibility on approaching his destination.

There has been a considerable amount of agitation among pilots against the granting of certificates to foreigners. It is contended that by thus allowing aliens to become familiar with our channels, the danger of invasion is greatly increased. The principal of free trade in this country, however, extends to pilotage as well as other matters, and the authorities prefer to grant pilots’ certificates to foreigners rather than create friction with other countries by refusing them. The foreigners who act as pilots in English waters are, however, comparatively few. Most of them are Germans or Swedes, who ply their calling with conscientious industry, and must be admitted that their presence does not give any serious cause for alarm. A pilot bringing a ship into the Thames takes charge of her only as far as Gravesend, but he has to remain on board until relieved by the arrival of a river pilot.

The river pilots do a thriving business amid the multitudinous traffic of the Thames to take a river pilot on board. The law compels large ships entering the Thames to take a river pilot on board. It requires great skill in steering, as well as ability in handling a ship, to bring a great vessel through all the narrow channels, past all the twists and bends of the river, and through all the shipping safely into the dock. A seaman could not undertake such a duty. The average earnings of the pilots between Gravesend and the docks are as great as those of the pilots who practise at sea.

In most parts of the English coast, the pilots are under the control of local boards affiliated with Trinity House. The pilots of the south and south-east ports are, however, directly responsible to Trinity House.

The great importance of the services rendered by the pilots to this country is probably but rarely considered. Our national wealth is doubtless in a very great degree due to our enormous shipping trade. Our manufactured goods are conveyed to all quarters of the globe, and raw material, as well as produce of every kind, is brought here from distant countries in return, It is unnecessary to dwell on the magnitude of our merchant service, but it is important to remember that it is carried on in spite of great difficulty in entering the channels leading to our ports. The port of London is one of the most hazardous in the world, and could not possibly be navigated by a man unacquainted with the channels.

But for the pilots, whom long practice has made familiar with the dangers that beset our coast our imports and export trade would be impossible. Our rivers and ports would be blocked by wreckage, and our great industries would come to a standstill. The trade of the pilot is therefore one from which every one derives some advantage, and the pilots are men who perform a service of the utmost importance to the community.

Trinity House Pilot Vessel Prudence

Trinity House Pilot Vessel Prudence

Today in Trinity House history: 19 March 1513 – the Masters and Mariners of the Thames petition Henry VIII

Five hundred years ago today, on 19 March 1513, a guild of mariners—troubled by the inexperience and poor conduct of unregulated pilots on the Thames endangering life and cargo—petitioned the King for license to set up a fraternity enabled to regulate pilotage on the Thames. This fraternity was already in ownership of a great hall and 21 almshouses for the benefit of distressed seamen and their dependants, suggesting an already well-established body.
The petitioners put forward the following case:


To the king our sou(er)aigne lord.

In the moste lowly wise shewen unto your excellent highnes yor humble subgiects and true liegemen the maisters rulers and maryners of yor navye within your Ryver of Thamys and other places that wher moste mercifull redoubted prince that of tyme owte of man is mynde as long as due order good rule and guyding were sufficed to be had in yor said Ryver and other places by auncient Englissh maisters and lodesmen of the same the said rivers and places and the daungers of the same were then by theym thrughly serched so surely that fewe shippes or noon were perisshed in defaulte of lodemanage now it is so moste gracious sovereign lord that dyvers and many yongmen namyng theym self mariners beyng owte of all good order and rule not havyng the perfyte knowlege ne experience in shipmens crafte neither of sufficiency experience approved ne of age in the same to knowe the surance and saufconduyte of shippes by the connyng of lodemanage dailly unseytly medlen therwith to great and hurte and losse of moche of the said Navye  And also not willeng to entre into the actuell aventure and paynes of saillyng in the mayn see wherby experience and knowledge of sailleng from Realme to Realme might clerely growe and be lerned and also by the same your navye and marchaunts shulde be the more in nombre and your custumers greatly encreased whiche can not be had but by the connyng and science of shipmans crafte by greate laboure and aventure of the see sailleng from land to land taken in yowth but the said yongmen not intendyng to learne the said science and crafte ne to aventure for the obteyning of the same ne for the weale nor for the avauntage aforsaid dailly applye their myndes to easier labor to be pilotts and lodesmen in yor said Ryver of Thamys oonly whiche was somtyme the lyveng of auncient maryners whan they myght no lenger for bruseys and maymes had upon the see in the Kings warres or for pure age labor any more in the crafte and aventure aforsaid  

And so by reason of the said yongmen wull no ferther lern but pilotship oonly in yor river aforsaid whan auncient maisters and maryners of this yor realme that now ben whiche am very feble and many ben expended and goon  Then ffewer maryners of science and connyng to saille by sees shall then be·lefte behynde theym  

And so this yor Realme whiche here tofore hath florisshed with navye·to alle other lands dredfull and connyng maisters and maryners in the same yor Realme to guyde the said navy through all Cristendom is sees shall then be utterly destitute and unpurveyd of suche sure and connyng maisters and maryners at tyme of nede That God defend  

And howbeit soueraign lord that among yor said subgietts there ben many and dyvers conyng men aswell maisters as lodismen that be of great age and perfyte connyng to convey and bring into the said Ryver and owte of the same any carrak gayly or vessell of what burden however it be yete for all that for lak of good ordre and due correccion amongest us as well Scotts Flemmyngs Frenshmen as other straungers borne not beyng yor naturell subgiects take upon theym to be lodismen in yor said river and other places of this yor roialme  

And to enserche and knowe yor stremes and the daungers and secrets of the same contrary to yor olde lawes and customes  And all the good policye of this yor roialme By reason wherof thissame yor Realme myght be put in great jeoperdy as experience of olde tyme hath shewed in so muche that fewe yeres sens it hath ben seen within yor said river and other places of this yor reelme in tyme of werre Frenshmen and other then beyng enemyes By knowlege of the secrets of yor said Ryver have comen as fer as Gravesende and fette owte Englissh shippes to the great rebuk of this realme 

And if the auncient maisters and maryners therof that now been had the rule or ordryng of the premisses as their predecessours in dayes paste have had There shuld noon suche straungers have the rule of lodemanage nor take any charge upon theyme in yor said ryver as they now have and fewer shippes or noon shuld perisshe in defaulte of lodemanage as now of late have doon But many moo shippes shulde come in to yor said river and other places then of a greate season have doon to the great avauntage of yor custumers and also sufficient maisters and maryners of connyng wolde every day encrease more and more so that in tyme of nede soueraign lord it shuld not requyre to seke straungers to do yor grace service at yor high pleasure ne to serve yor marchaunts in any besynes  

And so in conclusion moste rightwis and our moste drad soueraign lord yor said subgiects must nede shortly perisshe and yor said Navye utterly mynyssh and decay to all straungers most greatly rejoysyng and to all true Englishmen moste pitiously lamentyng withoute yor moste tendir pitye and mercy to theym in this case be shewed  

WHEREFORE the recontinuaunce and reencreasing aswell of yor said maisters & maryners as of yor Roiall whiche ben greatly abated and decayed over that they were and have ben of late tyme  And in consideracion gracious leige lord that all princes and kings cristenys have speciale favor & preferment to the Marchaunts maisters &maryners of their regions contreyes & lands for the encrease and mayntenyng of their Navye for the greate perfitt and custumers that come therby to the said kings and princes and for the great honor and comonweale of their said regions contreys & lands  

IT MAY pleas therfor you most mercifull soueraign lord syns ye be the moste noble cristen king and have the moste noble region in comodities with merchaunts maisters maryners and navie of the worlde if they be maynteyned and cherisshed as other nacions ben now at this tyme for Godds sake and in wey of charite calling to yor gracious remembraunce how that it were a blissid dede to breke all the forsaid ill rules and mysguydings and to reforme and bryng to good use and ordir every thing towchyng the premysses and to helpe to set it in good wey to the pleasure of God honor and worship to you soueraign lord and of this yor Roialme  

And to the great joy and comfort of all trew English merchaunts maisters lodismen and maryners  And for the speciall encreas of yor navie and custumes to graunt to yor said subgietts yor gracious letters patents in due and ample form to be made and enseelid under the greate seale after the tenor ensuyng  And they shall every pray to God for the preservacon of your most noble and roiall estate long to endure in as moche joy and felicite as ever did Cristen prynce.

As Henry was engaged in his first war with the French at the time of petition, it was 14 months before the charter could be finally signed, incorporating that body of mariners as The Master, Wardens and Assistants of the Guild or Fraternity of the most glorious and undividable Trinity and St. Clement in the Parish Church of Deptford Strond, although this name would be slightly altered in a later charter to The Master Wardens and Assistants of the Guild Fraternity or Brotherhood of the most glorious and undivided Trinity and of St. Clement in the Parish of Deptford Strond, in the County of Kent.

So that’s how it all got started; now follow the Trinity House History blog for more on what happened next!

Cook’s Corner, July 1958

Feeling peckish? We proudly present this very simple recipe for Sussex Pudding taken from the July 1958 edition of Trinity House’s in-house journal Flash, written as part of a series of recipes intended for the men serving on the lighthouses, lightvessels and tenders.

Tea time at Beachy Head Lighthouse, circa 1955

Tea time at Beachy Head Lighthouse, circa 1955

COOK’S CORNER by Sarah Jane

My recipe this quarter is for Sussex Pudding.

6 ozs. Suet
6 ozs. Flour (Self Raising)
6 ozs. Raisins
¼ Pint Milk

Rub the suet into the flour, mix in the raisins and stir in the milk till the whole is mixed.
Grease a tin 8″ long, 6½” wide, 2″ deep, and put the pudding mixture in, keeping the top fairly level.
Bake for about 1 hour in a hot oven.

Keeping up the gastronomic theme, the Editor of the time saw fit to follow up with the following poem, drafted with tongue firmly in cheek by a member of the Pilot Service:

Oh Mr. Tailor please note well
When next you come to measure
The Pilot Service personnel
You’ll not get so much leisure.

For in the past you may recall
We were mostly rather slim
At least some were, if not quite all
Let’s say just nice and trim.

Don’t get me wrong and think that we
Are living fast and loose
But now we’re fed by Trinity
On chicken, duck and goose.

So throwaway our last years charts
And bring a tape much bigger
That will navigate our middle parts
And record our new found figure.

Mr. P C Clarke

“A record of four centuries…” Country Life, 1919

“A record of four centuries shows the Corporation alert and capable at all times and in all conditions. A visit to its home is not merely an artistic and historic pleasure; it is a wholesome lesson in the nature, growth and retention of sea power by a maritime empire.”

Excerpt of description of Trinity House‘s historic Tower Hill headquarters in Country Life, 1919