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

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