In the late 17th century, Liverpool was in the transition from being a relatively minor fishing port to a thriving commercial port. As a consequence, more and more ships were visiting the River Mersey with its navigational complexities and the beginnings of the new docks.
So it is not surprising to find that an informal system of pilotage had come into existence over the years. It is generally acknowledged that the first pilots were likely to have been local fishermen who augmented their income by offering to pilot ships in and out of this relatively minor port in Chester’s shadow as it grew in importance. Over time, a number of them were recognised as having the occupation of ‘pilot’ in official and other records. The first Liverpool Street Directory of 1766 shows some of them living close to their work, in streets adjacent to the then relatively few existing docks.
A pilotage service for the River Mersey, albeit without legislative regulation, existed therefore prior to the official era of the Liverpool Pilotage Service, which was formalised and regulated by the Liverpool Pilotage Act of 1766. This was all taking place during what was, and would continue to be for many years to come, the extremely hazardous way of life on the high seas for mariners all around the coast of Britain. Faced with the vagaries of the wind and weather, without benefi t of reliable navigational marks or charts, even with local knowledge and experience, the River Mersey and its approaches, with its large tidal range and consequential tidal eddies and currents, was an extremely hazardous estuary and in terms of pilotage a very challenging activity.
An extract from a letter from one Samuel Derrick in ‘Leverpool’ to The Earl of Corke in 1760, gives an insight into the hazards of the time.
As I have, nowhere, met with any accurate account of this very opulent town, perhaps my endeavour to give your lordship something of that sort, may not prove disagreeable. Leverpoole stands upon the decline of a hill, about six miles from the sea. It is washed by a broad rapid stream called the Mersee, where ships lying at anchor are quite exposed to the sudden squalls of wind, that often sweep the surface from the fl at Cheshire shore on the west, or the high lands of Lancashire that overlook the town on the east; and the banks are so shallow and deceitful, that when once a ship drives there is no possibility of preserving her, if the weather prove rough, from, being wrecked, even close to the town.
About three years since, a ship outward bound for America, richly laden, being badly piloted struck and went immediately down. Her mast is still plainly to be seen; but she being effectually sucked in by the heavy sandy bottom, all attempts to weigh her up have been ineffectual. This is the reason that so few ships anchor in the road; for the merchants endeavour to get them immediately into dock, where they lie very secure.’
These difficulties were further exampled by the record of the times, which show that: ‘during the year 1764 with no organised service of pilots available eighteen ships stranded and no fewer than 75 lives were lost.’ It was against this background of the loss of ships, cargoes and lives that in January 1765 ‘the gentleman, merchants and tradesmen of Liverpool met at the Exchange to consider the establishment of a formal regulated Pilotage Service.’
Although, from the following record, it might be inferred that their interest in pilotage was primarily financial and that the protection of mariners and passengers lives would be but a useful consequence.
To quote: ‘A proper regulation of the Pilots at the said Port and the ascertaining of their rates and prices would tend greatly to promote and encourage trade and navigation, and be, a publick utility.’
This first Act of Parliament in 1766 contained in its preamble the following formal, but perhaps more humanitarian, assessment of the need for such an Act.
‘The entrance to the Port of Liverpool is very dangerous without a skilful pilot, and many ships and lives have, of late years - been lost owing to the negligence and ignorance of persons taking upon them to conduct ships and vessels into and out of the said Port.’
And, so it came about that the fifty or so newly-licensed pilots were now to continue from 25th July 1766, in an official capacity, to offer their services to shipping. The Pilotage District in which they were to operate was now defined. It comprised that part of the Irish Sea of more than 2,500 square mile bounded by the coasts of Lancashire, Cheshire, North Wales, Anglesey, the east coast of the Isle of Man and Cumberland as far as St Bees Head. In addition to other aspects of the new pilotage service, the pilotage rates, rules and regulations, were all published in March 1765 in the local Liverpool newspapers, in advance of the Act coming into force in 1766.
The rules and regulations were comprehensive and consequently extensive; there were to be winter and summer pilotage rates, English ships from British ports were to be exempt, vessels from Ireland could refuse a pilot, pilots would have to pay 4 Guineas annually for their Branch or Licence – and the proceeds from this could be applied, as a majority of pilots directed, to the benefi t of widows, children, poor pilots or amongst themselves as they might choose. There were some 26 regulations regarding pilots - including – Pilots in port must appear every morning at the Office at 8 o’clock to receive orders – a system which appertained in a not dissimilar manner into the late 1950’s at what was known still as ‘the muster room’ in the Pilotage Building at Canning Pierhead.
Until the reliability and ownership of a telephone applied to all pilots this was the only way to ensure the ready availability of pilots. Another regulation required that when three or more ships arrived at once that they be provided with a pilot – in Turn – and so the term the ‘Turns List’ applied to the pilots order of boarding then, and into modern times, where that principle applies to some extent even to this day. Similarly, a pilot was required (actually himself) to measure the lead line on boarding a ship and to ‘keep it going’ during the act of pilotage. The use of an apprentice pilot as a ‘Leadsman’ to keep it going was no doubt helpful, and that was to become a term that has lasted for 250 years. It is still applied to where a trainee pilot or pilot seeking a higher class of licence accompanies a pilot on a ‘training trip’ which is to this day referred to as ‘going a Leadsman’.
When the service was first organised the pilot cutters, as they are usually generically referred to, whatever their actual rig, were a mixture of single masted sloops, smacks and cutters, small vessels of as little as 30 tons, and less than 40 feet in length, which were privately owned, usually by the pilots and their families. Soon after the loss in 1770 of three of these small vessels together with twentyeight lives, mostly pilots, the Pilotage Committee decided that a minimum size for any new Pilot Boats of 40 tons should be set and that now nine such boats should be built each to carry six or seven pilots and two or three apprentices.
Their intended cruising stations and the rotation of the boats were carefully laid down.