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Hugh Ferguson, Trinity House Pilot

Stories by Hugh

Hugh Ferguson as Trinity House Pilot

We met Hugh Ferguson on Ship's Nostalgia ( He wrote a lot of posts is the thread about THPV Bembridge We received from Hugh a nice move made by him in 1966 showing a job of TH Pilots, several TH Pilot Cutters and their Pilot Boarding Boats. We received a jacket from his TH Pilot uniform, too. He becomes an official member of our restoration team and that's why we are very proud to have such a man in our team.

Trinity House License for Pilot Hugh Ferguson

So let's start with all interesting stories!

How William Stanton, Deal boatman, got to be a Cinque Ports Pilot
About the years 1832/33, there being a great stir among the boatmen of Deal, complaining of the great hardships and privations they had to endure not being able to enjoy the least privilege belonging to the town, particularly the Pilot System. I (William Stanton) being one deputed by the boatmen to get a petition drawn up and signed by the whole town, and sent to the Lords and Commons, which was done, and a select committee was appointed to examine witnesses on the same. I being summoned as a witness before the Committee of the House of Commons.

Chief of the grievances complained of was not making Deal men Deal Pilots. His Grace the Duke of Wellington said it should be altered, and told us to send two boatmen to the next Court (of Lodemanage), which was done.
I being one selected by the whole body of Deal boatmen; the other was balloted for. I found them determined not to pass a man under the "Blue Interest." More particular, I being at that time what was termed a "No Freeman" (of Dover) , and T. Trowbridge M.P. our member and my Patron, was all serious obstacles. On the Wardens reporting to His Grace my not passing, he sent the Crier of the Court after me, to bring me before him. He told me His Grace wanted to see me immediately.

When I came before him he told me that he understood from his officers that I was nearly competent-now make it your study to be quite so by the time of the ensueing Court, and mind you attend again!
The time began to draw near for the next Court. I knew it was no use going there under the interest of T. Trowbridge, therefore I made up a full determination to see the Duke in person. Many of my friends tried to persuade me from such a rash act, saying it was impossible for me to get an interview withe the Duke without some letter of introduction, and very likely I might get myself into trouble. However, my mind was made up and I did not intend to alter it or equivocate for anything. I knew well that if it was to be done it must be done by a bold step. I went up to Walmer, entered the gates and asked to see His Grace. His Grace's valet asked, "Who are you and what is youe business"? I told him no one would understand except His Grace the Duke. "Have you any letter of introduction"? No, I said. "Where do you belong to"? I said, Deal. I am gong to Deal will you walk with me? I said, with pleasure and as we were walking he told me His Grace was at Dover and if I would tell him my business he would assist me if it was in his power.
I then told him the whole concern when he told me the Duke was sure to be out on the lawn before the Castle at 2PM tomorrow, when I could use my own pleasure, but if anyone was with him, he begged and prayed of me not to address him. he said it made him tremble at the very thought of my determination. He said he would watch my reception from the ramparts of the castle.
The next day I was at my post at 2 o'clock. The Duke came out of the castle but his brother was with him. I thought of nelson's motto, "Delays are dangerous"-so when they turned to walk towards me, I pulled off my cap and let His Grace know that I wished to speak with him. He sang out, "Put on your hat" with such a voice that it went from the crown of my head down to my toes like a flash of lightening. he says, "What's your name and business"? I said, if it please your Grace, I have, accordingf to your orders, at the last Court made myself competent for another examination, if you will be so kind as to grant it. He said he thought he knew the face, and ordered me to mke my application and off he started at a quick pace. I followed him, and said, if it please your Grace, what quarter have |i to make my application as I stand quite friendless? He said write it out yourself and bring it to the Castle at 12 o'clock tomorrow.
I went home and wrote it out to the best of my ability. The next day I went with my document to the Castle and the valet was at the gate to receive me; he bid me sit down and placed a fine luncheon before me; he than took my document to His Grace. On his return he told me I might make sure of success, for His Grace had told him of my coming, and likewise set me out some refreshment. I tanked him for his assistance and returned home and wrote.

The Court came. I was called and passed and evrthing going very pleasantly during the whole day. His Grace sent for me and invited me to dine with him, which I, of course accepted, and a most splendid set out it was, of every luxury you could think of. I left at 7 PM and made the best of my way home to Deal. I received the undermentioned document from Dover Castle as Supernumeror:-

It is probably worthy of note that Dungeness offered sheltered conditions in all but weather coming from the south of south-west. Even in north-easterly weather shelter could be found to the westward of the point. During the notorious winter of 1962/63 I can recall boarding many ships on the west side of Dungeness.
In earlier times (pre-war) the Trinity House cutter was often accompanied by either a Dutch or Belgium cutter taking advantage of the more sheltered conditions than at the Wandelaar or Waterweg.
In the Illustrated London News, dated Sept.12th 1866, the report of the racing tea clippers, Taeping and Ariel, both out of Foo- Chow-Foo, and neck and neck after 99 days, arriving Dungeness for their pilots, makes mention of two cutters only one of which would have had London pilots aboard. Three of those famous tea clippers, Serica, Ariel and Taeping, docked on the same tide on the evening of that day in September 1866, Taeping into the London Dock at 9.45pm; Ariel into the East India Dock at 10.15pm and Serica into West India Dock at 11.30pm. Quite a day for all hands!!
Cinque Ports Pilots
The Dungeness pilot service that I joined in Dec.1956 had, since time out of mind, been known as the Cinque Ports Pilots and it is important to remember that the pronunciation, of the French spelt word for the figure 5, was traditionally pronounced,CINK (soft C)
However, with the advent of grammar school educated people into the service-those who had been taught French in the schools they went to-the mispronunciation of the word began to occur. Being a traditionalist I, and others, found that unacceptable.
On one memorable occasion-a general meeting-I heard the mispronunciation made by none other than our representative on the Trinity House London Pilots' Committee, would you believe!!! I protested and said that this bastard Norman pronunciation was totally unacceptable.
It was an unfortunate coincidence that the name of our rep., was Norman-I hoped he understood the slip of the tongue.

As a bye-note:- The Cinque Ports was a system which had, in all probability, been set up at the time of declining Roman power in Britain, as a means to defend against Saxon piracy. It was further augmented following the 1066 Norman invasion, when five ports-the Cinque Ports of Hastings, New Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich, were required by the king, to provide defensive measures to combat this growing threat from further invaders.

In 1969 the pilots of the River Hooghly published a booklet celebrating, "Three Hundred Years of Glorious Service."
On one of the pages the following picturesque language recounts a reply from the Directors of the East India Company in 1668 to an appeal made by the Captains of the company for able Pylotts for the bringing of them in the river
The reply from the Directors stated, "We therefore doe again recommend to you so to proceed to have divers able persons instructed as Pilotts.....and for a supply of young men to be bredd up wee have entertained as apprentice for seven years George Herron, James White, Thomas Masson, James Ferborne, John Ffloyd and Thomas Bateman".
"The above named officers belonged to the Cinque Ports station which then was the best known pilot station in England.............."
Paper train baby
More years ago than I care to contemplate there was a phenomenon in the pilot service known to all as the "paper train baby". This appeared to occur most to those who had been under the impression that their procreation of off-springs had been completed.

The reason why the paper train from Gravesend to Dover came to be suspected as the cause of this happening was reasonably logical. If a pilot found himself landing at Gravesend between 0200 and 0330, it was considered the norm to wait for and take the paper train which departed Gravesend at 0400 to arrive Dover at 0600. Thus, was the supposedly weary pilot enabled to get himself to bed before his wife had arisen to get the children off to school.

The only good thing that could be said about the paper train was that you didn't have to change anywhere, as at all other times was the case. The bad things that could be said about it are almost too numerous to mention. Apart from usually being unheated, it was painfully slow and on mondays consisted of a collection of debauched humanity returning from their excesses in London over the weekend.

Despite these apparent disadvantages the paper train held a great attraction as a means of transportation back to that warm and familiar bed. Failing to catch it meant an intolerable wait for the next one. I have known pilots to run all the way from the RoyalTerrace Pier to the station rather than endure that delay. On at least one memorable occasion I recall the train having actually jerked itself into motion when there was heard the heavy pounding of boots along the platform. Another collossal jerk as the brakes were hastily applied and David Kinloch fell into the compartment so winded that he couldn't speak until we had got to Strood! One really wondered if such an excessive expenditure of energy, after what may have been a gruelling job, wise.

I myself have marvelled that anyone could have had anything else on his mind after what may have been ten hours aboard a schuyt, two hours waiting on the pier, and then, as if that wasn't enough, two hours in a train that made anything that operated on the much maligned Essex line seem positively luxurious!

Actually there probably was a worse fate than taking the paper train; it happened to me regularly and that was falling asleep in the train and missing the change at Faversham to, almost invariably awake minutes later to realise that one's wife is expecting to meet you at Dover and you're not going to be there!

On one of those occasions I landed up in Ramsgate and spent the next two hours trying to get myself aboard something, anything, that would get me onwards to Dover. One train I was directed to stayed where it was as the front half detached itself and went on its way without me.
I then boarded another train on the opposite platform only to find myself, opening a window to see where it was going, at precisely the moment when it steamed through a train wash!! I got soaked and then frightened the driver who had evidently been under the impression that he was the only one in the train.
THPV Bembridge
The Bembridge was quite different from the three other cutters we had the use of: the Penlee and Pelorus were somewhat utilitarian having had to have been built hurriedly at the end of the wartime period.

We, as pilots, thought she had had her day as long ago as in 1965. The smell of dry rot in the sleeping quarters was just one of the indications that this ship is worn out, exactly as I feel fifty years after my first time in her!

THPV Pelorus (No. 4) and THPV Penlee (No. 5)

In contrast they had a kind of open plan sleeping accommodation, whereas the Bembridge had four separate cabins, the after two, each with six bunks (if I remember rightly) and the forward two, being more confined, having only four in each, making twenty bunks in all.
Somewhat claustrophobic if you were that way inclined. That didn't bother me unduly but I do remember coming to on one occasion, wondering where I was in the pitch darkness, crying out and alarming Frank Elliot who quickly switched on his reading light to see if I was alright. I thought I'd been nailed down in a box!

On coming aboard, at whatever the time of day or night, everyone made a bee-line to get the best bunk, deferring only to the senior pilot and no-one else: you then made sure that you got your name on the slate in the right position and with the right number of your bunk-you would not be popular if the stand-bye man called the wrong pilot, for him to find, after he had got all of his gear on ready to go off to a ship, that the wrong guy had been called. I have many memories of laying awake longing to hear those heavy boots of the stand-bye man clumping down the stairs to announce, "job for you Mr Ferguson!" You always asked him what it was, but of course he never knew.

It seems to me, in retrospect, that as a pilot such a lot of one's life was spent waiting, waiting for a ship, then waiting for the tide, waiting for a berth, waiting for the fog to clear-I wonder what the "time and motion" merchants would have made of it if they had been around in those days!!

Eric Fowler in bunk 12
17th Dec.1956 - My first day at Dungeness
It's fifty three years, almost to the day, that I first set foot aboard this cutter on station at Dungeness, 17th Dec.1956. At 1740-as a makee learn pilot-I had boarded the Bullard King, Umgeni, bound London. The pilot was Mr F.Tracey who was soon to retire. The Umgeni was the first of the eighty ships in which, over the next 5 months, I was to accompany licenced pilots before presenting myself, before one of the Elder Brethren in Trinity House, to be examined for an underdraft licence.
On that very first time aboard the cutter, Bembridge, I was to meet Pilot Ian McNeil-it was not going to be many weeks before Mr McNeil was to learn that his son, Donald, had been murdered on board the tug, Champion, in Aden where he was a pilot. He had been a colleague of mine in Aden, and had accompanied me to the airport in Nov.1956 to see me off on the way to my new job as a Trinity House pilot in London.
Donald had previously been with Bullard King and had served in that self-same ship I went aboard on 17th Dec.1956.

At 0505 on 1st April 1967 I was the last pilot to be shipped-to the Mobile Valiant-from the Dungeness pilot cutter. Shortly after, the cutter left the Dungeness cruising pilot station and landed the remaining pilots at Folkestone, the new pilot station.
Folkestone Pilot Station did not last for long before Channel Routeing changed the system for ever.
The people who chose to make a profession of piloting ships.
Part I

As a side-note, as it were, to the practicalities of pilot work, I thought it maybe of interest to some members to learn more about the kind of people who chose to make a profession of piloting ships.
I would say that they were a good cross-section of British society and amongst our 100 plus all of the accents of the British Isles could be heard with a noticeable contribution from Scotland, many Geordies (North Sea Chinamen we called them as you couldn't understand what they said), and even the sound of the carefully modulated, cultivated tones of the public school educated: the latter often being the sons of pilots which seemed to indicate that piloting used to be a financially lucrative job.
The one exception to that was a Mr Howgego (what a wonderful name for a pilot!). He was the last of a long line of Cinque-pronounced SINK-and spoke with the lovely, soft Kentish accent as had so many of his forbearers.
When I joined the service in 1956 there were still several pilots who had already become licenced pilots before the out-break of the war. The Dungeness station had to be abandoned and those pilots went elsewhere, one to the Clyde I recall and one, Donald Crampton, even to Iceland would you believe, and others became based at Southend.
But most of my contemporaries were at sea in the Merchant Navy throughout the war and some, such as myself, for the latter part of the war.
Only recently has it occurred to me that, during all of the hours we spent in each others company aboard the cutters, no general conversation ever included accounts of their experiences, and there were many as I was to discover, sometimes years later.
Many had been 2nd and 3rd mates in ships which had been sunk: Steve Covell navigating and sailing one of the Rhexenor's boats 1,200 miles with the loss of only one man; Jimmy Boyce in the Armanistan; Dennis Sharp in the Zouave which, with an iron ore cargo, sank in ten minutes; Frank Elliot in the NZS Westmoreland and Harry Lee surviving a trip to Malta (Operation Harpoon) in the NZS Orari.
The only time I ever recall hearing a full story of some of their experiences was when in their sole company such as in a train returning to Dover, or a 24 hour stint on the Dover lookout.
During one such train journey back from Gravesend to Dover, Jimmy Boyce told me of the sinking of Armanistan early in the war. The ship did not go down quickly and there was time for the U.boat to surface and come close. The Commander climbed down from the conning tower in order to question him in one of the boats. As he did, one of his officers lowered a revolver on a line which he declined the offer of! He then, in excellent English, asked many questions about the cargo, where from and where to, and after Jimmy gave evasive answers the Commander then gave him an exact resume of the Armanistan's voyage to that day!
They were picked up the next day by a Spanish ship and Jimmy was convinced that the U.Boat commander had told the Spanish ship of the sinking and to look out for survivors. That was early in the war before the gloves came off as it were.
Eric Mutter had been 3rd mate of the Blue Funnel, Perseus when she was torpedoed-he missed a horrible death when the gigantic funnel came crashing down alongside of him! All of those pilots mentioned have now died.
Just recently there has been one more loss, that of John Frankish who was in a Royal Mail ship when it was torpedoed and sunk in the Western Ocean

Part II

Having already made mention of pilot Harry Lee (2nd/3rd mate in NZS Orari, Malta convoy), maybe I should also mention his other great achievement-he was the finest list maker anybody ever knew. What, you may well ask, is (or was) a list maker.
He was the one who, on arriving aboard the Dungeness cutter, would immediately settle himself at the best table with a week or more of Lloyd's shipping newspapers at hand.
Harry would then spend a couple of hours pouring through all of the shipping intelligence that famous newspaper had to offer. He was compiling a list of the ships, from the south and west, due to arrive in London during the next three days. And I can assure you that to do that required an acute insight into how the various shipping companies worked their schedules.
Harry was a past master at this and, whilst there were others who tried to fulfil this role, none could even begin to compete with his skills and insight.
Finally, when the list was pinned to the notice board there was a rush to try to guess which ship one might expect to be called for during the next 24 hours. Banana boats were the favourite because they were fast and never needed to wait for a tide or a berth-straight to Gravesend and, if the tide was just right, one could carry the flood all of the 74 miles and arrive in Gravesend Reach in just four hours.
I think I may have had a few in my time and on one occasion I came ashore in Gravesend carrying a STEM of bananas-I had to hire a taxi to the station: a pilot in uniform should not be seen walking up Harmer St. with a stem of bananas over his shoulder, Trinity House would not have approved!

Part III

Another old pilot, worthy of a special mention, was one called "Winger" Roberts. He got that nick-name on account of the Dungeness station having to be abandoned at the outbreak of war and being given the job of teaching Bomber Command navigators, navigation. During that line of duty he had an opportunity to once go with them on a bombing mission in a Lancaster bomber. "Winger" was very much an individualist, keeping himself to himself. He lived in the same village as I, outside Dover, but I never got to know him, but now I wish very much that I had-he would have had some interesting stories to tell, for he was the only pilot I ever knew to grow wings!

Part IV

Here's another little snippet of pilot life as gleaned from one of the "old cocks" as they used to be respecfully referred to by the new boys.
Arthur Conyers told me this: As previously mentioned, at the outbreak of war all the London pilot stations, especially the outlying ones, became redundant and their pilots found themselves operating in other locations in which there was a demand for pilots on account of London having become so vulnerable to attack.
But, of course some needed to be retained on the Thames. One of those was Arthur who found himself holed up in a third rate hotel in Southend sharing a room with one of the Gravesend Channel pilots.
He, whose name I was never able to discover, was a bit of a lady's man and persistantly returned late of an evening accompanied by one of his female friends. Poor Arthur was thus being deprived of his beauty sleep whilst the other two got on with their shenanigans in the next bed!
Despite many attempts, on my part, to get Arthur to divulge the identity of his room-mate I never succeeded beyond his telling me that the same guy went on to become the Select pilot for one of the foremost British shipping companies. So even a casual aside to Arthur such as, "what company did you say that old room-mate of yours was when you were in Southend", failed.
I'll never know now as I'm sure both of them have long ago crossed the bar.

The routine for maintaining a complement of pilots aboard the Dungeness cutter
The routine for maintaining a complement of pilots aboard the Dungeness cutter had, in all probability, remained unchanged during the hundred years before the film was shot in the 1960's-that is apart from moving from sail to steam and then to diesel.
(One of my pilot colleagues, as he walked to school along the sea front in Harwich, clearly remembers seeing his father going off to the Sunk cruising cutter in the sailing tender).
At certain times of the day or night, if the numbers aboard the cutter had fallen to a prescribed level, a "muster" was called, and this process began with a 'phone call from the pilots' "messenger" whose job it was to call the pilots, in alphabetical order, and inform them of their position on the roster.
That being done, the "told off" pilots would muster at the dock-head in Dover preparatory to going afloat in the tender in order to be taken the ten miles down to the cruising cutter at Dungeness. The pilots' messenger, during my entire 25 years on that station, had been a Mr Bill Munn, an ex. Port Line seaman. Bill knew all of the-at one time 106 of us-better than any, their likes their dislikes and their idiosyncrasies of which some had many.
The sound of Bill Munn's voice, speaking very softly to the sometimes half asleep pilot, still echoes in my ear, especially when he might be sympathetically announcing, "takes you last, sir". That would mean that you would be going away No.14 and might therefore expect to be-depending on demand-"knocking about" (in the jargon), at Dungeness for some considerable time.
Pilot Boarding Boats
Rafal, I can assure you that the boats were the same and not only interchangeable on the Bembridge but with any other of the Trinity House pilot cutters-they had to be, for if one was damaged and had to be replaced it would have presented a problem to quickly find a boat that fitted the davits. The hood was all steel, sides and top. Going afloat in those boats was no great hard-ship because it was usually in the lee of the ship one was called to, and the one of the 4 pilots in the "thumbnail" was them going off to the pilot tender anchored in the shelter of Dover harbour.
There were 4 kinds of "musters" of pilots called to top-up the complement in the cruising Dundeness cutter. Depending on the number falling to 8 a muster would take place at 10.30, or 1430. In order to, hopefully, avoid what was termed a "pyjama" muster the cutter would be topped up, if down to 8 pilots at 1800, for a "muster" at 2000. Should the cutter then run down to 4 pilots during the night a "muster" would be called at 2 hours notice. I can assure you that the pilots discarded their pyjamas and donned uniforms before dispiritedly going afloat from the "dump-head" in Dover on a dirty weather winter's night! Dump-head and Dungeness must be the two most uninspiring words to ever take their place in the English vocabulary.

Buoy Tenders
THV Patricia take passengers as she went about her vital duties of servicing buoys etc., I thought that some mention could be made of this sometimes hazardous job, undertaken in all weathers, and of the little mention it ever receives even in maritime circles.
I vividly remember once seeing such an operation going on in a full gale at the West Oaze buoy in the Thames Estuary.
The Trinity House buoy tender had anchored close to and up-wind from the buoy and, as the tide was flooding, she would lay part wind rode and part tide rode. Thus was created a lee for the boat to go away, latch onto the buoy, when a hardy young hand (a buoy jumper) would get aboard the buoy to deal with whatever needed to be dealt with. Brilliant, seamanship par excellence!
On that occasion I happened to be piloting a Russian ship and the captain was intrigued that this was going on in such conditions. I told him that in all of my years of piloting I had never experienced a buoy either unlit or out of position so what they were doing was quite normal for those guys.

The thumbnails are of similar operations going on in fair weather at the North Goodwin buoy and the Channel Automatic (unmanned light vessel)

Continuing on a similar theme: this is an example, of only a few square miles, of the complexity of buoyage in the Thames Estuary as it was some years ago.

The fouling of propellers
Following the end of the cruising pilot cutter system at Dungeness (I can only make reference to the Dungeness Pilot station) which occurred on the morning of 1st Ap.1967, the new system of shipping pilots by fast launch commenced at Folkestone.

One of the problems which then ensued was the fouling of propellers with the accursed non-biodegradable ropes and cordage which littered the sea. This is where I must make mention of my wife, Joy, and the services she frequently rendered freeing those launch propellers.
As far as I can recall, Captain Milward, Superintendent of Pilots, Dover was on one such occasion unable to get the services of a professional diver. However, somebody in the office recalled that Mrs Ferguson was an accomplished scuba diver and could possibly be of assistance.

Fortunately, both of us were at home to receive the call and within an hour had arrived at Folkestone: just an hour later and the launch was back in service.

I've forgotten just how many times my wife rendered this assistance, but I do recall that she was always free on every occasion that the call came, and trips to Ramsgate, the Camber in Dover and Folkestone to free fouled propellers became commonplace. Sometimes the job was easy, but occasionally it was a struggle on account of how quickly a knife blunted on that material ropes and cordage are made of these days.
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