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Isle of Wight Pilotage District by David Burdett


The development of a unified pilotage system was slow. Henry VIII first granted a charter to create the Corporation of Trinity House in 1514 when there was concern about ill-qualified foreign seafarers offering their services as pilots around the English Coast, especially the Thames with its many sandbanks. It was not until 1604 that James I conferred greater powers to Trinity House by making some pilotage compulsory and giving them exclusive rights to licence pilots in the River Thames. It was a further 200 years before George III extended the Trinity House jurisdiction by creating the Trinity House Outport Pilotage Districts in 1808. This was one affect of nation's increase in world trade and the the shipping it required.

In 1808 there were nearly a hundred pilots around the Island at Yarmouth, Cowes, Ryde, Nettlestone, St Helens, Bembridge and Atherfield. Some say that Seaview developed through local pilots setting up home there. These self-employed pilots either had their own boats or hired boats to take them out to ships requiring a pilot. In 1808 Trinity House was given the authority to examine and license pilots in the Solent area. It was decided that there should be 35 first class pilots and 35 second class pilots. The pilots were licensed for either the outward journey to the cutter or the inward journey but not for both.

By 1819 there were 150 pilots licensed for the Island District and stationed at Cowes or Portsmouth.

In 1844, with the increased trade generated by the new docks at Southampton, T.H. first licensed pilots for the separate Southampton District.

At this time a number of small sailing cutters, manned by 4 or 5 pilots cruised in or beyond the area in competition with one another. A rowing boat, manned members of the cutter crew, transferred the pilots. Keeping a sailing vessel on station and transferring pilots in all weathers must have been arduous but, at the time, there was no alternative.

In the T.H. annals there is a complaint recorded saying that when all the pilot cutters were afloat there were so many different types of pilot flag displayed that it was difficult to tell who were pilots and who were smugglers.

On February 20th 1886 the separate, independent, Cowes Pilotage District was incorporated with Portsmouth, despite strong protests from local authorities on the Island who complained about loss of pilotage rights and privileges. It was required that pilots should reside at Portsmouth.

By 1899 the position had become more ordered and the Needles station was served by two cruising sailing cutters. Some of the vessels in service at that time being Agenoria, Osprey, Neptune, Spider, Hornet and Hesperus

In 1907 the Southampton District was incorporated with the Portsmouth District to form the Isle of Wight District Pilotage Service, continuing to provide two cutters at the Needles.

In 1910 T.H. took on the responsibility of providing the cutter service from the pilots. The pilots were self-employed and paid Trinity House out of their earnings for the support service Trinity House supplied. In those days the boarding service was carried out by sailing cutters.

In 1910 T.H. had two auxiliary ketches built. These were the Solent and the St Helens. They were 60 feet in length with a speed of 6/7 knots under power. The Solent was sunk when in collision with the troopship Duffrin off the Needles in 1912.

In 1913 an Act of Parliament was passed in order to ensure the uniformity of pilotage services.

Over the years there were many changes. Prior to World War I there were pilots on the Dover/Deal area that were licensed to pilot ships from Gravesend in the Thames as far as the Needles.

Maintaining a cutter on station continually was not always easy. On September 17th 1921 there was a sever gale. The Needles pilot cutter was anchored, sheltering in Totland Bay. Suddenly her anchor cable parted. The auxiliary engine would not start. Three more anchors were deployed but still she dragged. Two of the anchors gave way but the third held just as the cutter was approaching the shore and nearly aground. The auxiliary engine was eventually started and the cutter proceeded under power to deep water. The Coastguard had been standing by to rescue the crew from the beach. Fortunately they were not needed.

With the advent of steam power and diesel engines, the boarding task became easier. Initially the cutters were small motor-sailers such as the Woodbridge, No.4, that can be seen in a photograph showing it on its moorings in the Medina. She carried a rowing boat for transfers. The jetty belonged to East Cowes Sailing club, behind the Victoria Tavern (commonly known as Myram’s after a former landlord). The Pilotage Depot was located at the bottom of Minerva Road in what became the RNLI offices. It consisted of a flat-roofed store and workshop with offices above for the Superintendent, clerical officer and secretary. There was also an anchor store located at the depot and supplies for the lighthouses were kept here during WW2.

Superintendent Edward John "Bungy” Young lived at 41 Osborne Road, East Cowes, and had an office there at one time. He had joined the T H Pilotage Service in 1912 at the age of 32. By 1932 he was Superintendent of Pilotage at East Cowes. As Superintendent he was responsible for the maintenance and smooth running of the fleet of vessels that conveyed pilots to and from the ships as they entered and left the Solent. The Historical Notes on the Osborne Masonic Lodge, based in Osborne Road, show that Edward Young was a member. It is recorded that in 1932 he presented a ship's bell to the Lodge. It hangs in the Banqueting Hall of the Lodge and is rung every Lodge Night at three bells, half past nine, to herald the toast to Absent Brethren. He retired as Superintendent in 1950 at the age of 70 and continued to live in Osborne Road. He is recorded in the burial records as having died on the 28th of February 1955 at 43 Osborne Road at the age of 75. He is buried in Kingston Cemetery, East Cowes, with his wife Ada Elizabeth who died in the same house on 19th December1958 aged 82.

The Pilotage secretary was Eileen Millmore. Edward Young was followed as Superintendent by Captain Fraser, then Danny Perkins and finally Ron Birkin before the post was down-graded to officer-in-charge.

Ronald Trevor Birkin was born in north London. He was encouraged by his father to go into the Merchant Navy. He was a cadet on the training ship Worcester in the Thames then joined the New Zealand Shipping Company. At the outbreak of World War Two he enrolled in the Royal Naval Reserve and served in Royal Navy ships during the war. After the War he joined Trinity House on the 30th December 1946. Initially he served in the Steamvessel Service of the Corporation. His brother Timothy also joined Trinity House and eventually became Commander of one of the tenders. Between December 1946 and August 1948 Ronald served as a junior officer on the Trintity House Vessels (THV) Satellite, Discovery II, Barmouth, Patricia, Barndale, and Beacon on the Penzance, London, Swansea, Harwich and Cowes Districts respectively. On the 15th of June 1953 Ronald was Second Officer on their flagship THV Patricia whose duty was to lead the Royal Yacht through the Fleet during the Coronation Review at Spithead.. During the celebrations Sir Winston Churchill, as the Master of Trinity House, visited THV Patricia and there is a photograph of Ronald shaking hands with Sir Winston as he was presented to the ship's officers. On the 1st September 1956 Ronald was promoted to First Officer of the Patricia. In 1960 Ronald transferred from the Steam Vessel Service to the Pilotage Department and was promoted to the rank of Captain as the Superintendent of the Isle of Wight District. In 1962 he was living at Hazelgrove, Pallance Road, Northwood. Later he moved to Place Road Cowes. On the 9th December 1970 Earl Mountbatten of Burma, Governor of the Isle of Wight, wrote to Captain Birkin thanking him very much for providing a Pilot Launch at short notice to take the Earl back to Portsmouth from Ryde. It was a comfortable and fast trip which gave him plenty of time to catch the train to London. He had written separately to Second Officer Williams who was in charge of the launch. The Earl signed the letter personally. Ronald Birkin resigned from the T.H. Service on the 31st January 1973. On his retirement the post of Superintendent was discontinued leaving an Engineer-in-charge at the East Cowes Depot and an Officer-in-charge at Ryde.

By the 1930s the auxiliary motor-sailers were proving inadequate for the service and were replaced by larger coal-fired steam-powered cutters that could more easily remain on station. The Brook, No.2, was built in 1932 at Birkenhead and carried a small motor launch for the transfer of pilots. She was the last steam powered pilot vessel built for Trinity House and was converted to oil-fired in 1947. She had a crew of 17. She was joined by a similar vessel, the Gurnard, No.3. The diesel-powered Bembridge, No.9, was built for the Solent area and served here from 1938 until 1946 when she transferred to the Dover station. She did not return here until she replaced the Penda when the Needles station was replaced by launches in 1961. The Penda, a motor yacht originally named St George built in 1927 at Gosport, was converted to a pilot cutter in 1946. In 1946 the boilers of the Brook and Gurnard were converted to burn oil rather than coal. This made life much better for the engine room staff. In 1961 the Gurnard was scrapped and the Penda was transferred to Harwich. The Nab station was then serviced by the Brook and the Bembridge. The Brook was the last cutter to leave the local service when the launches took over completely.

From the late 1930s until 1961 three cutters maintained the two pilotage stations, one at the approaches to the Needles’ Channel and one at the Nab. A cutter would man the station at the Needles for a fortnight then have a week in Cowes for servicing and on standby. It would then take over the station at the Nab for a fortnight. It would then return to Cowes for a week on standby.

The arriving ships would communicate with the duty cutter by MF radio operated by the radio officer to give the time of their arrival. There were six cabins for inward pilots waiting for a ship. There was always a "duty pilot” on board. Replacement inward pilots for the Needles station would be collected from Yarmouth or Totland by a small pilot’s relief boat. The outward pilots would wait for a boat to take them ashore to Yarmouth, then latterly Totland, from where they would make their own way home by bus, train or taxi. There could be up to 7 or 8 pilots on board at any one time.

Each cutter carried a crew of nineteen consisting of:

3 navigating officers,
3 engineer officers,
8 seamen,
2 greasers,
a cook,
a steward
and a cabin boy.

The officers did watches of four hours with eight hours off. The ratings did four hours on and four hours off. The seamen were in two groups of four with two men in the launch taking the pilot and two on deck launching and recovering the boat. The crew had every third week off when the ship was in Cowes and additional holidays when the ship went for refit. In 1951 a second officer received £8.0.0d a week but a third engineer received £7.10.0d, which was considered unfair. Soon afterwards they were put on the same pay scale. Out of their wages the men would have to pay a Mess Bill of about £2.0.0d. They supplied their own dry stores, so it was normal in the officers mess to see six different small teapots lined up for each officer to brew his own tea.

The hazards and numerous casualties experienced by the Pilots boarding or disembarking from vessels at sea are well known. However there were other hazards for the crews of the cutters. A fatal occurrence took place on Tuesday, 27th May 1958. The Isle of Wight County Press reported that it appears that at about 10.30 pm, Mr W.C.Mouland, of 7, St Mary’s Road Cowes, who was the watchman on the Penlee took a 12 foot dinghy the short distance from the moorings to the East Cowes Sailing Club landing stage to pick up five members of the crew who had spent the evening in the Town. When they got back to the Penlee, Mr H.E. Cheeseman (steward) and Mr M.C. Marsh (able seaman) safely boarded the cutter. When Mr Sidney Kirkaldie Burgess, aged 55 of 33 Boundary Road, Ramsgate, (greaser) was going up the ladder he lost his grip and fell on the man following him. They both fell onto the dinghy causing it to capsize, throwing all four men into the water. There was a strong ebb running at the time. Mr Mouland and Mr J.L. Sharpe (able seaman) were picked up by another boat from the cutter [it would appear that there were more crew members on board]. Able seaman C.T. Mather, of Dover, dived into the river and was able to prevent Mr Sharp from being swept under an R.A.F. landing craft moored downstream and these two were also picked up. Police Constable M.J. Simmonds joined in the search for the other two men – Mr Burgess and Mr Thomas A. Hughes, a cook aged 36 of Grove Park, Lee, London. The search continued until 3.00 a.am. without success. The body of Mr Burgess was recovered from the river off Messrs J. Samuel White’s shipyard on Wednesday morning by employees of the firm, but Hughes is still missing.

This account raises some questions. It would appear that the Penlee may have been sent from Dover or Harwich while one of the local cutters was in drydock.

By 1960 the cutters were all well over twenty five years old. The cost of replacing the cutters and the on-going cost of the 57 men who manned them was considerable. The ship owners always complained that the Light Dues they paid to run Trinity House were too expensive. The Board of Trinity House decided to use a different system of delivering the pilots to their ships.

On the 29th March 1961 a new T.H. pilot station was opened at Totland Bay using high-speed launches. The cruising cutter service at the Needles closed with the Penda being the last cutter on duty. She then proceeded to Cowes for few days before being transferred to the Harwich Pilotage District. In 1968 she was laid up at Cowes awaiting a decision on her future. The Gurnard was scrapped. The Brook and Bembridge, which was transferred from Dover, continued to maintain the Nab pilot station under the command of Captains B.H.A.Scott and A.S.Baynes respectively. The cutter moorings were still opposite Marvin’s Yard on the west bank of the Medina but the new pilot launches were serviced at the Depot off the High Street in East Cowes.

The Bembridge was sold in 1971 to Arundel Priory in Sussex. Later she was purchased by Magemar Polska Sp. and has been restored in Poland. She is now in good condition and is being used as a Museum of Pilotage and a conference centre.(see www.bembridge.pl)

A house had been built, overlooking Totland Pier to provide accommodation for pilots to wait ashore until required for inbound vessels. The new station stood on a site of approximately half an acre on the cliff top due east of Totland Pier. It was necessary to carry out extensive re-shaping of the site to provide a level plateau for the building and car parking space. The outer walls were of cavity construction, built of bricks made on the Island and the low-pitched roof was covered with copper. Although sited some 150 feet from the cliff edge the station, particularly the interior, had a distinctly nautical atmosphere with its cabin accommodation for five pilots and the commanding "bridge-like” view over the whole of the bay from the double-glazed plate-glass window of the spacious sitting room. There were three divans in this room that could be converted into six beds to provide additional sleeping accommodation at short notice. Near the large window overlooking the bay was a switchboard connected to two telephones by each pilots bed – one direct line to the pier head and the launch and the other to the Freshwater exchange. There was also radio equipment and visual signalling apparatus. There was also an electric kettle and a small cooking grill.

There was a caretaker for the station who lived in a self-contained flat on the ground floor. The kitchen was fully fitted with the latest equipment. Central heating and hot water supplies were provided by an automatic oil-fired boiler located outside the main building. The building was designed by Messrs Drivers, Jonas & Co. and erected by Messrs W. Downer (IW) Ltd. Edward Watts & Sons Ltd and Vectis Electrical Installations, both of Cowes, provided the heating and electrical installations respectively.

Three seventy-foot high-speed launches were purchased for the Needles station. These were based at Totland Pier until required to transfer a pilot. The Leader, built in 1957, was the first of the launches to take up duty. The others were developments of the Leader and named Link and Landward, both built in 1960 by Phillips & Son of Dartmouth to a design by Peter Thorneycroft Landward had her day of fame when she led the funeral procession for Sir Winston Churchill up the Thames in 1965. She continued in the service until sold in 1978. She was seen in 2006 at Medway Bridge Marina, Rochester for sale at £160,000, having been refitted in 1981.

The Needles launches were fitted with twin Rolls Royce supercharged engines that gave a service speed of 15 knots. They were fitted with radar and both M.F. and V.H.F. radios. Improvements in short range VHF radios allowed a ship’s navigating officer on the Bridge to speak directly to the launches, giving them an accurate time of arrival. The launches were manned by an officer, engineer and two seamen.

The Nab launch ran a two-hourly service from Ryde Pier Head, taking pilots to the duty cutter, from 0730 until 2130. The pilots remained on the cutter until their ship arrived when they would be transferred by small boat.

In 1965 The East Cowes Depot, in the High Street, was extended and rebuilt. The pilotage service was invited to move into a boat store and offices in the new building. Ron Birkin moved his staff and operations from Clarence Road to the new facilities. So there were two Superintendent at the Depot, one for the Lights Department looking after the lighthouses, light vessels and buoys, and one for the Pilotage Department. There was a seniority order of Pilotage districts. The Pilotage Superintendents at Harwich and Folkestone wore four rings of braid on their uniform while Superintendents at "Outports” such as East Cowes were entitled to only three rings. The Superintendents office was located on the right of the entrance to the office block.

In 1968 there were 800 Trinity House Pilots. 550 were in the London District and the remainder in forty other districts. The 34 Inward pilots of the Isle of Wight Pilotage District lived on the Island. The Outward pilots lived on the mainland. While the Pilotage District was responsible to Trinity House in London, there was also a local body of Sub Commissioners of Pilotage based at Southampton. They ensured that the By-laws governing conduct and remuneration of the pilots were observed. Local By-laws confirmed by the Ministry of Transport set the rates that pilots charge the shipowners for their services. Their liabilities were limited to £100 plus their fee as they are only advisory and the Master remains in complete charge with full responsibility. The Sub Commissioners were drawn from mariners, shipowners and Inward and Outward pilots. The Pilots had their own committee, treasurer and secretary.

In 1969 a pilot station was set up at the end of Ryde Pier. There had been an office for pilots in Union Street and now accommodation was added. The establishment of the Ryde pilot station marked the end of the Nab cruising cutters. They were withdrawn from service and replaced by two forty foot high speed launches based at the pier.

By the time Ron Birkin retired on the 31st January 1973 there were no pilot cutters on the Isle of Wight District. The service was operated by fast motor launches. The position of Superintendent was discontinued and Jack Sharpe took over the senior position as Officer-in-Charge. Ryde Pier Head became the office for him until he was promoted to Superintendent of Pilots at Harwich. Peter Trafford took over the post until the Pilotage District was discontinued in 1988.

Most of the launches were built at Bembridge – Nelson craft built to the design of Commander Thornycroft. Their names were Vigil, Versatile, Valid, Vanquisher, Velonia, Vagrant, Van Dyke and Valkyrie. Other pilot launches built at Bembridge were tested in the Solent before being taken to other districts at Dover, Harwich, Middlesborough, Liverpool or Whitehaven. Generally Arthur Morris checked the engines in his capacity as Engineer-in-Charge of the pilotage district from 1966, based at the East Cowes Depot. In his youth, Arthur had been unable to go to sea due to a medical condition but had completed an engineering apprenticeship at the London Graving Dock. A Trinity House pilot cutter was in for overhaul when Arthur learnt that he would be able to get a job on pilot cutters. He joined his first cutter, the Brook, at the Needles in 1950 in a force 7 gale. He could not look at rice pudding again for many years!

Maintenance of all the launches was carried out at East Cowes. On one occasion one of the launches reported loss of all propulsion on one engine. The launch returned to the depot on the other engine. The Depot crane lifted the stern of the launch out of the water to confirm that the propeller had fallen off but the engineers were surprised to see a discarded car tyre neatly placed over the tips of the propeller as if on the wheel of a car. A grid iron was built alongside the north wall of the Depot on which the launches were serviced between tides. This bay was once know to the locals as Blood Bay due to the presence of a number of butchers nearby who disposed of unwanted produce by throwing it into the harbour.

Between the 1960’s and 1980’s the various Pilotage Districts were supported by the Pilotage Engineering Department based at Tower Hill. This department was under the leadership of Jimmy McCloud and his deputy, Eric Kill. They were responsible for the new build and maintenance of the Trinity House launches.

The Isle of Wight Pilotage District at this time had a support staff of sixteen unformed officers, twenty ratings and seven coxswains with two boatmen at Portsmouth. They operated five pilot launches, a 30-footer at Portsmouth, 40-footers at Southampton and Totland and two at Ryde.

When Chris Bancroft joined the Trinity House Pilot Cutter Service in 1976 there were 61 pilots on the roster. By 1988 there were only 49. The reduction in numbers was partly due to the decreasing number of ships visiting the Solent ports but another reason was that there was a considerable number reaching retirement at about the same time.

In 1988 the government removed the responsibility for maintaining pilotage districts away from Trinity House and gave it to the local harbour authorities. This reduced the demands on the Trinity House budget. The pilotage for Southampton is now run by Associated British Ports at Southampton Docks. The assets, including the launches together with some of the crews, were transferred to Associated British Ports (Southampton) and the Trinity House Pilotage in East Cowes closed down. ABP are also responsible for the buoyage in Southampton Water as well as the Calshot light float.

In 1995 Southampton had 36 pilots, Cowes 3 and Portsmouth 4.

The bell from the Penda and some old photographs now decorate the pilot’s lounge in the pilots accommodation at Dock Head in Southampton. Other archives were given to the Southampton City Archives.

David Burdett


The following pictures we made during our very pleasant visit in East Cowes Heritage Centre in 2011:


From the left: our great friend Barrie Davey, Rafal, David and Sarah Burdett


From left: David Burdett, Rafal, Kamil and Sarah Burdett
About David Burdett
This article is written  by David Burdett, an Old Conway who served part of his career with the Trinity House Steam vessel Service and is writing a book on TH at East Cowes, including pilotage. David helped to establish the East Cowes Heritage Centre in1992 and now spends his time running the I.O.W Society. This Article was before published in The Cachalot, so the Newsletter of the Southampton Master Mariners' Club. Then David said: I shall be very grateful if you would include the attached article in an edition of the Cachalot as it will let a wider audience know of my research and provide a chance to correct any mistakes I have made and possibly add to the information. For example I have no information about what happened to the pilotage service during the two World Wars, nor have I included anything about Portsmouth pilotage when the Trinity House service was terminated.  Please point out that I am not a serious researcher and the article is based on a casual collection of information so is liable to inaccuracies.

Any information and memories that anybody might have will be gratefully received and passed on to David.


David and Sarah in the front of their famous East Cowes Heritage Centre


David and Sarah Burdett
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