A History of the Shields Pilots up to 1900

Pilot Flags
Pilot Flags

From the Borough Book of South Shields

History of the Shields Pilots up to 1900

Exactly how old is the institution of pilotage on the Tyne it is impossible to say. Originally pilotage was confined exclusively to the members of the Trinity House of Newcastle which was incorporated by Charter of Henry VIII, dated October 5 th 1536, but it is probable that the Trinity Brethren had charge of the pilot service before that date, since the oldest existing Order Book of the House, commencing in 1539, not only makes several references to pilotage – the pilot dues being called ‘loadmannage’ – but also refers to still older entries in ‘the owyld loadmannage bouke’ now lost.

The powers of Trinity House were extended and confirmed by Charters of Edward VI (October 20th 1548) and Mary (May 21st 1553). Newcastle Corporation in 1584 disputed the exclusive claim of the Trinity Brethren to pilot all ships of strangers in and out of the Tyne, contending that pilotage had always been voluntary on all ships, but the Charter of Elizabeth, granted the same year, appears to have confirmed the claim of Trinity House. That of James I, dated January 18th 1606, extended jurisdiction of the House to ‘Blyth, Sunderland, Hartlepool, Whitby and Staithes, commonly called Steays’ (a pronunciation still preserved amongst seafaring folk). It left the taking of a pilot optional on the owner, master, or purser of the ship, and fixed the ‘loadmannage’ or pilot fees at 12d. per foot draught on laden, and 8d per foot on light vessels. By the Great Charter of James II, dated 1687, the jurisdiction of Newcastle Trinity House was extended over the whole coast from Whitby to Holy Island . Trinity Brethren and pilots were relieved of the duty of bearing arms, or serving on juries, and exempted from impressments in the navy. The office of ‘Pylott’ was not, however, specially confined to members of Trinity House informative post.

According to their reply to Gardner ‘s charges, Trinity House, from at least Commonwealth times, maintained a service of resident pilots at Shields, but with the throwing open of the port to non – members of Trinity House, the pilotage service became more and more exclusively recruited from the seafaring community of South Shields . The exigencies of their calling led to the pilots taking up their residences on or near the Lawe, commanding an outlook over the entrance to the port, while the practice of taking only sons or relatives of pilots to serve in cobles in time rendered the pilot service an almost exclusive caste, confined to the members of certain families. This practice was recognised and sanctioned by Trinity House, who by resolution directed that ‘persons applying for branches to pilot ships in or out of Sunderland or Shields Harbour, unless they are of the families of the present pilots, or of Brethren of Trinity House, to be refused, it being thought right to confine the list of pilots for those places entirely to the relatives of those who have always followed that occupation.’ There was originally no formal examination of pilots as to their technical skill before granting ‘branches’, the appointments being made upon certificates signed by shipmasters and owners, testifying to the character and ability of the applicant to discharge the duties of a pilot. This was no mere matter of form, as a respectable South Shieldsman , Joseph Roxby, discovered. He had signed John Errington’s certificate in May 1759, and was fined £10 by the Trinity Brethren on it appearing that Errington could not write his name, and therefore was unable to take charge of a ship as pilot.’ The duties of the Shields or ‘Barr’ pilots were confined to conducting ships in and out of the harbour and over the ‘Barr’ as it is always called in the old records, but they were not allowed to take any vessel above Whitehill Point. That duty devolved upon the town or river pilots, who were subdivided into the up-river and down-river men, whose functions are sufficiently indicated by their names, one class taking vessels from the harbour up to their berths, the other piloting the laden vessels down to the harbour. Besides the pilotage service of the port, Newcastle Trinity House issued ‘sea branches’ to men corresponding to the present North Sea pilots, who must be members of Trinity House, and who took charge of ships not only up and down the East Coast, but also to the Orkneys and North of Scotland, the Firth of Forth, and down Channel, and into the Mediterranean; to Continental ports, Norway, and up to the Baltic.

The Barr pilots were under the control and direction of an official known as the ‘Captain of the Pilots’ who was appointed from the list of Elder Brethren of Trinity House. The earliest appointment recorded is that of Joseph Reed in 1724. He was succeeded in 1738 by Loftus Danby, who appears to have held the office for many years, as in August 1754 Mathias Giles was appointed ‘to look after the pilots that they keep regular turns, the pilots paying no regard to Thomas Medley, who is the orderer under Loftus Danby, who is almost blind.’ At that time the pilots paid one shilling per ship as ‘turn money’ which appears to have gone entirely to the pilot master. Danby seems to have been succeeded by Captain William Errington, a man of prodigious strength, who was an Elder Brother of Trinity House at the time of the Pretender’s rebellion in 1745, and, with several other Brethren, went to Carlisle to help to work the guns in the Royal army during the siege of that town.

He died in 1773, while holding the pilot captaincy. A strict discipline was exercised over the pilots, and breaches of rule, neglect of duty or inefficiency, were punished by fines or suspension, or even the revocation of the pilot’s licence (which cost 10s 6d per annum) a sentence usually recorded in the Order Book as being broke, never to take charge of any ship as pilot again. There was a regulated system of turns, but this did not deter the right of selection on the part of the shipmasters Indeed there seems to have been some sort of a ‘choice’ or ‘constant’ pilotage system, as in December 1748 it was ordered that ‘if any master or commander of any ship or vessel desires to employ or fixes upon a particular pilot either at Newcastle or Shields, that pilot shall be entitled to the whole pilotage, not withstanding it may not be his turn’ Severe penalties were imposed upon pilots ‘poaching’ on the work of any but their own class, Bar pilots being repeatedly fined for ‘taking upon themselves to bring ships to Newcastle without having a river branch,’ and river pilots for taking ships in and out over the Bar.

The ‘beacons’ so well known at South Shields, were erected by Trinity House for the guidance of the pilots in the latter part of the eighteenth century. In October 1772 it was proposed to plant a beacon on a part of the Herd Sand opposite the Low Lights, whereupon the Dean and Chapter of Durham, in virtue of their claim to the foreshore, required the Brethren to take a lease of the site, but ‘Lawyer Fawcett’ advised that as the post was in the sand, which would be overflowed every tide, no lease was necessary. It is probable that the beacon was erected forthwith, although there is no direct mention of the fact. In March 1786, the House placed a beacon on the Herd Sand edge at a cost of £15. In the following year a buoy was placed on the Mussel Scarp, and in September 1789 another beacon was placed ‘upon the Spitt that runs off the Herd Sand towards the Channel’ while at the same time a ring was placed in one of the great stones upon the Middens for ships to make fast to. Probably these buoys and beacons were too low to be of service, for in September 1799 we find the Shields shipowners representing to Trinity House the ‘serious necessity of immediately erecting two leading beacons on the south side of the harbour, with buoys on each side of the channel, and proper directions for taking the same’ A like petition from the shipmasters of Scarborough was presented, and Trinity House promptly complied with the prayer, the beacons in the shape of two ‘copes’ or poles with triangles on the top, being erected on the Lawe on land purchased from Mr. green. These first Lawe beacons were replaced in 1832 by the brick pillars, still in existence, erected at a cost of £60 by John Turnbull.

Under the Newcastle Port Act of 1801 Trinity House was empowered to examine all applicants for pilots’ ‘branches’ to issue licences to those who gave satisfactory proof of skill, knowledge and experience, and to punish by fines, suspension, or the cancellation of their ‘branches’ (pilots’ licences were originally called ‘branches of Charter’) pilots guilty of negligence, misconduct, etc. Pilotage was to be compulsory on all foreign ships, but optional on English vessels, the pilotage rate being on British vessels, in and out of harbour and over the Bar, 1s. 3d. per foot draught in summer (April to September) and 1s. 6d. per foot in winter; and for river pilotage, to or from above Bill Point , 1s. per foot. Foreign vessels paid 6d. per foot more in every case.

Under this Act Joseph Hogg, an Elder Brother, was appointed pilot ruler at South Shields , on March 7 th 1803, at £200 per annum. John Thompson succeeded him in 1815, William Pearson in 1845, and James Kelly, the last ruler appointed by Trinity House, in 1864. The examinations for pilotage certificates, which the Act rendered compulsory, were from an early date, entrusted by Trinity House to a committee of the most experienced pilots, under the pilot master, who ‘examined candidates as to their knowledge of the marks, currents, and shoals of the entrance or river, as the case may be’ and of the proper handling of ships under different circumstances, a thorough knowledge of seamanship being a requisite qualification. On passing the examination they received ‘Acting Orders’ enabling them to take charge of a ship not exeeding 12 keels burden, in the absence of a regular pilot, and were admitted to the class of full pilots as vacancies occurred. The pilots were required to make periodical soundings of the river and report thereon. Upon the appointment of each pilot, he entered into a bond with two sureties, to Trinity House, for the due performance of his duties, undertaking to obey the orders of the pilot master, serve in the lifeboats etc. Every pilot was required to make a return to the pilot master of the vessels he had piloted and the amount of dues he had received, and to contribute 6d. (subsequently increased to 1s.) on each ship he piloted into or out of the harbour, or in the case of river pilots 1s. on each ship taken up and down the river.

Pilots who were freemen of Newcastle paid only half these amounts. Out of the funds so contributed the salaries of the pilot masters at Shields and Newcastle were paid, and the surplus Trinity House, ‘aware of the inconsiderateness of the class men appointed as pilots’ (to quote from their own books) invested in the public funds, applying the interest in behalf of disabled or superannuated pilots, and of their widows and orphans, according to circumstances. The River and Sea Funds were kept distinct. Every pilot , on attaining the age of sixty, had a claim to a pension of £6 per annum, with £2 for his wife. The surplus of the fund amounted in 1803, the first year of its institution, to £119 3s. 9d.; in 1804 to £ 189 4s. 8d.; in 1805 to £195 17s.; in 1806 to £197 8s.; in 1807 to £153 10s. The administration of this fund gave rise to grave dissatisfaction on the part of the pilots, who were in no way represented in its management, and who , not being freemen of Newcastle , could not become members of Trinity House, while the Brethren refused all information on the subject.

Another long-standing grievance of the pilots was in reference to what was known as the Reciprocity Money. Down to 1824 pilotage was compulsory on all foreign ships. In that year Lord Liverpool’s Government carried through Parliament the Reciprocity Act, which provided that when any foreign country opened its ports to our vessels on the same terms as its own, its ships should have equal privileges with our own British ports. This of course, amongst other things, precluded such vessels being charged higher pilotage rates than British ships paid. To compensate for the loss the pilots would thus sustain, Government paid each year to the Newcastle Trinity House a sum equal to the difference between the pilotage actually received upon foreign ships trading to the Tyne under Reciprocity Treaties, and the full amount which would have been chargeable under the old system. The Trinity Brethren charged the Treasury with the full difference between the rates on foreign and British ships for both bar and river pilotage, on all vessels entering the Port under the Reciprocity arrangement, although many never went beyond Shields Harbour, but the pilots were paid ‘Compensation Money’ or as the pilots termed it, Reciprocity Money, only on the Treaty-free vessels actually piloted by them, as shown by tickets signed by the master or agent, while many ‘commissions’ for the payment of various officials of Trinity House were deducted from that amount. The difference between the sum received from Government and that distributed to the pilots, Trinity House called ‘unclaimed’ pilotage

and proposed to hand it over to the respective Superannuation Funds of sea and river pilots. The pilots contended, however, that Trinity House had no right to retain any of the money; that the whole amount received from Government should be distributed amongst them or at least full accounts should be given of the surplus devoted to the pilots’ funds. But no accounts of the funds were published by Trinity House. In September 1846 the South Shields pilots presented a memorial to Trinity House, asking assistance towards building cottages for old and infirm pilots, to which they proposed to devote their Reciprocity Money. Trinity House agreed to head the subscription with £200, provided that the Master of that body be one of the trustees. This benevolent scheme, which was probably suggested by the founding of the Master Mariners’ Cottages by Dr. Winterbottom, was for some reason or other never carried out. The pilots also requested Trinity House to assist them in making some provision to get to sea in bad weather, when their cobles could not leave the harbour. The pilots had already constructed ways and erected a winch at Manhaven for launching and hauling up their cobles, but they found that this was insufficient, and asked Trinity House to purchase from the accumulated funds in their possession, a steamboat capable of taking them to sea in heavy weather. Trinity House, however, refused, and the pilots themselves eventually provided a steamer, which was launched from Woodhouse’s Yard, South Shields, on January 23 rd 1852 and christened the ‘Pilot’ while a second steamer, the ‘Robert Ingham’ was obtained in May 1855.

It was really over the question of the Reciprocity Money that the open breach between the pilots and Trinity House took place, which eventually resulted in the pilotage jurisdiction of the latter being entirely abolished. The Harbour and Passing Tolls Act of 1861, which abolished differential dues on foreign ships using English ports, also discontinued the payments from the Treasury of the Reciprocity Money to pilots, already described, but as compensation, the pilots were to receive for ten years a sum equal to the Reciprocity Money paid in 1861. Under this arrangement a sum of about £6400 per annum was handed over to the Trinity House of Newcastle, in respect of Tyne pilotage, of which £3302 was on account of river pilotage and the balance for sea pilotage. The Trinity Brethren, however, declined to distribute to the pilots any more than the sums actually paid over to them in 1861, namely, £1138 to the river pilots and £2187 to the sea pilots, retaining the balance of over £3000 as ‘unclaimed pilotage’ while the pilots still had to pay out of the sum handed over to them, the ‘commissions’ to Trinity House officials, amounting to about £340 per annum, and including 3 ½ per cent. to the secretary, and 5 per cent to the Receiver and Collector, the latter an Elder Brother of the House, whose sole duty was to obtain from the Custom-House a list of the foreign vessels entered and cleared, and to convey the Reciprocity Money quarterly from the Custom-House to Trinity House, while the river and sea pilot-masters each received 5 per cent commission on the sums they paid over to the pilots. The pilots, acting under legal advice, declined to send in tickets, and claimed that the whole amount of Compensation Money received should be distributed. John Hutchinson and Robert Blair, ‘two of the most respected pilots,’ were in October 1862 deputed by their fellows to once more request from Trinity House the distribution of the Compensation Money in full, and also information as to the state of the Superannuation and Widows’ Funds. On attending they were ordered by the Brethren to lay down their ‘branches’ and on so complying, were told that their licences were forfeited for insubordination, and that the Trinity Brethren refused to give any information as to the fund.

The general body of pilots took up the cause of Hutchinson and Blair, and consulted the ‘Pitman’s Attorney,’ Roberts of Manchester, and also Mr. Hobbhouse, Q.C., with a view to taking proceedings against Trinity House to compel the distribution of the whole of the Compensation Money. Twelve South Shields pilots were thereupon summoned to appear, in November the same year, before the Elder Brethren, ‘to answer any complaint,’ and were further told to bring their ‘branches’ with them. The whole body of pilots determined to resist what they considered an attempt to overawe them and more than a hundred accompanied the twelve to Newcastle . The summoned men were ordered to lay down their ‘branches’ but refused, and the whole body announced their determination to stand by them, and not send in the foreign tickets. Trinity House retaliated by dissolving the Pilots’ Committee, which had hitherto conducted the examinations for licences, and transferred that duty to a Committee of Elder Brethren. The new examining authority proceeded to licence as inward pilots a number of Cullercoats fishermen, who had not served the apprenticeship in the pilot cobles hitherto required of all candidates. This was done ostensibly on the ground that the Cullercoats men could put to sea when the Shieldsmen could not, but, as the pilots believed in reality as a punishment to the South Shieldsmen for their agitation. The pilots despatched Hutchinson and Blair to London to lay their case before the Board of Trade. Mr. Ingham raised the whole question in the House of Commons, and in the session of 1863 succeeded in obtaining an order for a return to be made by Trinity House, showing the amount in hand to the credit of the Superannuation and Widows’ Funds, and also the manner in which the Compensation Money had been distributed. The returns showed that the Superannuation Fund at the end of 1862 a balance, on account of River Pilots Fund, of £11,166 16s. 10d. the income for the year having been £601, and the expenditure, for salaries and expenses, £245, and in pensions £231. The balance to credit of the Sea Pilots’ Fund was £8915, the yearly income being £793, and the expenditure, in salaries and expenses, £249, and in pensions £596. The items of ‘income’ returned, however, did not include the sums retained as ‘unclaimed pilotage’ in either case, although Trinity House still declined to distribute more than the £3207 obtained by the pilots in 1861.

The Merchant Shipping Act of 1862 empowered the Board of Trade to transfer the pilotage jurisdiction in each port to a representative body. Under this Act the pilots, in May 1863, petitioned Parliament for the creation of an elective Pilotage Board for the Tyne , including representatives of the pilots themselves. In the same month Mr. J.C. Stevenson carried a motion in the Tyne Commission in favour of the control of the pilotage being transferred to a committee of that body, with advisory members appointed by the Local Marine Boards, the Shipowners’ Societies, and the pilots, the cost of administration to be borne by the Tyne Commissioners, thus saving to the Pilots’ Superannuation Fund the £500 a year then charged for administration. Early in 1864 the South Shields Corporation, in conjunction with the Shipowners’ committee and the pilots, applied for a Provisional Order for the creation of a Pilotage Board, and the transfer to that body of the pilotage jurisdiction and the licensing and control of pilots in the Tyne, together with all funds in the hands of Trinity House properly applicable to such jurisdiction or belonging to the pilots. The Board was to consist of seventeen Commissioners, of whom three were to be appointed by the Board of Trade, two by the Tyne Improvement Commissioners, and three each by the pilots and the registered shipowners of Newcastle , North Shields and South Shields . The Commissioners were to examine and license fit persons as pilots, who must have served five years in the cobles before being licensed. The pilotage rates were to remain unaltered. Compensation was to be paid to any Trinity House servants whose services were dispensed with. The Bill confirming the Order was strongly opposed by Trinity House, but a Select Committee of the House of Commons passed it with amendment, giving Trinity House three representatives, one each being taken from the Board of Trade, the Tyne Commission, and pilots.

The House of Lords on July 26 th dropped the Bill on the plea of lateness of the session, but it was revived in the following session, and became law on June 19 th 1865, as the Tyne Pilotage Act. It created a Commission of seventeen members, five appointed by Trinity House, and two each by the Tyne Commissioners, the Board of Trade, the pilots, and the shipowners of Newcastle , Tynemouth and South Shields . The first Pilotage Board, elected July 10 th 1865, was constituted as under:-

Appointed by the Board of Trade; Thomas Salmon, Mathew Hall Atkinson.

By the Tyne Improvement Commission; J.C. Stevenson, John Ormston.

By the Pilots; John Hutchinson, Robert Blair.

By the Shipowners of Newcastle ; Henry Milvain, Thomas Kemp Belts.

By the Shipowners of Tynemouth ; George Cleugh, John Morrison.

By the Shipowners of South Shields ; Matthew Cay, John Lawrence Hall.

By Trinity House; J.J. Robertson (Master) Thomas Brown Bell (Deputy Master) Richard Swan, Joseph Swan and George Arnott.

At the first meeting on July 21 st Mr. J.C. Stevenson was elected Chairman; Mr. T.C. Lietch, Town Clerk of North Shields, was appointed Law Clerk at £50 per annum; Mr. George Lyall, Secretary, and Mr. John Osbourne, Pilot Superintendent, each at a salary of £150 per annum. The official seal of the Pilotage Board, was designed by Mr. Lietch, ‘the witty North Shields neighbour, learned in the law,’ whose puns Mr. Salmon envied, represents the mouth of the river, with Tynemouth lighthouse in the background, and a ship in full sail, with a pilot boat in the foreground. It bears the punning motto, ‘In Portu Salus.’ An examining Committee of twelve pilots was appointed, with a nautical member of the Board as chairman, on whose recommendation all licences were granted. It is worthy of note that the Tyne Pilotage Commission was the first of such authorities on which direct representation was given to the pilots themselves, a course since generally followed; while it was also the first pilotage authority to entrust the examinations for certificates to a committee of pilots themselves. The disestablished officials of Trinity House lodged claims for compensation for the loss of office, the total amount of salaries and commissions they had been receiving from the Pilotage Funds amounting to £1465 per annum. At that time there were only 161 pensioners, 19 widows, and 2 children on the Pilotage Fund, receiving in annual pensions a total of £342; while there were contributing to the funds of 77 river pilots, 139 Shields sea pilots, 20 pilots under acting orders, and 24 pilots at Cullercoats, a total of 183 sea pilots. A long battle of legal wits ensued before the Pilotage Funds in the hands of Trinity House were handed over. In October 1866 the committee appointed to effect a settlement recommended that, in view of the expenses and delays of Chancery proceedings, the Board should accept the Trinity House statement of accounts in regard to the funds, on condition that the Compensation Money there shown was also handed over. The accounts showed the Funds to be:-

Sea Pilots Superannuation £8,101 5s. 6d.

River Pilots Superannuation 11,962 7s. 9d.

Unclaimed Reciprocity Money 4,336 3s. 4d.

Total £24,339 16s. 7d.

From this Trinity House claimed the deduction of £3490 11s. 11d., the cost of opposing the two Bills. The amount actually handed over in the final adjustment was £19,675 9s. 9d. The pilot-masters received pensions of £113 per annum for life, the other claims of Trinity House officials being ignored. Shortly afterwards, in 1867, the last was heard of the Compensation Money. The pilots decided to avail themselves of an offer of the Government of that day, to compound for the remaining four and a half years’ allowance. The total amount distributed (Government having deducted 12 per cent.) was to sea pilots £9,176 14s. (154 pilots obtaining £54 6s. each, 23 Cullercoats and 7 young pilots £27 3s. each) and to river pilots £6,185 12s. 10d. (71 pilots obtaining £86 10s. 3d. and one young pilot £43 5s. 1d. ) the balance, that is, the portion represented by the ‘unclaimed pilotage’ of old days, going to the Superannuation and Widows Fund

The most difficult task which confronted the Commission was to introduce such a system of pilotage as would, while leaving shipowners freedom of choice of pilots, at the same time prevent any class of men being deprived of the chance of earning a fair livelihood, and encourage as many pilots as possible to cruise out at sea for the purpose of ‘seeking’ ships, thus ensure that any vessel approaching the port should always have a reasonable chance of obtaining a pilot.

Two factors rendered the Commission’s task one of great difficulty. The advent of steam had largely decreased the earnings of the river pilots, especially since the extension of the sea pilotage district, in April 1881, as to include the entrance to the Tyne and Northumberland Docks, vessels only going to the docks having then no necessity for taking a river pilot. It was decided to create no more river pilots. The general use of steam had also give rise to a privileged or ‘constant’ class of pilots, who earned large incomes by piloting all vessels of certain firms, and who, consequently, knowing almost to an hour when their vessel would be due, did not need to go to sea ‘seeking.’ The system was objected to on different grounds, both by the Pilotage Commissioners and the ordinary or ‘seeking’ pilots. To the former the existence of ‘choice’ pilots seemed likely to endanger the primary object of the pilotage service, namely, to ensure that all vessels should be able to count with certainty at all times on obtaining the service of a pilot before reaching the entrance to the harbour. The free pilots objected to the system on the ground that it was unjust that one class, no more efficient or capable (since all pilots had to undergo a like apprenticeship and pass a similar examination) should be making large incomes with little risk and labour, while the cruising men, who had to undergo the most dangerous part of the work, could barely earn a living. The Pilotage Commission, to remedy these evils, proposed in 1870 a new bye-law, providing that the first Tyne pilot who offered his services within the limits of the pilotage district, should if refused and another pilot taken, be entitled to the whole inward pilotage of the vessel, thus recognising the principle that a pilot who went ‘seeking’ to offer his services to incoming vessels, rendered a public service by being in the way to assist a ship, and therefore was entitled to some consideration even if his services were refused. The constant pilots, and those shipowners who employed them, opposed the scheme strongly, and the Board of Trade refused its sanction to the bye-law. In October 1873 the Commissioners proposed a similar bye-law, but with the difference that the first pilot offering his services should receive two thirds of the inward pilotage should he be refused and another accepted. The Board of Trade again refused its sanction.

Various other attempts were made to solve the problem. In March 1874 the free or non-constant pilots propounded a pooling scheme,under which the pilots were to take regular turns for inward or outward service, and the whole of their earnings to be pooled and equally divided. The Pilotage Commissioners declined to accept so sweeping a change, but in order that the number of pilots might be reduced in accordance with the smaller demand, they resolved for the future to fill only one vacancy in three. In 1877 another attempt was made to induce the Board of Trade to sanction the bye-law originally proposed in 1870, but again without effect. Another pooling scheme, involving the maintenance of steam cutters at sea upon which the pilots should regularly take their turns, was proposed in 1884, when it was stated that in the previous year the fifty four ‘constant’ pilots and their thirteen assistants piloted 10,053 vessels, receiving a total of £11,109 in fees, while the ninety three free pilots only had 4,723 vessels, receiving amongst them £5,602. The Chairman, Mr. J.C. Stevenson, proposed as an alternative, that the whole pilotage earnings should be collected by an official of the Commissioners, the pilot, instead of collecting the money himself from the shipowner or broker, simply handing in his ticket to the pilot-office and receiving the amount at once, less five per cent deduction for the Superannuation Fund and the management expenses. He also proposed that instead of purchasing steam cutters a suggested, a Boarding Fund should be established, out of which a suitable steamer should be hired to serve as a pilot cutter whenever the weather was too rough for pilot cobles to go out of the harbour.

On April 5 th 1884, the Pilotage Commission adopted new bye-laws embodying the system of pooling the earnings, the official collection of all pilotage fees, and the establishment of a Boarding Fund. The Board of Trade deputed Sir George Nares, R.N. the Arctic explore, to hold an inquiry into the whole question of pilotage, which opened at the Town Hall, North Shields, on September 30 th and lasted over four days. Sir George reported against the equal division of pilotage earnings, which would practically put an end to the whole of the constant pilotage system and lower the general standard of ability, but suggested that the constant service inside the river should be recognised and efficiently regulated by the Commissioners, that the practice of constant pilots engaging assistants should be prohibited, and no pilot permitted to engage to conduct more than a given number of regular trading vessels. He approved of the clause for the collection of the pilotage fees by the Commissioners, and of the proposed Boarding Fund. Acting on this report, the Board of Trade declined to sanction the bye-law for ‘pooling’ the pilotage earnings, and eliminated everything from the proposed new bye-laws in any way tending to the abolition of the constant pilotage system, but approved experimentally, for a period of two years from May 19 th 1885, the new bye-laws in regard to the official collection of dues and the establishment of a Boarding Fund.

These reforms proved so satisfactory in operation that the experimental bye-laws were made permanent without opposition in 1887.

Another attempt to secure a bye-law giving the first pilot who hailed an incoming vessel half the pilotage fees, should his services be refused and those of another taken, was made in December 1887. The Board of Trade again declined to sanction the bye-law, but suggested that, as Parliament had appointed a select Committee on Pilotage, the matter should be brought before this body, of which Mr. J.C. Stevenson, M.P. and Mr. Craig, M.P. for Newcastle, a shipowner, were both members. This was done, Mr. Stevenson, Captain G.C. Coates, then Chairman of the Pilotage Commission, and Mr. John Purvis, now pilot-master, giving evidence on this special subject before the Committee. The evidence showed that the pilotage earnings on the Tyne for the previous year had averaged £168 9s. net per effective pilot, out of which the ‘seeking’ pilots had to pay 4s. 6d. to their apprentices for each vessel boarded. The three highest net earnings for constant pilots, after deducting payment to helpers and the percentage retained by the Commission, were £891 10s. 9d. and £710 9s. 8d. respectively, while the three lowest net receipts were £39 15s. 3d., £47 3s. 5d. and £49 12s. 4d. respectively, all by free pilots regularly following their occupation. The Committee in August 1888 reported in favour of the Tyne proposal, and a bye-law giving the first pilot offering his services half the fees was eventually approved by the Board of Trade in February 1892.

Meanwhile the Commissioners had effected several minor reforms in the pilotage system. In February 1871 a new bye-law made the contribution by pilots to the Superannuation and Widows Fund 1s. per ship, while on all vessels above 500 tons the charge was payable on both inward and outward pilotage. The opening of the Swing Bridge , admitting sea-going vessels to the upper reaches of the river, in 1876, necessitated new bye-laws levying an additional 6d. per foot pilotage on all vessels going above the bridge, while the increasing size of steamers, which was not attended by a proportional increase in the registered tonnage, led to an additional charge of a farthing per ton on the excess above 500 tons register, on each ship piloted to or from the docks, and of a halfpenny per ton on vessels taken farther up the river. A more important change came into effect in 1880, in the shape of the amalgamation of the two classes of sea and river pilots. The work of the latter had decreased as the docks came more and more into use, the improvement of navigation and the introduction of steam enabling a vessel to leave any part of the river and get to sea on the same tide. Under the amalgamation the sea and river pilots’ funds were combined, but, to compensate the river men for a change in some respects to their disadvantage, it was provided that all river pilots then in receipt of a pension, or upon attaining the age of sixty years, should receive £30 per annum instead of the much smaller pension paid to sea pilots, while each river pilot between the age of forty-five and sixty obtained a pension of £18 a year. No more river pilots were to be licensed, but holders of existing river licences were not to be interfered with, and might obtain sea ‘branches’ if qualified. Acting pilots were to be abolished, and only one class created in future, capable of taking charge of vessels of any tonnage, the sea service required of candidates for licences being two years in the coal or Baltic trade and one year in steam. Under this amalgamation thirteen river pilots at once received the full pension of £30 per annum, twelve received the £18 per annum, and there were eighteen others who would qualify for it on reaching the age of forty-five. In 1885 the system of apprenticeship was abolished, pilots’ assistants, who were to serve a five years probation, two years in the cobles, one year in sail, and two in steam, being substituted for apprentices. It is interesting to trace, from the official statistics of the Commission as published annually in the form of a Parliamentary return, how the various reforms achieved by that body have improved at once the present income of the pilot and the provision for his future in the shape of the Superannuation Fund.

2 thoughts on “A History of the Shields Pilots up to 1900

  1. My great great grandfather, John Murday (C 1821-1900)His death is recorded in the Shields Daily Gazette, 18th June 1900-“At 12, Cuthbert Terrace, Jarrow on the 18th inst., John the beloved husband of Elizabeth Murday, aged 79 years.Interrment in Jarrow Cemetery on Thursday, 21st inst. Cortege to leave at 2:30P.M. Friends please accept this intimation.” His will abstract records, John Murday of 12, Cuthbert Terrace, Jarrow, County Durham, ship-owner, died 18th June 1900. Probate was granted in Durham on 8th September to Sarah Murday and Elizabeth Murday, spinsters. Effects £936 .He is described in census returns in Jarrow as a “waterman”Can anyone tell me more about him please as i am writing a family history? BRIAN C. LUXTON email b.luxton@yahoo.co.uk

  2. hi
    I’ve just discovered your post. My name is Russell Murday and I’ve been tracing my ancestors for some time on and off. I have an ancestor John Blazier Murday who was born in 1821 in Hull, in the 1841 census he was described as a miner as was his younger brother Thomas. there were 3/4 younger brothers, Maitland, Henry and my great great grandfather Robert (born 1844) there may have been another brother younger than Robert. their father was Thomas Grant Murday and mother Mary Blazier. Thomas’ father was John Murday who was a customs officer (tide surveyor). I can’t be sure who his father was, I need to go to the Northumberland or Newcastle archives (when I can travel) to do more research.
    Russell Murday

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