HM Coastguard celebrates 200th birthday

From its beginnings with coastal lookouts to today’s hi-tech national network of coordination centres, Her Majesty’s Coastguard is celebrating two hundred years of saving lives along the UK coast and at sea, as well as coordinating rescues for those in distress in international waters.

It was on 15 January 1822, that HM Coastguard was formally brought into existence and in honour of that actual birthday, coastguards across all four home nations cast throwlines last Saturday (15Jan22) as a symbol of the service’s dedication – past and present.

Over the past two centuries, HM Coastguard has gone from strength to strength with 310 Coastguard Rescue Teams – made up of 3500 volunteers – and using 10 search and rescue helicopter bases.

Innovation has always been a driver – whether it is pushing forward state of the art technology in the national network of maritime rescue coordination centres or leading the way in rope, water and mud techniques. Last month (Dec21) HM Coastguard began to implement its new updated search and rescue radio network which uses fibre technology. More than £175m has been invested to upgrade the coastguard’s national radio network across all 165 sites over the next two years.

The service continues to adapt to changes – in the last few years providing mutual aid and support during events and incidents to other emergency partners. During the pandemic, coastguards supported the NHS, attended the G7 and COP26 in 2021 and are called in to support during national emergencies including flooding or supplying water to stranded drivers.

“I am immensely proud and humbled by the continued dedication and professionalism from the staff and volunteers which ensures everyone’s safety on our shores and around our coast,” says maritime minister, Robert Courts.

“HM Coastguard is the backbone of our maritime sector and the nation is indebted to its incredible workforce which continues to deliver an exceptional service.”

Claire Hughes, director of HM Coastguard says: “When you look at how we started and where we are now, it’s easy to celebrate the innovation and development that can be seen throughout the service. And yet, we are far more proud of the people, the volunteers and the staff who throughout two centuries have continued to strive to keep people safe at the coast and out at sea. We always have and always will respond to those in distress.

“While this milestone is an opportunity for us to look back with pride on what we’ve achieved, we have always looked to the future, and I’m proud that we continue to look for ways in which to improve and save lives. I’m proud of the commitment, the dedication and selfless sacrifice and I’m proud of how the service has developed and continues to do so.”

A brief history of HM Coastguard

17th/18th century – As soon as medieval taxes were charged on imports and exports, people begin smuggling. By 1743 the estimate is that half the tea drunk in Britain was illegally imported.

1790s – Henry Greathead designs the first original lifeboat in South Shields. Twenty other locations place orders.

1808 – A Captain Manby experiments with firing mortars to carry lines offshore to stricken ships. The Elizabeth, 150 yards out at sea sees the first life saved due to this method. Cots hung below safety lines soon follow.

1809 – The Board of Customs forms the Preventative Water Guard to fight smugglers and this small force uses boats to patrol every bay and cove.

1816 – The guard is placed under the Treasury. At each station the chief officer and chief boatman are experienced naval seamen or fishermen. In bad weather they form a shore patrol. Although created to end smuggling, the Preventative Water Guard quickly acquires extra duties and is instructed to take responsibility of shipwrecks to safeguard cargoes and vessels from looters. They are also trained with lifesaving equipment.

1821 – The Preventative Water Guard is recognised as a major force against smuggling and it is recommended that it is again controlled by the Board of Customs. In a minute dated 15 January 1822, the Treasury accept the proposal noting the new force will be called ‘Coast Guard’ which is, in effect, the birth certificate of HM Coastguard.

15th Jan 1822 – The Coastguard was formed in 1822 by the amalgamation of three services set up to prevent smuggling:

· the Revenue Cruisers

· the Riding Officers

· the Preventive Water Guard

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