England Occupations, Coastguards, Lifeboats, Lighthouses (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

History of the Coastguard[edit | edit source]

The Coastguard developed out of the Excise Service in 1822 as outlined above. TNA leaflet M 44 (Coastguard) helps to clear up the inevitable confusion between the three services.

Each Coastguard Station typically had a Chief Officer, a Chief Boatman or Sitter, sometimes a Chief Boatman in Charge, together with a number of Commissioned and other Boatmen. To qualify for service the men had to be 20-35 years of age, with either six years at sea or seven in fishing boats, but exceptions were not uncommon. In 1831 the Coast Blockade was incorporated into the Coastguard. From this time men were recruited mainly from the navy, (the officers from the half-pay navy ranks, and the men from naval ratings), and acted as a naval reserve for the Crimean War, but after this the Coastguard was transferred to the Admiralty in 1857. Many former East India Company Mariners entered the Coastguard when the Company gave up its navy in 1856. From 1857 to 1923 there were three distinct units:

  • Shore Force. This was a civil force of permanent, paid and full-time officers and men, but acting as a naval reserve in time of war. Since men were posted at least 20 miles from their home in order to prevent possible collusive efforts with friends and relatives, and local people were not keen on housing them, the coastguard built special watch-houses and cottages for their employees. In parish registers they may be listed as working in the Preventive Service. The Shore Force was re-organized in 1919 and then consisted entirely of naval pensioners. The Board of Trade took it over in 1923 and during WWII the Admiralty took operational control. It then engaged in coast watching, manning of signal stations etc. with assistance from the part-time volunteer Auxiliary Coastguard.
  • Permanent Cruiser Force. This consisted of full-time officers and ratings of the Coastguard (formerly Revenue) Cruisers whose civil duties included protection of fisheries and suppression of smuggling, and who also were liable for RN service in time of war. This force was disbanded in 1919.
  • Guard Ships. These were warships in full commission but with reduced crews of RN officers and ratings. They lay at major ports and acted as the headquarters of the Coastguard districts. Annual sea training was undertaken with a full complement of coastguardmen.

The Coastguard gradually acquired more and more duties, and has been administered by 6 different departments of government from 1923 onwards, all detailed in leaflet M 44.

Records of the Coastguard[edit | edit source]

The Coastguard Service was administered by the Admiralty from 1857-1923 thus their records are in ADM classes at the TNA. Some of the records that are detailed in leaflet M 44 are:

  • Nominations of Officers and Ratings 1819-1866 are in ADM 175 and ADM 6.
  • Discharge Records for 1858-1868 and 1886-1947 are in ADM 175.
  • Service Registers for officers 1886-1947 in ADM 175 are indexed.
  • Service Record Cards for ratings 1900-1923 are also in ADM 175 and indexed.
  • Pensions 1866-1926 paid by the Admiralty are in ADM 23, whilst civil pensions are in PMG 23, and there are a number of other categories.

There are also a number of published records detailed in leaflet M 44. Local records such as census, directories, newspapers, maps, leases and photographs from local archives are other sources as shown by Milton (Coastguard Information from Local Records. Family Tree Magazine Vol 8 #1). Life on coastguard stations and vessels has been described by Quenby (The Watch. Bygone Kent Vol 23 #1, page 37-40).

Lifeboats and Lighthouses[edit | edit source]

Lifeboat Service[edit | edit source]

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), founded in 1824, is a volunteer organization aimed at rescuing people from vessels in distress around the British Isles. There are few records until 1852 when their journal The Lifeboat commenced, and it is far easier to find something about a man who was a coxswain, or who had received an award for bravery. Formerly only the coxswain’s name was given in documents, in much the same manner as a ship’s captain is, the crew being local fishermen or others whose names were not recorded. Only recently have all lifeboatmen been formally documented by the Station Personnel Department (Saul). It is known that many coastguards formed all or part of certain lifeboat crews. Requests for information about pre-1960 men should go to the RNLI in Poole, and more recent ones to the particular Station Personnel Manager. The RNLI runs a museum and small library at the same address in Poole and they publish an advisory leaflet. Leach has written the Lifeboats book in the Shire series.

Lighthouses[edit | edit source]

The Corporation of Trinity House led the way in building the first lighthouse around Britain in 1609. They also manned lightships to warn of sandbanks, such as the notorious Goodwin Sands, a drowned island off Deal, Kent. Trinity House records suffered from three disastrous fires in London, in 1666, 1714 and 1940, which destroyed most pre-1900 documents. The Petitions by distressed lightkeepers for assistance from the Trinity House charities survived with those of other seamen, as already described. Since 1980 automation has meant that no further lightkeepers are being recruited by Trinity House, who still run the system.

Records of lighthouses around Scotland and the Isle of Man were kept by in Edinburgh by the Northern Lighthouse Board and have survived, being now housed in the National Archives of Scotland. These include:

  • Board Minutes from 1786.
  • Staff records, registers and lists of lightkeepers 1837-1980 (with 30-year closure).
  • Lighthouse Visitor’s Albums from 1854.
  • Shipwreck Returns 1824-1983.
  • Records from individual lighthouses.
  • 70 volumes of Correspondence (Chapman 1999).

Records of lighthouses around Ireland are not as extensive and not indexed, and have passed through several administrators:

  • Commissioners for Barracks from 1767.
  • Revenue Board. § Ballast Board from 1810.
  • Commission of Irish Lights since 1867.

They contain names of many lightkeepers and can be accessed through the Commission of Irish Lights.

The Shire book Lighthouses by Pearson is a useful sourcebook, and there is an index of lighthousemen run by Trethewey.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military and Services offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.