In safe hands: The 250 year story of the heroic Liverpool Pilots

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Next week, Merseyside Maritime Museum will display a brand new exhibition, focusing on the Liverpool Pilotage Service; the second oldest institution in Liverpool, the oldest being the Town Corporation (now City Council). It will run from 22 July 2016 until 4 June 2017.

Telling the story of the Liverpool pilots and their vital role in navigating ships in and out of the Port of Liverpool, In Safe Hands: The Story of the Liverpool Pilots will explore 250 years of maritime history, and shed light on the vital role that the pilots play, bringing in ships to the port.

We are pleased to be joining with the Spirit of Falmouth, which will be berthed outside Merseyside Maritime Museum on the opening day of the exhibition, to celebrate 250 years of the Pilotage Service.

Liverpool waters are some of the toughest in the world to navigate. Ships entering Liverpool Bay and the River Mersey face serious hazards and rely on the skills and knowledge of marine pilots to ensure their safe passage.

Ben Whittaker, Curator of Maritime History and Technology at Merseyside Maritime Museum, said:

“Not enough people know about the job the pilots do; they ensure safe passage of the ships that bring us the many things we take for granted in the modern world, which is why we want to highlight their work through this exhibition in their 250th year.

“Liverpool waters can present many hazards to shipping, such as shifting sandbanks, strong currents and rapidly changing tides. The pilots take control of ships entering or leaving the River Mersey, using their expert knowledge of local conditions as well as ship navigation skills, to ensure their safe passage. It is a dangerous job and the exhibition will highlight many acts of bravery where pilots have saved lives and cargo from disaster. This includes the heroic role they played during both world wars.”

Visitors will be inspired by dramatic stories of pilots’ bravery, such as four young apprentices who died in the Second World War trying to rescue colleagues in stormy seas. People can also learn about pilot ships, including a famous incident in 1881 when the aptly named pilot boat Leader led 12 ships into the port during a heavy storm

Example history: the story of Liverpool Pilot Norman Wilcox

Liverpool Pilot, Norman Wilcox, was one of 99 men who died on HMS Thetis in 1939. HMS Thetis was undergoing sea trials in Liverpool Bay, after being built locally in Cammell Laird. Due to a fault in her torpedo tubes, after diving she failed to resurface. Norman had only been a qualified pilot for one year, he was just 25 when he died. 

The majority of those who perished succumbed to carbon dioxide poisoning whilst waiting to be rescued. Thetis was eventually salvaged four months later by the crew of the salvage vessel the Ranger.

Norman’s father William Wilcox and uncle A.H. Wilcox were also Liverpool pilots – both were awarded OBEs for their service as pilots in the Second World War, one of these, from A.H. Wilcox is in the exhibition. 

Ben continues:

“The pilots continue to play a crucial role in the modern port, bringing in huge ships to Liverpool. The most dramatic recent example was last year’s Three Queen’s event, where the three Cunard Liners dazzled the world with their synchronised manoeuvres on the river. A special film in the exhibition will explore the pilots’ integral role in this event.”

Chris Booker, Chairman of the Liverpool Pilotage, service said:

“This is a special year for the Liverpool Pilotage Service and we are delighted that the public will get an extended opportunity to find out about the work we do through the exhibition. We have worked with the Museum on some of the content and lent some objects from our own collections for the exhibition. We are all very excited to see the finished displays”.

Treasures from the Royal Yacht Mary, one of the most famous shipwrecks in local waters, will be on display, as an example to illustrate the dangers of navigating ships in the age of sail. Never-before-seen items include a hat band from HMS Thetis, on which 99 men tragically died in 1939, including a Liverpool pilot, and a modern pilot’s jacket, which has fascinating hidden features like an integrated lifejacket with automatic inflation by pulling a chord, a safety light and strobe light, and a concealed whistle.

The exhibition follows four main themes including A Safe Passage to Liverpool, which introduces the role of a pilot and the hazards in local waters, as well as the founding of the pilot service in 1766. The Storms and Seamanship section looks at the life of a pilot in the nineteenth century and era of sail. The third section, Port in a Storm, examines the formidable challenges and seismic changes to the Port of Liverpool in the twentieth century, including both World Wars and containerisation, and how the Liverpool Pilot Service had to adapt. Finally, 21st Century Pilotage looks at the role of the pilots today in the thriving modern Port of Liverpool.

The Spirit of Falmouth will also be berthed outside the Merseyside Maritime Museum when the exhibition opens, in Canning half tide dock 20-22 July.  The ship is used by the Charity ‘Turn to Starboard’ and will be in Liverpool as part of their round Britain challenge The Spirit of Falmouth. Built in the style of pilot schooners in 1980s Liverpool, the boat is being painted in the 19th century pilot boat livery to mark the 250th anniversary of the Liverpool pilots.

For more information go to and #liverpoolpilots.

Notes to Editors

About Merseyside Maritime Museum

Albert Dock, Liverpool Waterfront, Liverpool, L3 4AQ
Open daily 10am-5pm
Tel: 0151 478 4499
Free entry

Merseyside Maritime Museum was the first public building to open at Albert Dock 30 years ago in 1986, heralding the renaissance of Liverpool’s iconic waterfront. Once a warehouse for high value goods like tea, silk, sugar and spirits, the Museum now explores Liverpool’s maritime history through its large and varied collection. Highlights include a lifejacket from a Titanic survivor, beautiful ship models, maritime paintings, colourful posters from the golden age of liners and even some full-sized vessels. Two major exhibitions tell the stories and history behind the tragic sinkings of Lusitania and Titanic, and their links to Liverpool. Visitors can also learn what it’s like to be a customs officer and captain a high speed cutter to stop smugglers in the hands-on gallery Seized! the Border and Customs uncovered.

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National Museums Liverpool
National Museums Liverpool comprises eight venues, including some of the most visited museums in England outside of London. Our collections are among the most important and varied in Europe and contain everything from Impressionist paintings and rare beetles to a lifejacket from the Titanic. We attract more than 2.8 million visitors annually. Our venues are the Museum of Liverpool, World Museum, the Walker Art Gallery, Merseyside Maritime Museum, International Slavery Museum, Seized! (Border Force National Museum), Sudley House and the Lady Lever Art Gallery.