Whenever I, Stephen Guy, get stuck in a storm or in hazardous conditions the words of the Victorian hymn, Throw Out The Lifeline, always come to mind. My father would sing these opening words in similar circumstances. A gust of wind or the start of torrential rain would always bring a “Throw out the lifeline!” from Dad. The hymn - about dark waters, sinking ships and people drifting away – conjures up all sorts of maritime hazards.
Mersey pilots have been guiding ships safely from open seas to quaysides for 240 years from the days when Liverpool was growing rapidly into the Second City of the British Empire. Local fishermen originally acted as pilots to bring ships safely to shore, supplementing their incomes in the process. But a series of fatal accidents in 1765 prompted the formation of a committee of ship-owners and merchants to consider a more formal arrangement.
The result was the first Liverpool Pilotage Act of 1766 which led to the issuing of 50 pilot licences. At first ships were charged according to their tonnage and the distance from Liverpool but from 1797 earnings were pooled and the pilots paid the appropriate share. Captains of visiting ships were provided with the pilots’ detailed local knowledge necessary to navigate in and out of the port.
These were colourful, exciting times in Liverpool and the Merseyside Maritime Museum has a series of remarkable paintings of pilot cutters and schooners in its collections. One of the earliest was painted in 1830 by legendary marine artist Samuel Walters (1811–82) and his father Miles (1773–1855). It shows the pilot boat, Liver, off South Stack lighthouse, Anglesey. This fascinating painting has intricate detail and shows the two pilots wearing top hats and the apprentices sporting red woollen headgear.
Pilot schooner Pioneer, built in 1852, was the first schooner and rigged boat employed in the Liverpool pilot service. This fine painting (shown) is by William K McMinn (1820 –98) and shows Pioneer at the mouth of the Mersey. In an interesting detail, she is depicted towing a punt which was used to take the pilot to the next incoming vessel.
Another pilot schooner was Queen, painted by seafarer artist Charles Ogilvy (1833 – circa 1890). Very few works are known by this talented painter but he is listed in a local 1868 directory as a marine artist. Ogilvy also painted Pioneer, placing her off Point Lynas, Anglesey, where ships travelling from the west picked up pilots. Pioneer was sold in 1879 and she was later wrecked off west Africa.
More about Mersey pilots next week. In the meantime there is a Maritime Archives factsheet on the history of the Liverpool Pilot Service on our main website.
A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.