The pilotage service in the Mersey

painting of a ship

Number 9 pilot sloop 'Liver' by Miles and Samuel Walters

“The entrance to the port of Liverpool is very dangerous without a skilful pilot, and many ships and lives have, of late years been lost owing to the negligence and ignorance of persons taking upon them to conduct ships and vessels into and out of the said Port.
…A proper regulation of the Pilots at the said Port and the ascertaining of their rates and prices would tend greatly to promote and encourage trade and navigation, and be a publick utility.”
Excerpts from the first Act of Parliament relating to Pilotage at Liverpool, January 1765

Establishment of the Pilotage Service

The sea approaches to Liverpool from the Irish Sea to the river Mersey have always been difficult waters to navigate. In the early days of the port, visiting ships relied on local fishermen for skilled local guidance and assistance.

However, with the expansion of foreign trade in the 18th century the need for an organised service became apparent. In 1764 alone eighteen ships were stranded and 75 lives were lost. The following year local gentlemen, merchants and tradesmen met at the Exchange to consider the issue. As a result of their efforts the Act of Parliament was passed in 1766 to establish the Liverpool Pilot Service.

Development and growth

Approximately 50 pilots were licensed that year to cover an area of more than 2,500 square miles bounded by the coasts of Cheshire, Anglesey and Wales on the east side of the Isle of Man, Lancashire and Cumberland as far as St Bees Head. The area was so large because sail ships of the time were more vulnerable to weather hazards than the powered cutters that eventually replaced them. Good seamanship therefore required that a pilot was taken aboard well seaward of the port, ideally in the shelter of the coast.

The service grew as the port expanded. In 1858, the year that the Mersey Dock and Harbour Board was formed, twelve pilot cutters and 200 pilots catered for nearly 9 million tons of cargo passing through the port. By the bicentenary of the service in 1966, 178 pilots served more than 30 million net register tons from three cutters.

painting of a ship

Number 3 pilot schooner 'The Duke' by Samuel Walters

Improvements in pilot ships

The first cutters in the service were small vessels of as little as 30 tons and less than 40 foot long, that were owned privately, usually by the pilots themselves. In 1770 three of these small vessels were lost, together with many lives. Soon after the Pilotage Committee set a minimum size of 40 tons for any new boats employed in the service, which were expected to carry six or seven pilots.

In 1896 the first steam powered vessels were introduced to the service. These steamers eventually replaced the sailing cutters, the last of which was sold in 1904. As the 20th century progressed the steamers were superseded by diesel-electric powered cutters such as the Edmund Gardner, which in turn were withdrawn from service in 1981 and replaced by the high speed launches which had first appeared in 1962.

This final development reflected the changing nature of shipping using the port. There was no longer a requirement for the pilot service to wait out at sea in an expensive ship for each new arrival. Instead the launches were based in the docks themselves and could be sent out to meet every ship to order.

Further information on the pilot ships illustrated

The paintings of pilot ships on this page are from the Merseyside Maritime Museum’s collections of maritime art|.