Before the establishment of HM Coastguard, the Board of Customs collected the various duties payable on imported goods and prevented any evasion of payment by smugglers. In times of war, Preventive Officers were appointed as much to prevent the coming and going of passengers and exchange of intelligence and correspondence with France, as to hinder smuggling.  At the end of the seventeenth century, the Board of Customs had a small fleet and a few men on the coast.  In 1698, after long discussion between the Board of Customs and the Treasury, the first peace-time force for the `guard of the coasts of Kent and Sussex' was formally established.

The function of the Riding Officers, as the men of this force were called, was to prevent the movement inland of smuggled goods which had eluded the Revenue cruisers at sea and the customs officials in the ports.  The Riding Officers operated in Kent and Sussex: the Revenue Cruisers were largely confined to the Kent, Sussex and East Anglian coasts and the Thames estuary, until the end of the eighteenth century, when they covered the English and Welsh coasts.  Scotland had its own fleet.

Confusingly, the Board of Excise had its own Revenue Cruisers and its own officers called Riding Officers: these covered the entire country, not just the coasts of Kent and Sussex, and were concerned with the collection (and preventing the evasion) of excise duty.

In 1809 the Government established a Preventive Water Guard to operate in coastal waters, to tackle any smugglers who had managed to evade the Revenue cruisers further out to sea, and to check on the effective functioning of the Revenue cruisers themselves.  It was also responsible for giving assistance when a ship was wrecked.  In 1816 the Preventive Water Guard was placed under the control of the Treasury and all but a few of the Revenue cruisers passed to the Admiralty, while the Riding Officers remained under the Board of Customs.  In the same year, a new shore-based service, the Coast Blockade, was established by the Admiralty to complement the existing forces.  This new service consisted initially of 92 officers and men and was stationed along the coast between the North Foreland and Dungeness, to capture smugglers as they came ashore.

Formation of the Coastguard, 1822

The existence of so many different preventive services resulted in much overlapping of function and duplication of effort.  In 1821 a committee set up to enquire into the operation of the Customs, recommended the combination of all the preventive services (with the exception of the Coast Blockade which would remain under the Admiralty) under a single authority, the Board of Customs, though the officers of the newly amalgamated service were to be nominated by the Admiralty.  The proposal was accepted, and in 1822 the Preventive Water Guard, the Revenue cruisers and the Riding Officers, united to form the Coastguard.  In 1831 the Coast Blockade was also absorbed into the Coastguard.  These four preventive forces employed nearly 6,700 men at the time of the amalgamation

In 1856 after the Crimean War - during which the Coastguard first functioned as a reserve force for the Royal Navy - control was transferred to the Admiralty, which lasted for 70 years.

(This information taken from the National Archives Leaflet 54. Much more information on where to find Service records etc. can be found at):


1900's Coastguards

In September 1914, 1400 men lost there lives when three cruisers were torpedoed by the newly developed U-boats.  In 1925, the Coastguards were taken over by the Board of Trade who established a full time professional search and rescue service named HM Coastguard, and life saving was developed from this time.  A coastal surveillance network with regular and auxiliary staff was set up, until 1931, after a notorious accident, the service came under severe scrutiny and the Coastguard Auxiliary Service was established.  During WWII all stations were placed on constant watch and Auxiliary Coastguards were recruited through the national service scheme.  Full civil service status was attained in 1948. In 1966 the service was restructured with the commencement of modern communication expansion programmes.

Today, HM Coastguard is responsible for the coordination of Maritime and Coastal Search and Rescue operations within the UK (comprising 10,500 miles of coastline and a sea area of 1 million square miles) and the preservation of life at sea. Its primary aims are to develop, promote, and enforce high standards of marine safety, to minimise loss of life amongst seafarers and coastal users, to respond to maritime emergencies 24 hours a day, to minimise the risk of pollution of the maritime environment from ships and wherever pollution occurs, minimising the impact on UK interests.

GOBBY: This is an old slang name for a Coastguard in the days, when that service came under the Admiralty and was open to Officers and men of the Royal Navy, who were time expired or pensioners, but still fit for Coastguard duties. The  Coastguard Service at present under the Board of Trade, is not so popular with the Naval Service, and in consequence the term is not much used nowadays.

A Gobby Ship, was originally a harbour service ship to which RNR men were drafted for their week's biennial training, and was one from which the highest standards of efficiency were not expected.  In modern time, Gobby is a sailors' slang name for a rating in the Quarter-deck division in a ship.

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