From protection against smugglers to rescues

From protection against smugglers to rescues

HM Coastguard is now a world class leader in maritime search and rescue, on call 24/7 to help anyone in difficulties around our coasts, every day of the year.
Henry George (taken in 1897)  was a fisherman from Mullion and the son of the celebrated leader known as King of the Smugglers. 

But did you know that although protecting and saving lives is what we do, our origins lie in protection of a different sort against violent clashes and illegal trade? And our much loved 'cuppa' was often illegal? This year, as part of our 200th birthday celebrations, we've taken a look back in the history archives....

Henry George (image above taken in 1897)  was a fisherman from Mullion and the son of the celebrated leader known as King of the Smugglers.  Smuggling died out in Mullion in 1840 and Henry's father was the last of the Mullion smugglers.  Credit: Museum of Cornish Life.

As an island nation, the highly prized goods that are now a regular part of our daily lives once had to make perilous journeys across the oceans on sailing ships. Tea, wine, spirits, silks and lace were the treasures that caught the attention of smugglers. Their mission was to secretly land their treasure on secluded parts of the coastline in a money-making bid to avoid paying customs duties and taxes.  


Smuggling - a threat to the UK’s economy and security 


The scale of the problem during what’s known as the golden age of smuggling was huge and the Government was determined to tackle it. In 1784 the Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, suggested that of the 13 million pounds (weight) of tea consumed in Britain, only 5.5 million had been brought in legally. 

It was a battle between the smuggling gangs and HM Customs. Teams of Government Preventive Officers patrolled the coasts, aiming to prevent or catch the smugglers. But there were not enough officers and the smugglers often avoided detection. Staff from the onshore Customs Houses were supplemented by Customs Revenue Cruisers at sea watching the coasts and from 1698 riding officers on horseback joined in the coastal patrols.  

Although many people enjoyed the illicit gains from smuggling, the reality was brutal. Local people were fearful of violent reprisals on informers, Revenue officers were murdered and corruption meant that captured smugglers were able to avoid harsh punishments. 


What was next? 


In 1809, things became more serious. The Board of Customs introduced the Preventive Water Guard, a force which used nimble small boats to patrol the coasts. By 1816 the Guard was strengthened with 151 stations, organised into 31 districts. The chief officers were experienced naval seamen or fishermen and armed with ammunition, stores and oars for rowing, they were at sea as much as possible and on the lookout. 


CG200 Magazine timeline


Find out what happened next and how the 19th Century brought a new era of changes, including the establishment of the Coast Guard in 1822. The two words were eventually joined in the 20th Century. There's so much more to read, as well as a timeline in our special souvenir magazine, that takes a look at the past, HM Coastguard now and what's coming in the future: HM Coastguard. Saving Lives for 200 Years




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