HM Coastguard has a history dating back more than 200 years. In the 18th century many goods were transported by ship around the coasts of the UK because there was no effective road network overland. But the hazardous conditions meant that many lives were lost, often within sight of the coast.
Several life saving organisations were established to combat the problem but the Exchequer was more concerned with another problem. The shipping system was open to abuse and there was ample opportunity for smuggling. Duty was imposed on many imported goods such as brandy, silk, tea and tobacco.So the tax office set up a customs house in each port with staff who could search cargoes and collect import dues.
Nevertheless, smuggling was still rife. By 1743 it was estimated that half of the tea drunk in Britain was brought into the country illegally. In 1809 the Board of Customs set up a Preventative Water Guard to combat the problem.
They patrolled the coast in small boats looking out for smugglers. In 1816 their organisation was taken over by the Treasury and had 151 stations in 31 districts. Staff were all experienced naval sailors or fishermen.
By the 1820s officers were expected to monitor wrecks to ensure that cargoes were safe from looting. In 1821 a committee of inquiry looked at the customs service and the Preventative Water Guard was renamed the Coast Guard but its primary function was still as a customs force.
Soon after, however, the Admiralty began issuing new uniforms and safety gear as well as training the force in safety drill. In 1856 the Coast Guard Act was passed and defined the force’s primary function as being safety, rather than tax collection.
In 1808 Captain Manby experimented with firing mortars to carry rescue lines to ships. The first practical rescue was of the Elizabeth, which was 150 yards offshore.
The first RNLI gold medal for gallantry was issued in 1824 to Charles Freemantle of Lymington Coastguard who swam with a line to rescue the crew of the Carl Jean off Christchurch.