Keeping Watch

In 1809 in an effort to put a stop to marine-based smuggling the British government – then at war with Napoleonic France – established a body called the Preventive Water Guard (otherwise known as the Preventive Boat Service). Operating across these islands, the Waterguard was the sea-based arm of revenue enforcement, its members based in Watch Houses around the coast of Britain and Ireland, with boat crews patrolling the waters at night. While they were primarily concerned with bringing smuggling to an end, they also gave assistance to shipwrecks and indeed kept an eye out for foreign vessels entering national waters. In 1821 a committee of enquiry proposed responsibility for the Preventative Water Guard be transferred from HM Treasury to the Board of Customs. Until then, the Board of Customs and the Board of Excise each had their own long-established preventative forces: shore-based Riding Officers for the former and sea-going Revenue Cruisers for the latter. The committee recommended these services be consolidated and so in January 1822 they were placed under the authority of the Board of Customs and renamed the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard established in 1822 duly inherited existing shore stations and watch houses from the two earlier bodies (as well as a number of coastal vessels) and these provided bases for its operations, with additional properties being constructed as deemed necessary. The first Coast Guard instructions were published in 1829: while still primarily occupied with the prevention of smuggling they also stipulated that when a wreck took place the Coast Guard was responsible for taking all possible action to save lives, taking charge of the vessel and protecting property. By the 1850s, coastal smuggling was no longer so serious a matter and so responsibility for the Coast Guard was transferred from the Board of Customs to the Admiralty. Over the following decades the service began to operate more like a supplementary naval service, although it still was responsible for carrying out rescues and protection of property in the event of a shipwreck.

The Coast Guard service was based in stations right around the island, with fifteen of these in County Kerry. The stations were usually built to a standard design. Typically they comprised a terrace of five or six houses set back from the shore but within easy reach of it. There would also be a watch tower and, by the sea, a boat house and slipway. Each terrace included residences for the chief boatman, his men and their families. Inside would be a sitting room and kitchen (plus scullery) on the ground floor, and bedrooms upstairs. As a rule the entrance to each house was to the rear (away from coastal winds) with just windows on the front looking out to sea. These stations survived until the early 1920s when, like other centres such as army and Royal Irish Constabulary barracks, they were attacked and burnt during the War of Independence and ensuing Civil War to ensure they could not be used by the enemy. Many of them, like this example in Ballinskelligs, County Kerry, now stand empty and ruinous, a largely forgotten aspect of the country’s maritime history.

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