The British Isles and Ireland are island nations dependant on their domination of the coastline and waters surrounding them. With estimates of upwards of 11,000 miles and 1,700 miles respectively, the task of providing protection for and communication around these vast coastlines is a problem that has been attempted numerous times throughout the centuries. As the threat of invasions calmed, and as wireless technology developed, so did the nature of coast watching. Rejuvenated during the Great War and later during the Second World War, the once expansive network of lookout posts, crows nests and signal station has all but disappeared from the landscape. However, if you look hard enough there are tantalising clues to these often isolated and solitary structures.
This article hopes to explore the origins of the Coastguard in modern-day Northern Ireland and to record all known locations that the Coastguard, their successors and auxiliaries once served.
Table of Contents
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, smuggling of goods heavily taxed by the British Crown, such as alcohol and tobacco, was rife around the south coast of England. There was little the authorities could do to combat this lucrative trade; it was often well supported by the locals and even by the authorities in some areas. Attempting to maintain control, a number of methods were introduced, each one with their own administrative organisation: mounted patrols on horseback (Riding Officers) along coastal regions, and patrol vessels (Revenue Cruisers) with support from the Navy in an attempt to curb smugglers. The protection of the British coastline was formalised by a series of organisations we would recognise today at the start of the 1800s. This section will look at the development of the organisations.
- 1809 Preventive Water Guard formed in the south east of England by the Board of Customs for the purpose of revenue protection
- 1819 First stations established on the coats of Cork1Book: Shipminder, Bernard Scarlett, 1971
- 1820 Water Guard extended in Ireland from “Waterford to the Giants Causeway”2Book: Shipminder, Bernard Scarlett, 1971
- 1822 Coast Guard formed from the Water Guard, under the Board of Customs
- 1852 Royal Naval Coast Volunteers formed. Disbanded 1873
- 1856 The Coast Guard Service Act was passed, and responsibility of the Coast Guard fell to the Admiralty
- 1914 Coastguardsmen called up for Naval service. Gaps filled by civilians and Boy Scouts.
- 1914 – 1918 Coast Watchers employed to alert of enemy shipping or submarines
- 1919 Introduction of the Coastguard New Force to restructure and reform the Coastguard after the war
- 1922 Following the establishment of the Irish Free State, the last Coastguard station was closed in (southern) Ireland
- 1939 – 1940 Coastguard responsibility moved to the Ministry of Shipping
- 1939 War Watching Organisation formed from the Coastguard
- 1940 – 1945 The Coastguard was back under the control of the Admiralty
- February 1942 Coastguard and Auxiliary personnel dressed in khaki battledress uniform. Personnel also armed with rifles or Sten-guns
- 1945 – 1964 Admiralty relinquishes control of the Coastguard and it falls to the Ministry of War Transport
- 30 November 1945 Auxiliary Coastguard disbanded3Book: Shipminder, Bernard Scarlett, 1971
- 1948 Coastguards attained full civilian status
- 1964 – 1983 Department of Trade
- 1983 – 1998 Department of Transport
- 1998 Coastguard safety duties undertaken by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA); a government executive agency providing 24-hour maritime search and rescue service around the UK
In around 1809/1810 the Riding Officers and Revenue Cruisers were supplemented with the formation of the Preventive Water Guard 4With an initial focus on the south coast of England, it is unclear when the Water Guard migrated to Ireland.. The primary goal of this organisation was to reduce coastal smuggling by maintaining a constant watch over the coast, initially in the high risk areas such as the south of England, but Water Guard stations soon stretched around the coast of Great Britain and Ireland. In addition, the Water Guard soon had responsibility for assisting shipping in danger and for recovering wrecks and casualties from the shores.
I have not yet found a definitive catalogue of Water Guard stations in modern day Northern Ireland, which would span the period 1809 – 1821, and have only partial coastal coverage on First Edition Ordnance Survey maps which are reportedly printed between 1832 – 1846, but which time the Water Guard no longer existed. However, there are three Water Guard stations marked on these First Editions maps along the coast in County Down at Killowen, Lee Stone and Annalong.
The Water Guard was relatively short lived, with recommendations made in 1821 to transfer the authority for the protection of the coast to the Board of Customs, which would see the amalgamation of the separate administrations into a single one; the Coast Guard (the conjoining of coast and guard did not happen until the 10th century). In 1822 the Coast Guard was formed. While still under the Board of Customs, the Admiralty started taking an interest and granted authority for Officers to be appointed. This began a close association, with the Coast Guard being used both as a recruiting proxy for the Royal Navy but also as a form of reserve.
In 1856, following the passing of the Coast Guard Service Act, a further change was made when the Coast Guard was transferred from the Board of Customs to the Admiralty to “make better provision for the defences of the coast of the realm, for ready manning of the Navy in case of war and for the protection of the Revenue.” This would in effect give all Coast Guard personnel, Officers and Seamen, the same pay and privileges as members of the Navy, including pensions. This did come at a cost, and I am sure not all Coast Guard men were pleased that they would now be subject to the same military law as military personnel, and would be liable for court martial in the event of any indiscretions!
The move to the Admiralty reflected a decline in smuggling activities, and while the primary organisation for life saving activities was the National Institution for Preservation of Life from Shipwrecks (established 1824) and latterly the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (established 1850s), the Coast Guard still provided assistance to the life saving organisations. Their role was Naval in manner, with Coastguardmen undertaking training in gunnery and signalling.
The Act of 1856 also gave authority for Officers of Coast Guard to command Royal Naval Coast Volunteers (RNCV). This militia was formed in 1852 as a Naval Reserve only months before the Crimean War broke out. The man in charge of raising 1,000 troops5This was 10% of the total number sought across the British Isles. While Ireland did not struggle to raise these numbers, the rest of Britain did. for the RNCV in Ireland was Captain Jerningham, the Inspector of the Coast Guard in Ireland. At this stage, I am unsure if any of the Northern Ireland ports of coastal regions has any RNCV troops stationed there, most recorded recruitment efforts took place in the West of Ireland. The RNCV was short lived, and unsuccessful, being disbanded in 1873.
Records indicate6As summarised in the Historic England publication on the history of Coastguard that there were two phases of development in the late-19th and early-20th century. The first following the Act of 1856 where new stations were built and existing stations modified, and again in 1903 when leased land was purchased and further construction was undertaken. It was around this time when the Board of Public Works took over the design and construction of Coastguard Stations, and a common design emerged.
Locally, this was most likely the period in which ‘old’ stations were abandoned in favour of larger sites and the construction of ‘new’ stations. For example, a number of stations moved locations around this period: Port Rush, Port Ballintrae, Ballycastle, Port Muck, Whitehead, Bangor, Cloghy, Ardglass, and Lee Stone.
The early 1900s saw further development in the role of the Coastguard. Shore-to-ship communication had traditionally been achieved through coded flags on permanent flagstaffs located at Coastguard stations, or by the use of semaphore. With the development of the wireless telegraph, signal stations were established in conjunction with existing CG stations. These new signal stations enabled more efficient and rapid communication with Naval vessels at sea around the coast of the British Isles. There are a number of known signal stations in the coastal regions of Northern Ireland included in the gazetteer, namely at Millin Hill behind Tara CGS and at Torr Head, possibly operated by the Post Office as well as a Port War Signal Station (PWSS) at Orlock Hill which, in conjunction with the nearby coast artillery battery, would have confirmed the identity of shipping prior to entering Belfast Lough.
First World War
Prior to the outbreak of war in 1914, the Board of Trade recorded discussions7National Archives reference T 1/11552. Due to the temporary closure of the archives I have only seen the record for this item, not the contents. for the “improved arrangements for coast-watching for life-saving purposes.” From the minutes of the meeting we know this was the acquisition of sites, construction of huts with telephones and the provision of cottages for the watchers.
“to ensure that the coasts were adequately watched against the landing of enemy agents and attack by enemy ships, and, to make efficient arrangements for the saving of life (…) The duties expanded in wartime and included the dangerous job of defusing sea-mines washed ashore.”Shipminder, Bernard Scarlett. Chapter: The Coastguard Goes to War
In peace time, having a Coastguard service that would act as a Naval reserve would make sense. A large body of men that could be mobilised at a moments notice, who are already in the service of the Admiralty and who have training in gunnery and signalling. However, with the outbreak of war in 1914, the call up of the Coastguard left a gap. Initially the army took over the smaller, now abandoned, stations and conducted coastal patrols.8Book: Shipminder, 1971 A heavy reliance was placed on those remaining members of the coastguard for their local expertise, and calls for civilians were put out to increase manpower. While a 1915 record in the National Archive9ADM 137/1906 – Covering letter M15914, 16 February 1915 records a poster offering rewards not only to those people employed (more likely volunteering) as coast watchers, but also to civilians for “reporting sightings of enemy submarines, other craft and mines.” This gap was also, it seems, filled with Boy Scouts10Wayland Wordsmith Blog. Scouts, aged 14 and over (although it was argued to lower this age limit) would work up to 12 hour shifts watching the coast, split between patrolling and manning the lookout posts. As with much of my research, evidence is focussed on the roles in the south of England, there is a loose assumption that a lot of these practices would have extended to the coast of Ireland.
Civilians would also have been used for coast watching duties, and reference to a lesser known organisation known as the Coast Watching Service (CWS) are few and far between. A single image exists that I can find which shows a civilian coast watcher, wearing a CW armband, with a caption on the image referencing the Coast Watching Service. The image is from Kent, on the south coast of England, and not Northern Ireland, but the same organisation may have extended to Ireland.
It is with even more intrigue that during the Irish War of Independence Coastguard stations were considered a legitimate target for the Irish Republican Army, They were viewed as British military outposts, and attacks could provide fruitful booty such as weapons, ammunition and signalling equipment. One station that was attacked was that at Torr Head in 1920; a Coastguard and War Signal Station. This particular station was abandoned after that episode having been set alight by the attackers.
In 192311Hansard 12 March 1923 there was a decision in parliament regarding the future of the Coastguard. Other than the wireless operations in the Signal Stations, there was little support provided by the Coastguard to the Navy. It was proposed that responsibility for the elements of the Coastguard be passed back from the Admiralty to the Board of Trade.
|Total Coastguard establishment in 1923||2,925 coastguards|
|Admiralty retained for naval shore wireless service||352 personnel|
|Transfer to Board of Customs||450 personnel|
|Transfer to Board of Trade for lifesaving service||935 personnel|
While concerns were raised about the loss of coast watching ability, it was assured that recruitment would be “from the present coastguard, and in future from retired naval officers and pensioners, it is not easy to see in what respect the efficiency of the service could really be adversely affected.” In 1931 the question was raised again in parliament12Hansard, with a committee seeking to assess the “efficiency and adequacy of the present organisation for carrying out the coast-watching duties of the coastguard service.” The results of this committee are unknown, however in the same year the support from auxiliaries was enhanced, resulting in the foundation of what would become the Coastguard Auxiliary Service.
While main Coastguard stations were permanently manned by the regular Coastguardsmen, auxiliaries manned a greater number of auxiliary watching stations or lookouts along the coast. In terms of research, these will be difficult to locate as they would most likely not have been reliably recorded on Ordnance Survey mapping, however Watch Houses (Watch Ho.) and Coastguard Lookouts have been recorded in places.
Second World War
The Second World War saw responsibility for the Coastguard initially pass to the Ministry of Shipping in 1939, presumably to control allied shipping in the coastal regions, but this was short lived when the value as an early warning organisation was realised and it was passed back to the Admiralty in 1940, where it remained for the duration of the war.
One area for which I have struggled to find more information is on the Coast Watching Service of the Royal Navy. One can assume that following the 1923 removal of coast watching from the Coastguard responsibilities, that the Admiralty stood up the ‘new’ service of Coast Watchers in response. Likely staffed by volunteer women, probably from the WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) as well as civilians, the roles of the Coast Watching Service (CWS) would have been similar to those during the First World War.
The image below shows auxiliary coastguards on duty. They are made up of men who would have been too old for regular army service, and who would not have been in protected professions. While they are badged coastguard, note the cap badge and ‘coastguard’ shoulder title, they appear to be wearing army khaki battle dress as opposed to naval or traditional coastguard uniforms. They are also unarmed.
Another tantalising record in the archives is WO 199/1129. I have not been able to visit and read the documents, but the records sit in the War Office files, specifically relating to coast artillery, and relate to the hand over of the coast watching chain. It is of course speculation as to what the documents contain at this stage, but it would be no surprise that the coast artillery chain of command would be interested in the resources of the Coast Watching Service.
Irish Coast Watchers
During the 1939 – 1945 emergency as declared by the Republic of Ireland, the government, who remained neutral throughout the war, constructed a national network of 83 Look Out Posts (LOP) around their coast, manned by soldiers. The posts were constructed out of prefabricated concrete blocks, 137 of them, and situated on strategic positions that would enable any infringements of the nations neutrality to be recorded and reported. While unconnected to both the British war effort and any Northern Irish cost watching service, information derived from the Irish CWS often found its way to Whitehall. The service also provided a similar lifesaving function to their British counterparts; reporting shipwrecks and preventing looting from them, recovering casualties and bodies from the water, and monitoring shipping and submarine activity. The Irish CWS was disbanded in 1945.
Since the end of the Second World War, the need for a large network of coastguard stations around the coast has diminished. With a much reduced need for revenue protection, and with greater advances in ship-to-shore communication, weather forecasting and rescue craft technology, lifesaving services can be provided from further away in a greater range of conditions. Most original coastguard stations have been demolished, lie empty, or have been converted into modern living accomodation. The hay-day of British and Irish coastguards was most definitely the 1800s.
The following interactive map places all known Water Guard and Coast Guard locations around the coast of Northern Ireland. This locational information has been mainly derived from historical Ordnance Survey mapping. Also included are Signal Stations and Watch Houses. The layers can be added or removed by exposing the toolbar using the tab at the top left of the map frame.
Coast Guard Stations (1820-1821)
The earliest record available online 13This article was written during the lockdown of 2020 where access was limited to online material only come from the Coast Guard personnel register of 1820 – 1821 held in the National Archive14National Archive record ADM 175.
The following table of stations have been extracted as being located in modern-day Northern Ireland. Each Coast Guard Station or CGS was equipped with a small establishment of personnel, typically consisting of a Chief Officer, a Chief Boatman, two Commissioned Boatmen and between four and eight Boatmen. According to these records, there were over 20 stations around the coast of NI established in 1820.
|Station Name||Location15Clicking on the location will take you to a map pin of the station.|
|Lee Stone||54.06267, -5.96783|
|Terela (Tyrella)||54.24792, -5.75602|
|St Johns Point||54.22838, -5.65815|
|Gunus Island (Gunns Island)||54.29654, -5.55686|
|Black Head||54.76707, -5.68919|
|Port Muck||54.84773, -5.72644|
|Ballygally Head||54.89903, -5.86126|
|Point of Garrow (Garron)||55.04782, -5.96457|
|Point (Port) Scalberg||Unknown|
|Tor (Torr) Head||55.19481, -6.06752|
|Isle of Rathlin||Unknown|
New Division Structure (1863)
By 1863 the existing Districts had been renamed as Divisions, and regrouping of the stations had taken place. There were 45 stations divided between 5 Divisions. The only station not to be assigned as Division was Belfast, with a possibility this was the location the District Headquarters. No location for the Belfast station has yet been identified. Noting the difference in place name spelling, the Divisions were:
- Ballycastle Division covered the northern coast and comprised 10 stations: Downhill, Port Rush, Port Ballintrae, Port Ballintoy, Ballycastle (Division head station), Rathlin Island, Torr Head, Cushendun, Cushendall and the Point of Garron.
- Carrickfergus Division effectively protected Belfast Lough and comprised 9 stations: Glenarm, Ballygally, Larne, Port Muck, Black Head, Kilroot, Carrickfergus (Division head station), Whitehouse and Hollywood.
- Donaghadee Division oversaw 12 stations: Lisburn, Cultra, Clandeboye, Bangor, Groomsport, Crawford’s Bourne, Orlock Hill, Donaghadee (Division head station), Millisle, Ballywalter, Roddens, and Cloghy.
- Strangford Division was the smallest with only 5 stations and covered the entrance to Strangford Lough: Tara, Portaferry, Strangford (Division head station), Killard and Gunns Island.
- Newcastle Division consisted of 7 stations: Ardglass, Killough, St Johns Point, Newcastle (Division head station), Analong, Leestones, Tyrella and Dundrum.
Nineteenth Century Expansion
Through the nineteenth century the number of Coast Guard stations around the coast of Northern Ireland doubled from 20 in 1820 to 45 in 1863, not including some short lived stations that appeared once or twice in the middle of the century. The table below is a comparison of those places as the coverage expanded. Note that place names are spelled as they appear in the list of stations in the Coast Guard personnel records.
|Stations listed in the 1820-1821|
|Stations listed in the 1822-1826|
|Stations listed in the 1826-1836|
|Stations listed in the|
|Stations listed in the|
|Port Rush||Port Rush||Port Rush||Port Rush|
|Ballintrae||Port Ballintrae||Port Ballintrae||Port Ballintrae|
|Ballintoy||Port Ballintoy||Port Ballintoy||Port Ballintoy|
|Isle of Rathlin||Rathlin Island||Rathlin Island||Rathlin Island||Rathlin Island|
|Tor Head||Torr Head||Torr Head||Torr Head||Torr Head|
|Point of Garrow (Garron)||Point of Garron||Point of Garron||Point of Garron||Point of Garron|
|Port Muck||Port Muck||Portmuck||Port Muck||Port Muck|
|Black Head||Black Head||Black Head||Black Head||Black Head|
|Lisburn16This may have been an administrative station, or as a customs post controlled goods entering the town along the canal.||Lisburn|
|Crawford’s Bourne||Crawfords Bourne||Crawford’s Bourne|
|Orlock hill||Orlock Hill||Orlock Hill|
|Ballyhalbert||Ballyhalbert||Ballyhalbert||Ballyhalbert||Roddens (aka Ballyhalbert)|
|Strangford Lough||Strangford Lough||Strangford||Strangford|
|Portaferry||Port a Ferry||Portaferry|
|Gunus Island||Gunns Island||Gunns Island||Gunns Island||Gunns Island|
|St Johns Point||St Johns Point||St Johns Point||St Johns Point||St Johns Point|
|Lee Stone||Lee Stone||Lee Stone||Leestones|
|Killowen17A Water Guard station at Killowen is recorded in the first edition OS maps, but does not appear in the Coast Guard register until 1827|
|20 Stations||36 Stations||38 Stations||43 Stations||45 Stations|
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) provides a 24-hour maritime search and rescue service around the UK with lifesaving functions delegated to the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI). There is currently one MCA station in Northern Ireland, at Bangor, and eight RNLI lifeboat stations in operation around the sea coast of NI, providing inshore and offshore capabilities.
- Portrush Lifeboat Station, established 1842. Lifeboat house constructed 1860
- Red Bay (Cushendall) Lifeboat Station, established 1972/3
- Larne Lifeboat Station, established 1994
- Bangor Lifeboat Station, established 1964
- Donaghadee Lifeboat Station, established 1910
- Portaferry Lifeboat Station, established 1980
- Rossglass Lifeboat Station, established in 1825 at Rossglass, the station moved to St John’s Point Coastguard Station until 1843. Finally the services moved to Newcastle in 1854
- Kilkeel Lifeboat Station, established 1986
Historic Coastguard Station Gallery
There are a number of resources online that have images of the coastguard stations as they once were. The most common medium that has captured these stations are postcards. In particular after the expansion and new building programme of the late 1800s, a coastguard station would have been a grand building in many poorer coastal regions across Northern Ireland, and as such drawn attention. With their colourful flagstaffs they would have been an intentional landmark and subject of these images.
Identifying Other Structures
The structures synonymous with the coastguard are the coastguard stations, sometimes referred to as cottages. They remain in large numbers across the country and what little documentary evidence, written and photographic that remains often concerns these large structures. For the smaller ancillary buildings, there is less information. I will take a few of these structures that can still be found around the Northern Irish coast and attempt to piece together their purpose or chronology.
All structures identified here should also be on the Google Maps in the Gazetteer section.
Inter-War Auxiliary Lookout
I have identified two lookouts that may date from the First World War, or certainly between wars. They are both in County Down; one at Ballyquintin Point and the other at Donaghadee Harbour. Despite appearances, they are identical. The metal supports at Ballyquintin have been added to support the roof, and the post at Donaghadee has had the large aperture windows blocked up. They are both constructed of local stone with some red brick facing, and are covered in a cement render. They also both contain low level air vents.
1920s Auxiliary Coastguard Lookout
Below are two maps of a Coastguard Auxiliary Station at Garron Point or Point of Garron as it has been recorded. A Coast Guard Station is recorded here from the early days in 1820/21, however no CGS is ever marked on the map at this location. There is also a boathouse marked on the map. On the First Edition OS map (1832 – 1846) a signal post has been recorded on top of the cliffs at Garron Point but this label has been removed by the Second Edition and the building disappears altogether after that. Also at this time, Garron Tower is constructed along with a row of cottages (marked Post Office). The tower has a magazine marked on the map.
A signal post on top of the cliffs, with a structure behind it may have been the small coast guard station, with the boat house on the shore to respond to vessels in distress. A signal post would have been used to communicate, using flags with ships at sea, and the vantage point on the cliffs would have been ideal for such a post. The boat house may have been a double level house as seen elsewhere, with the boat below and small quarters and a watch house above for the crew. With the inclusion of a magazine in Garron Tower, it is possible that the CGS was equipped with a Manby Mortar; a rocket rope throwing device to project a rescue line to ships in need. The tower may also have been used to house a watch room. It is also possible that the cottages along the road were built to house a small coast guard crew. There is a lot of speculation. All we know for certain, is that a Coast Guard Station was located at Garron Point, somewhere.
The images below are some of the few that survive of this unremarkable structure at Garron Point. It is a small, square structure, two stories high, with a top floor lookout post. The presence of what appears to be a chimney would indicate there may have been a stove inside, with perhaps a small restroom on the ground floor. While not a watch house of the 1800s, it is almost certainly a watch house, perhaps of the Auxiliary Coastguards.
To compare and identify this structure, an image has been found of an almost identical post in Devon, confirmed as a Coastguard Auxiliary Station. This station dates from between 1905 and 1928 (based on mapping). The structure above at Garron Point does not appear on any historical OS maps.
Second World War Auxiliary Lookout
If you noticed on the Garron Point auxiliary lookout image, there was an annex at the front of the lookout post. Similar to a pillbox, I believe this can now be identified as a Second World War observation post. The large windows of a peacetime lookout post have been replaced by small, precast concrete loopholes.
These were not defensive structures, it would have not be possible to fire weapons from the very narrow loopholes, but their inclusion at eye-level would have facilitated observation of the coast while offering a moderate level of protection from shrapnel or small-arms fire.
I am keen to find out more information on a number of aspects of Northern Irish coast watching, in particular during wartime. If you have any information on the following areas I would love to hear from you.
- Signal stations and their construction, location and equipment. In particular their operation during the First and Second World Wars.
- Lookout posts. When were they constructed, and where around the coast? Who manned them? Did we indeed have Boy Scouts patrolling our coasts in Northern Ireland, or were civilians called up in a similar fashion to the Home Guard?
- Department for the Communities Historic Buildings Database
- Coastguard Records – A guide from the National Archives on researching Coastguard personnel
- Coastguard documents available in the National Archives
- Coast-Guard Service Act (1856)
- Historic England guidance on the history of Coastguard stations
- Hanson Clan Coastguard History
- History of Skerries Coastguard
- Coastguards of Yesteryear – A site dedicated to the Coastguards who lived and worked around the Irish coastline between the 18th and early 20th centuries
- Look Out Post – A site dedicated to recording the Second World War look out posts (LOP) constructed round the coast of Eire during the 1939 – 1945 emergency
- Royal Naval Coast Volunteers, Ireland and the Crimean War
- PRONI Historic Map Viewer – An online archive of OS early edition maps for locating places and Coastguard stations