Guarding the Coast

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.

History

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.

Organisation Chronology

  • 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.

The Admiralty

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.

(Above) In this image from a photograph dated between 1880 and 1900, a member of the Coast Guard can be seen in Ardglass, complete with Naval uniform and a scope. Image from the online archive of the National Library of Ireland (NLI)

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.

(Above) An example of the old and new Coastguard stations can be seen in this early 1900s photograph of Port Muck. The new station sits on the hill, with cottages for the coastguardsmen and Officer, and what is likely to be the old station is in the foreground (left) consisting of a small watch office over a boathouse © National Library of Ireland
(Above) The ‘new’ Coastguard Station at Portballintrae was constructed in 1873 and is a common design seen elsewhere across Northern Ireland. Photograph © National Library of Ireland

Signal Stations

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.

(Above) The CGS at Ballygally with the flagstaff proudly flying the white ensign. This flagstaff would be used to pass signals to nearby shipping, limited by visual range when using a telescope.
(Above) The early 1900s signal station on Millin Hill, above the Coastguard Station at Tara. This small cottage and outside dry closet (toilet) would have housed a small crew of coastguardmen. Beside the cottage, and behind the photographer, are the technical buildings, likely built during the first and second world wars consecutively to house the signal equipment. © Author 2020

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.

(Above) A lookout post at Ballyquintin, one of a number still existing of the same construction, that I believe were constructed as part of the 1913 plan to improve arrangements for coast watching. I am yet to find evidence of the timeline of construction. © Author 2020

“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.

THE BOY SCOUTS ASSOCIATION IN BRITAIN, 1914-1918 (Q 19969) Members of the Sea Scouts taking messages and semaphoring to a Torpedo Boat Destroyer at sea © IWM. Original Source

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.

(Above) Mine disposal in the First World War: a mine washed up on the Kent coast, attended by Coast Watching Service (note the CW armband on the gentleman on the left). Copyright IWM Q 102204, permitted for reuse on websites that are primarily information-led, research-oriented and not behind a paywall © IWM

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 19232,925 coastguards
Admiralty retained for naval shore wireless service352 personnel
Transfer to Board of Customs450 personnel
Transfer to Board of Trade for lifesaving service935 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.

(Above) An auxiliary Coastguard patrol seen in 1943. With an average age of 50 years old, 400 additional auxiliaries were recruited for coastguard duties during World War Two along the Sussex coast. An image from the Imperial War Museum (A 17027), the caption reads: Station officer William Atkinson, who is in charge of a strip of coastline, examines a distant vessel through his telescope. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source

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.

Gazetteer

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 NameLocation15Clicking on the location will take you to a map pin of the station.
Cranfield54.03064, -6.05844
Lee Stone54.06267, -5.96783
Annalong54.10197, -5.9103
Newcastle54.1956, -5.88448
Terela (Tyrella)54.24792, -5.75602
St Johns Point54.22838, -5.65815
Gunus Island (Gunns Island)54.29654, -5.55686
Tara54.36442, -5.48506
Cloghy54.42385, -5.47312
Ballyhalbert54.48814, -5.43425
Millisle54.58991, -5.50664
Groomsport54.67857, -5.62156
Black Head54.76707, -5.68919
Port Muck54.84773, -5.72644
Ballygally Head54.89903, -5.86126
Point of Garrow (Garron)55.04782, -5.96457
Point (Port) ScalbergUnknown
Cushendun55.12545, -6.0423
Tor (Torr) Head55.19481, -6.06752
Isle of RathlinUnknown
Ballycastle55.20726, -6.24014
Locations of the first Coast Guard stations around the coast of Northern Ireland. All locations are on the interactive map.

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
record
Stations listed in the 1822-1826
record
Stations listed in the 1826-1836
record
Stations listed in the
1827-1848
record
Stations listed in the
1863
record
DownhillDownhillDownhill
Port Stewart
Port RushPort RushPort RushPort Rush
BallintraePort BallintraePort BallintraePort Ballintrae
BallintoyPort BallintoyPort BallintoyPort Ballintoy
BallycastleBallycastleBallycastleBallycastleBallycastle
Ballycastle Colliery
Isle of RathlinRathlin IslandRathlin IslandRathlin IslandRathlin Island
Murlough Bay
Tor HeadTorr HeadTorr HeadTorr HeadTorr Head
CushendumCushendunCushendunCushendunCushendun
Pattonsfalls
CushendallCushendallCushendall
Point of Garrow (Garron)Point of GarronPoint of GarronPoint of GarronPoint of Garron
GlenarmGlenarmGlenarmGlenarm
Port Scalberg
Ballygally HeadBallygallyBallygallyBallygallyBallygally
LarneLarneLarneLarne
Port MuckPort MuckPortmuckPort MuckPort Muck
Black HeadBlack HeadBlack HeadBlack HeadBlack Head
KilrootKilroot
CarrickfergusCarrickfergusCarrickfergusCarrickfergus
WhitehouseWhitehouseWhitehouse
BelfastBelfast
Lisburn16This may have been an administrative station, or as a customs post controlled goods entering the town along the canal.Lisburn
HollywoodHollywoodHollywoodHollywood
Cultra
Clandeboye
Gray Point
BangorBangorBangor
Crawford’s BourneCrawfords BourneCrawford’s Bourne
GroomsportGroomsportGroomsportGroomsportGroomsport
Orlock hillOrlock HillOrlock Hill
Copeland Island
DonaghadeeDonaghadeeDonaghadee
MillisleMillisleMillisleMillisleMillisle
BallywalterBallywalterBallywalterBallywalter
BallyhalbertBallyhalbertBallyhalbertBallyhalbertRoddens (aka Ballyhalbert)
CloghyCloghyCloghyCloghyCloghy
TaraTaraTaraTaraTara
Strangford LoughStrangford LoughStrangfordStrangford
PortaferryPort a FerryPortaferry
KillardKillard
Gunus IslandGunns IslandGunns IslandGunns IslandGunns Island
ArdglassArdglassArdglassArdglass
KilloughKillough
St Johns PointSt Johns PointSt Johns PointSt Johns PointSt Johns Point
TerelaTerelaTerelaTyrella
Dundrum
NewcastleNewcastleNewcastleNewcastleNewcastle
AnnalongAnnalongAnalongAnnalongAnalong
Lee StoneLee StoneLee StoneLeestones
CrandfieldCranfieldCranfieldCranfield
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 Stations36 Stations38 Stations43 Stations45 Stations
This table shows the expansion of Coast Guard stations throughout the 1800s, with 20 stations operating in 1820 through to 45 stations in 1863.

Twenty Twenty

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.

  1. Portrush Lifeboat Station, established 1842. Lifeboat house constructed 1860
  2. Red Bay (Cushendall) Lifeboat Station, established 1972/3
  3. Larne Lifeboat Station, established 1994
  4. Bangor Lifeboat Station, established 1964
  5. Donaghadee Lifeboat Station, established 1910
  6. Portaferry Lifeboat Station, established 1980
  7. 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
  8. 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.

(Above) Ballyquintin Point lookout. You can view the full album from this post on Flickr © Author
(Above) Donaghadee Harbour lookout. You can view the full album from this post on Flickr © Author
(Above) An aerial image of Donaghadee from 1929 shows the lookout on the harbour wall indicating that it predates the Second World War © Britain From Above XPW028730

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.

The image above (from nci.org.uk) was taken during the restoration of a Coastguard Auxiliary Station at Charlestown, Devon. During their research, they established it was constructed between 1905 and 1928, and appears to have been used until around 1984.
(Above) In this only other image of Garron Point that I can find, the Coastguard Auxiliary Station is visible on the horizon, behind the now built row of cottages. The image was taken by WA Green, who retired from photography in 1930, and it is assumed it was taken in this period before his retirement © National Library of Ireland
(Above) A very similar lookout or Coastguard Auxiliary Station exists in Bangor. Only the top floor or lookout has been constructed in this location, and beside a boathouse. Bangor has been equipped with a Coastguard Station since around 1830 © Google Earth
(Above) The third Coastguard Auxiliary Station of this design that I could find was that on the north coast Rathlin Island. You can view more images of this post on Flickr © Author

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.

(Above) A second world war observation post annexed to Garron Point Coastguard Auxiliary Station. Original source unknown
(Above) The observation post at Garron Point is similar in construction to this one at Millin Hill, a signal station. Construction of brick, preformed concrete loophole and concrete slab roof are indicative of Second World War period construction. You can view more images from this station on Flickr © Author
(Above) A third post of this design exists at the Torr Head Signal Station. Constructed with different brick, and without the prefabricated loopholes, these variations may be a result of material availability or local contractor variation. The full gallery from this station can be viewed on Flickr © Author
(Above) Finally, located on a small hill behind Killough Coastguard Station is a final known observation post of this type. It appears to be built on the foundations of an older structure, and is co-located with the base of an earlier flagstaff and modern radio mast © Google Earth

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.


Contribute

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?

There is a high likelihood I will update this article and others with any information provided. If you would like to be credited, please leave your name, otherwise I will put it down to an anonymous contribution.

Further Reading