A Coastguard of Irish Birth

John James Montgomery was my grandfather, born in 1847. A large sepia photograph suggested a huge burly man with a beard like King George V's, and he would have looked well in one of those cork lifejackets worn by Victorian lifeboatmen. "It was a lovely, white, silky and oh so fashionable beard" wrote Molly Jee, one of his South African grand-children, old enough to remember him before he died in 1921. Sailors had become national heroes in the course of the nineteenth century, and John James must once have looked like the handsome fellow on the front of Players Cigarette packets.

Hugh Montgomery and Maria Burriskeel.

John's father Hugh Montgomery was born in Louth in 1819, joining the Royal Irish Constabulary in 1838. He married Maria Burriskeel at Louth in October, 1846 and she gave birth to John James on 20th December,1847 at Hackballscross, near the village of Louth. I have never managed to find anyone else with the surname Burriskeel. John was born in the very worst year of the Irish Potato Famine when policemen thereabouts very probably led too exciting lives. In fact, Hugh died young in 1862, aged 43, whether from ill health, poor food or Fenian attack is uncertain. Some of John's papers had him being born in Carlingford, or Baronstown, Lough (Louth?), and my father always said his father came from Drogheda, the nearest town to Louth, but the very authentic-looking naval parchment said clearly Hackballscross - or more precisely "Hacksballscross". The records show three Montgomerys in Carlingford, and it was to Carlingford that Maria went when widowed, perhaps with younger children, but John James was sent away to sea at the age of fourteen, to earn his keep and send some money home. One can only imagine whether he went forth valiantly, timorously, optimistically, or in despair. Time spares us any agonies of homesickness or sea sickness.

John James Montgomery

John James did not go so very far initially, but to HMS Ajax at Kingstown as a "Second Class Boy" in 1862 - what is now Dun Laoghaire, just South of Dublin. The Ajax had been built in 1809 as a sailing ship, but had later been equipped with steam and screw propulsion and turned into a "blockship" for coastal defence; it would also have been called a "steam guardship". In 1861 her captain and fourteen seamen had been killed heroically attempting to save lives as a huge South-Easterly gale wrecked shipping in the Dublin area. John then spent a short while on HMS Royal Oak - a "broadside ironclad frigate". Ships in those days relied on steam as well as sail; many were constructed of wood but clad in iron; presumably some had muzzle-loading and some breech-loading guns. Then he was transferred to HMS Caledonia, another ironclad, a flagship, for four years in the Mediterranean. A month at Devonport in HMS Royal Adelaide and he was back at Kingstown in HMS Royal George (950 men, 120 guns), and then HMS Pallas which replaced it. After a gunnery course at HMS Excellent at Portsmouth (1st rate, wooden, sail, 104 guns) he found himself a "1st class seaman gunner" on HMS Audacious before transferring to HMS Rapid in the region of Malta, a sloop launched in 1860, wooden, screw propelled, 140 men and 11 guns, . By now he was a Petty Officer 2nd Class. After four years he transferred successively to HMS Lord Warden in the Med., to HMS Duke of Wellington - a Portsmouth hulk housing the Port Admiral, to HMS Excellent and then to HMS Penelope at Harwich. HMS Penelope was another guardship - in fact the flagship of the then Duke of Edinburgh, Admiral-Superintendant of Coastguards.

Smuggling was a major industry throughout the eighteenth century. The Government first attempted to abolish it with the help of "the Preventive Water Guard". In 1816 shore-based naval crews took over from the Preventive Guard in parts of Kent as a "Coast Blockade Service", such men proving to be a useful source of trained seamen in an emergency. By 1822 the Board of Customs had renamed the preventive men as "coastguards"; "riding officers" and "revenue cruisers" were also under this Board's control. The Admiralty was, however, soon appointing Coastguard officers and boatmen from paid-off sailors, and naval-style uniform and drill were adopted. There was training on large guns for coastal defence, but coastguards were also expected to take charge at wrecks (to deter looting) , use life-saving apparatus, and save lives. After the 1856 Coast Guard Act the Admiralty took over the organisation completely.

When John was fourteen, Maria signed in a firm hand "I Maria Montgomery (Widow of Carlingford in the County of Lough) do hereby consent and agree that my son John James Montgomery do enter for ten years consecutive service in Her Majesty's Royal Navy from the age of 18 years and beg to attach a certificated copy of his baptism.Dated Carlingford this 15th September 1862." He was thus committed for fourteen years as a seaman. After ten years' sea service from the age of eighteen, and by the age of twenty-eight, many seamen, wished to settle down ashore, marry and raise a family. Thus in 1875, whilst on the payroll of HMS Penelope, John James was posted to the coastguard station at the Sizewell Gap in Suffolk, as a "Coastguard Boatman". The look-out and cottages there are still visible there, in what had once been a most remote and smuggler-infested location. Subsequently John was on the payroll of HMS Hotspur and HMS Mersey, but he was moved round a good number of East Coast coastguard stations in practice during these years. Coastguards remained part of the naval reserve and, with this in mind, boatmen were required to go on an annual cruise and serve in any emergency.

It was as a coastguard reservist that, on 11th July, 1882, John James found himself aboard HMS Penelope off Alexandria, bombarding Fort Mex. His ship was launched at Pembroke in 1867, initially classed as an armoured corvette, and was the last of the ironclads to be built. From 1869 to 1882 she was the guardship at Harwich. In 1882 when her squadron was at Gibraltar she was transferred on account of her shallow draught to go to the Suez Canal operations. She was part of the inshore attacking group of ships, together with HMS Monarch and HMS Invincible and, because of her shallow draught, was closest inshore near the Western Batteries and Fort Meix. One of the Penelope's 8-inch guns was damaged, as was her mainyard, but she fired off 231 shells. The batteries and lines of Meix were silenced and partially destroyed. The Penelope became the flagship in the area until hostilities ended before returning to less exciting duties at Harwich.

The Government had constructed little groups of coastguard cottages every five miles or so round the coast - an outstanding one now overlooks the Minsmere Nature Reserve, and was the next Station north of Sizewell Gap, both sets of buildings having been established there in 1827. Many seaside residents had been involved in lucrative smuggling, and coastguards were not universally welcome as lodgers or neighbours. The construction of coastguard cottages made it easier to lodge the boatmen, man good look-out points, as well as "establish a presence". Men were moved every few years lest they become too friendly with the locals. The Government's policy was a success, even if it made heavy demands on coastguard families: the worst of the smuggling was, however, over by the 1870s.

More serious matters were afoot on the domestic front. On 2nd May, 1876, John James married Ellen Knappett at Leiston Parish Church. Their daughter Ellen was born in 1877 at Winterton, to which Coastguard Station John had next been posted. I can remember the younger Ellen as "Aunt Nell", a dear old lady some twenty years older than my father. Alas her mother Ellen died, probably in childbirth, and John James (with so very little experience of family life) suddenly found himself a widower, responsible for a baby. Selina English, the young daughter of a Caister Coastguard, looked after this baby, and later married John James in Caister Parish Church - on 5th May 1879. Their first son John J (my"Uncle Jack") was born at Winterton in 1880. In 1881 the little family had moved to 9 Coastguard Buildings, Harwich, daughters Selina Jane ("Aunt Cissie") and Mary Lilian ("Aunt Lil") being born there in 1882 and 1883 respectively. Frances (Auntie Francie") was born at Tollesbury in 1886, Caroline ("Aunt Carrie") in 1888.The family was at West Mersea in 1889. Eva arrived in 1891 at Sidney Street, Brightlingsea. Richard ("Uncle Dick") was born in 1896, and my father Bob in 1900, both at Great Yarmouth. With so many moves in the course of a lifetime it is not surprising that there was sparse investment in good furniture. With so many changes of school it is a wonder that my uncles and aunts were as literate and well-spoken as they were. It is worth adding that, although life in the armed services can traditionally involve a great deal of bad language, none of this was ever apparent in the family circle.

Coastguard Buildings, Harwich was built in 1858, initially for artillery men, to look like some rather severe almshouses round an open courtyard in the centre of historic Harwich. The later lifeboat shed alongside might very well be the chapel. Set just behind the sea wall these buildings now overlook the Harwich Town Yacht Club and, such are the blessings of gentrification, have now been re-named the "Angelgate Cottages". The lifeboat shed is now a museum. The 1876 lifeboat shed came about following the "Wreck of the Deutschland" in 1875, near the Kentish Knock, a disaster commemorated in a poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins. The heavy loss of life from this German ship carrying emigrants caused the Government to establish this lifeboat station at Harwich, introducing the lifeboat "Springwell". John James was stationed at Harwich for the 1881 Census, and the Springwell was overturned in the harbour on 18th January that year during a vicious South East gale.

Tollesbury in Essex was notorious for its smugglers, who used all their tidal creeks to their advantage. By 1879 the Government had had enough of such delinquency and established two blocks of substantial coastguard cottages in Mells Road, sufficient for a powerful detachment of coastguards. The "crab and winkle" railway and the pier were yet to be built when John and Selina lived in one of these cottages. At Brightlingsea the coastguard cottages were yet to be built, and the family lived in a cottage in Sidney Street, probably close to the "Cinque Ports Warehouse", built to receive salvage from wrecks. (There had been a nasty incident in 1849 after fishermen from the town had ransacked a large vessel on the Kentish Knock, out in the Thames Estuary!)

The Coastguard Station at Devonshire Road, just off the Promenade at Great Yarmouth, was substantial, with two commissioned officers. John James was a "Chief Boatman", a senior petty officer. As at his earlier stations there must have been a good deal of routine work - noting passing ships, signalling, hoisting North Cones, looking out for blue lights at night, firing maroons. There were family stories of John James returning home covered in ice, of swimming out with a line on nine occasions to wrecks, or to ships in difficulty. It was not always clear whether such stories were actually true, the family members being of a hearty, cheerful disposition and, whilst by no means boastful, given to spinning a good yarn. The East Coast of England was notorious for the number of wrecks, more vessels coming to grief there than anywhere else in the world. Many were fishing vessels, others were colliers sailing between Newcastle and London, some were sailing barges. The North Sea could quickly become very rough, and the grim North-Easter was rightly feared.

John James was pensioned on the last day of December, 1897, being aged fifty. He continued to live with his family at 29 Devonshire Road, Great Yarmouth, and then moved to No.38. The 1901 Census shows a petty officer and two ratings as lodgers. Kelly's Directory for 1904 has them advertising "apartments". The family moved to a large rented house at 35 Victoria Road, close to the Front, and Selina ran this as a boarding house. John James worked for a while as caretaker of the British School, sweeping the yard and bringing in the coke. This was a school of the (Nonconformist) British and Foreign Schools Society, but young Bob, my father, attended the St.Peter's Elementary School from 1905 to 1911, which would have been a school of the Church of England's "National Society". The family worshipped as Anglicans, but not sanctimoniously nor excessively. John James died in 1921 and was buried in the cemetery at Caister. Selina, his wife, was eleven years younger than her husband and, after a successful career as a seaside landlady, died in 1941 in the house she had bought. She had been brought up on a coastguard watch vessel herself, a hulk berthed on the extensive mud to the rear of Foulness Island. I recall her as a small, very determined lady, dressed in black, extremely sensible and capable of writing a good letter. She was the mother of seven children, several with naval connections. She took my father severely to task for trying to teach me to wink when I was about three, this being likely to damage my eyesight. The old sailors in the family would have taken a more light-hearted view of things and, for example, had managed to teach young Bob to score at cribbage by that age.

I can only remember the routine in the Great Yarmouth home when some of the younger children were living there in their old age. There would be a heavy breakfast, with two fried eggs for the men and one for the women, a matter which irritated my mother Molly who had the makings of a modern feminist about her. Lunch and supper would be quite modest: corned beef, sausages or fish, with plenty of bread and butter. There might be a bottle of beer for Dick. There would be plenty of "fly cups" of tea at intervals throughout the day. Cribbage, whist or patience helped the quiet hours pass. Little snatches of song came down via my father, some from his college days, some from his naval father, I suspect. "Hey raja rum, hey raja rum, flingamalingamalujiam, hey raja rum" sounded from the bathroom; "my father owned a boarding house..." probably referred to a more exciting establishment, so I now guess.

The Montgomery family members world-wide all tend to have names like John, Hugh or Montgomery, but I do not know anything of the families of Hugh Montgomery and Maria Burriskeel before 1818. They may have had sea-going connections through Carlingford or elsewhere.

Robert Montgomery, Stowmarket, January 2008.

1 Comment · 14264 Reads · Print  -> Posted by rjmontgomery on February 22 2008


#1 | Elisabeth on 08/10/2009 18:12:40
John James Montgomery was almost an exact contemporary of Frederick Ashby (1851-1943) whose memoir I have recently posted as an Article. His naval career sounds similar, and the two men MUST have known each other at Great Yarmouth after Frederick arrived there in 1894. I'd be interested in any detail about the various Coastguard Stations at Yarmouth as I don't know the area. Elisabeth

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