A Coastguard family


Nineteenth-century coastguards must have formed a close-knit group. Mostly ex-naval men, they presumably shared a sense of camaraderie . Often stationed as coastguards in remote spots, moved every few years to prevent them becoming too friendly with the locals, and often viewed with suspicion by those many locals with smuggling sympathies, coastguards were presumably drawn to marrying each others' daughters. The more generous notion that "every nice girl loves a sailor" was only to develop later in the general population!


My grandfather John James Montgomery was born in starving 1847 Ireland. His 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. It was to Carlingford that Maria went when widowed, for her husband Hugh died at the very young age of 43, in 1862.

John James was sent away to sea at the age of fourteen, to make a living and send some money home. His mother signed the paper in a firm hand when he was fourteen, committing him immediately to the Royal Navy, and specifically to ten years' service from eighteen to twenty-eight. At twenty-eight, naval personnel could join the Coastguard, receive shore postings, but be available for naval service if necessary. This allowed them to get married and raise families. John did not go so very far initially, but to HMS Ajax at Kingstown in 1862 - what is now Dun Laoghaire, just South of Dublin. The Ajax was a "blockship" or "steam guardship". for coastal defence. For most of his naval service John was active in the Mediterranean, becoming a senior petty officer.

At the age of twenty-eight John wished to settle down ashore, marry and raise a family. So, in 1875, whilst on the payroll of HMS Penelope, John James was posted to the lonely coastguard station at the Sizewell Gap in Suffolk, as a "Coastguard Boatman". The 1827 look-out and cottages are still visible there, in what had once been a smuggler-infested location. John 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 - thus he found himself bombarding Alexandria in 1882.

Equally serious matters were afoot on the domestic front. On 2nd May, 1876. A decisive operator, John James swiftly married an Ellen Knappett at Leiston Parish Church and 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 ("Jack") was born at Winterton in 1880. In 1881 the little family had moved to 9 Coastguard Buildings, Harwich, daughters Selina Jane and Mary Lilian being born there in 1882 and 1883 respectively. Frances was born at Tollesbury in 1886, Caroline in 1888.The family was at West Mersea in 1889. Eva arrived in 1891 at Sidney Street, Brightlingsea. Richard was born in 1896, and my father Bob in 1900, both at Great Yarmouth. . With so many changes of school it is a wonder that my uncles and aunts were as literate and well-spoken as they were.

Coastguard Buildings, Harwich was built in 1858, initially for artillery men, to look like some rather severe almshouses round an open courtyard in the historic centre of Harwich. The later, 1876, lifeboat shed alongside might very well have been the chapel. Set just behind the sea wall these buildings now overlook the Harwich Town Yacht Club and have now been re-named the "Angelgate Cottages". The lifeboat shed is now a museum. The lifeboat was to be manned by the coastguards.

Tollesbury 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; there were riots as the authorities sought to retrieve the goods!)

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. 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, and then moved to No.38. The 1901 Census shows a petty officer and two ratings as lodgers. Kelly's Directory for 1904 had the Montgomerys 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, to take advantage of the growing holiday trade. John James worked for a while as caretaker of the British School, sweeping the yard and bringing in the coke.

It was generally agreed that my grandmother Selina was very acute and capable. She had started to rear her step-daughter at the age of nineteen, married a man of 31 when she was 21 and reared eight children of her own. John James had a dangerous occupation, as did several other relatives. Selina must have been hard hit by the loss of her four-year old Eva. She nursed her son Jack for the last thirty-odd years of his life and brought up Francie's illegitimate baby Lena as her own. Her husband died when she was 62 but she continued working as a sea-side landlady. She then decided to buy her own house at 11 Hamilton Road, despite advice to the contrary from relatives, including her estate-agent daughter Francie, who feared that there would not be sufficient income to cover mortgage and rate payments. It was much less common to buy your own house in the Twenties than in our present "property owning democracy", and unusual for a person of Selina's age and background. When the opportunity arose for her younger children to attend grammar school she ensured that the opportunity was eagerly grasped. Selina had been brought up in a long series of Coastguard cottages and lodgings herself, and even on a hulk, yet she was quite capable of coping emotionally and intellectually with the severe challenges life threw at her.


Selina came from a Harwich family with a long naval tradition. Her father, grandfather and great grandfather were all named William English hailing, initially, from Little Oakley, five miles from the naval port of Harwich. Selina's father, William Henry English (my great-grandfather) was to be a seaman and Coastguard; he was born on 8th December, 1826 and christened on 15th February, 1827 at the Bathside Independent Chapel, Harwich. (Presumably a Congregational chapel). William Henry went to sea from Harwich on 25th May, 1839, on the Revenue Cruizer Badger at the age of twelve as a "2nd Class Boy". This could have been a 10-gun wooden brig-sloop, driven by sail. He became a 1st Class Boy on 16th December, 1840. 1842 found him aboard the Revenue Cruizer Adder at Yarmouth, Isle of White. Apart from eleven days ashore at Swanage in 1847 for "rheumatism" he must have been at sea for some years. He was a "Mariner" by 22nd March, 1848, with Seaman's Ticket No.25235.

Captain Frank Marryatt described life on a Revenue Cutter in his 1836 book The Three Cutters. This was quoted by Leonard P. Thompson in Smugglers of the Suffolk Coast Segment Publications, Orford, 1968.

She is a cutter; and you may know she belongs to the Preventive Service by the number of gigs and galleys which she has hoisted up all around her. She looks like a vessel that was about to sail with a cargo of boats. Two on deck, one astern, one on each side of her. You observe that she is painted black, and all her boats are white. She is not such an elegant vessel as the yacht (described in a previous chapter), and she is much more lumbered up. She has no haunches of venison over the stern; but I think there is a leg of mutton, and some cabbages hanging by their stalks. But revenue cutters are not yachts. - You will find no turtle or champagne; but nevertheless, you will, perhaps, find a joint to carve at, a good glass of grog, and a hearty welcome.

Let us go on board. - You observe the guns are iron, and painted black, and her bulwarks are painted red: it is not a very becoming colour, but then it lasts a long while, and the dockyard is not very generous on the score of paint - or lieutenants of the Navy troubled with much spare cash. She has plenty of men, and fine men they are; all dressed in red flannel shirts, and blue trousers; some of them have not taken off their canvass or tarpauling petticoats, which are very useful to them, as they are in the boats night and day, and in all weathers.

The officers wore the Royal Navy uniform; the seamen dressed like Naval seamen too, being rigged out from their ship's slop chest. There were plenty of available seamen after the Napoleonic Wars, and the Government could address the smuggling problem more easily then than during the hostilities.

There was a curious incident in 1851 when William was discharged, then allowed to be re-instated "by Order of Controller General". It could have been to do with his forthcoming marriage, his girl friend Mary Pitt being the daughter of a coastguard at Freshwater, Isle of Wight. William clearly did marry, and went with his wife to Wales. His first child Mary Anne was born at Milford Haven in 1851, and his son William Henry was born at Mumbles in 1857. He was still aboard the Adder, now described as a tender in 1857, when the Coastguard was re-organised.

The cruizer Adder was a tender to HMS Southampton, and William was Acting Chief Boatswain's Mate. The Southampton was a 4th rate wooden sailing vessel of 60 guns and was the Coastguard vessel at Harwich - presumably the guardship. The Southampton was replaced by the Pembroke after a couple of months, a 3rd rate wooden sail vessel launched in 1812 but converted to steam and screw in 1855. William's daughter Selina Jane, my grandmother, was born 17th November, 1858, at High Street, Queenborough in Kent. The 1861 Census has the family (though not William) living at 1 Belmont Place, Ramsgate. Presumably William was mainly afloat at this time, still on the Adder. On 31st March, 1861 William, aged 35, was transferred to the Coastguard and posted at the St.Nicholas Coastguard Station, Birchington, near Margate. His daughter Frances Rebecca was born there later that year. William was "the Commander's own boatman" by 1862. In 1863 William was stationed at Margate, in the Deal Division, and his daughter Caroline Miranda was born. In 1865 William was stationed at Yantlett Creek and promoted "commissioned boatman". In 1867 William was stationed at East End Lane, Sheerness Division, and the Penelope replaced the Pembroke as the guard ship at Harwich.

The little rows of Coastguard cottages were built around the coast, but "watch vessels" were used at soggy parts of the country such as Foulness, where building was difficult. In the 1990s I sailed out of Maldon on the Thames Barge Reminder, anchoring for the night at the mouth of the River Roach. Seated on the "horse" near the stern for a beer and a chat at dusk the captain pointed with his pipe to a blackened stump in the vast expanses of mud and said that it was believed to be the last remains of HMS Beagle, in which Charles Darwin had voyaged. The vessel was believed to have become "a sort of Coastguard hut or rendezvous". A TV programme in 2004 helped me find out more; I was interested for I was aware that relatives had been Coastguards thereabouts, and Darwin had been a fellow of my college. It appeared that the Beagle had been decommissioned in the 1840s, the masts removed, and finally towed to a place in the river channel as a "Coastguard Watch Vessel". In 1850 it was moved to a "mud dock" at right angles to the main stream for the convenience of local fishermen. In 1870 the vessel was sold off for £525 to two local men, Messrs Murray and Trainer, and some of the accessible upper parts were used to construct a black barn nearby. The lower parts now buried in thick mud five metres deep were possibly to be excavated by archaeologists. Indeed, an amateur lady archaeologist had already excavated some childrens' dolls-house tea sets. (My grandmother Selina would have been 12 in 1871). A Professor Colin Pillinger, then Attempting to land "Beagle 2" on Mars was interested in the project. Mrs Eileen Stage, a Coastguard historian, had told me in 2002 that William Henry English and family were living on a Coastguard watch vessel at Foulness at the time of the 1871 Census, and I wondered if this might have been the Beagle. William English was the "Chief Boatman in Charge" . Improved web-site information later allowed me to find out that the Beagle had been replaced by the Dove in 1870 for a short while, "watch vessels" shortly afterwards being discontinued . The English family moved to Harwich on 30th September, 1871 It must have been a relief to move away from spartan accommodation aboard to a town with shops and schools.

William then became Chief Boatman in Charge at East Swale, in the Harwich Division - his daughter Rose was born there. The he moved to Mundesley in Norfolk, receiving Long Service and Good Conduct Medals. He finally moved to Caister-next-Yarmouth, where he was again Chief Boatman in Charge. In 1884 he was recommended for a Gratuity. Kelly's PO Directory for 1879 reported that there were a coastguard officer and six men at Caister. There was also a company of 40 "beach-men" or "salvagers" who had charge of the RNLI lifeboat. A huge mast and crow's nest, accessed by a strange contraption of inclined ladders, had been erected as a look-out post at Caister, whence observers could see miles of sea, dunes and very flat Norfolk countryside. William received £93-4s-2d per annum as a coastguard. Retiring on 31st December, 1886 at the age of 60 and after 48 years' service he received an annual pension of £62-2s-9d, paid at the Customs, North Yarmouth. In 1901 the Caister lifeboat overturned in the heavy surf, 8 or 9 men died, it being said at the subsequent inquiry that "Caister men never turn back". I do not know whether William Henry had helped inculcate such stern sentiments.

William and Mary English retired to 2 Nile Road, Gillingham, Kent by 1891. Mary died in 1900, William in 1902. Unmarried daughters Caroline (36) and Mary (46) were looking after their parents. In 1891 Lily (21) was a "governess in a private school", Rose (18) was a draper's assistant. Frances Rebecca lived on to 1943, having moved to London.

Great-Great Grandfather

William Henry English married Mary Pitt, who had been born at Downend, Donegal, Ireland in 1833. I had supposed at first that she had been Irish but, in fact, her family proved to come from Portland in Dorset; her father Edward being a naval or coastguard man, his children arrived in places all round Britain's coasts. Edward (my great-great grandfather) was born in Portland on 31st May, 1807.Edward married Elizabeth Gibbs in 1828 at Portland but then, whether as a sailor or as a coastguard of some sort, proceeded to move round the country. Son Henry was born at Landport, Hampshire in 1828; daughter Mary was born at Downend, Donegal in 1833. Jane (1836) and Edward (1839) were simply born in "Ireland". At the time of the 1841 Census Edward was certainly a coastguard, living at "Athersfield" (Shorewell) on the Isle of Wight with his family. Shorewell is a district, and Atherfield (no "S") is a remote hamlet near the coast. There are five Coastguard cottages on the cliffs there, close to the dangerous Atherfield rocks.The family was at Freshwater, Coastguard Station, IOW, in 1845 when son George was born. They were at Yarmouth Coastguard Station IOW when daughter Selina was born in 1850 - the first such name in the family. In 1851 Edward was a coastguard boatman at Freshwater Bay once more, and his son Cornelius was born there in 1852, doubtless in one of the five Coastguard cottages. There were sets of Coastguard cottages every four or five miles along the remote South-West coast of the Isle of Wight - all loosely connected by the "Military Road". William Henry English must have met Mary Pitt at Freshwater or Yarmouth, IOW, at about this time, and taken her off to Wales: their first child arrived in 1854. The 1861 Census found Edward at Lydd Coastguard Station, Kent. He had retired to Alma Cottage, Trafalgar Street, Woolwich by 1871 and died there the next year.

Great-Great-Great Grandfather

Edward's father Henry Pitt (my great-great-great grandfather) - a carpenter in his latter years at least was born on Portland in 1778, having resided in the convivially-named Brandy Row there, and in Chesil. The neighbours were fishermen, quarrymen, prison warders and garrison soldiers, and so were different members of the family. I like to think that Henry might have been a ship's carpenter, because of the many naval connections of his children.

It is interesting that John James Montgomery entered the Coastguard service through the Royal Navy. He married the daughter of William Henry English who had begun his coastguard career on a Revenue Cruizer. William Henry married the daughter of yet another coastguard, Edward Pitt, who had perhaps entered the Coastguard or even the Preventive Water Guard service directly. Their total service spanned most of the nineteenth century. Stationed at fairly remote places, with mainly coastguards for company, it is not surprising that many such men married their colleagues' daughters.

8 Comments · 25225 Reads · Print  -> Posted by rjmontgomery on January 07 2009


#1 | Cakeij on 11/01/2009 18:36:45
What an informative and lively article. It is beautifully written and fascinating in its depth of knowledge and detail of the times and people. Well done and thank you very much for this article which i am sure i will come back to many times.
#2 | Philip on 13/01/2009 20:21:21
Hear Hear!! Cool
#3 | crimea1854 on 22/01/2009 19:18:51
Superbly researched and well written piece that was a real joy to read.
#4 | lloyd on 26/03/2009 12:44:31
#5 | lawfullymine on 29/03/2009 10:47:26
An interesting article. My gt gt grandfather William Frederick Jones was a coastguard at Sizewell Gap in the 1870s married to Sarah Anne Knappett. Ellen Jane Knappett born 1857 was Sarah Anne's parents' granddaughter (could have been her niece or illegitimate daughter - I haven't checked her birth certificate). This was almost certainly the introduction of your grandfather to his future first wife. For a couple of photos of William Frederick Jones in his coastguard uniform have a look at the portrait section on this site.
#6 | Anne Burns on 02/05/2009 13:42:53
Excellent article with many overlaps and items of interest to my own coastguard family. It is an inspiration to me to weave a narrative story from the miscellaneous records gathered in family tree research.
#7 | Elisabeth on 12/10/2009 15:29:55
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
#8 | free2create on 30/10/2011 09:07:34
Thanks so much for this article, which i really appreciated. I have just discovered that my great great grandfather, John Robertson, was a coastguard at various locations on the Suffolk and Essex coast during the mid-19th century (Harwich/Brightlingsea/Lowestoft/Corton) so they may have even known each other!

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