Gloucester Harbour Trustees

The creation of ports and harbours is a Crown prerogative, and requires legislation. Most harbours are administered under individual local Acts of Parliament, or under revision or empowerment orders made by the Secretary of State for Transport (under the Harbours Act 1964). Older local Acts often incorporate provisions from the Harbours, Docks and Piers Clauses Act 1847. There are also general statutes such as the Transport Act 1981 and the Ports Act 1991. The Transport and Works Act 1992 has extended the scope of harbour orders to include recreational as well as commercial harbours and to enable harbour authorities to obtain byelaw-making powers for nature conservation; it has also placed environmental duties on all harbour authorities.

The Gloucester Harbour Trustees are the competent harbour authority for the Gloucester Harbour pursuant to the Pilotage Act of 1987. The main duties of the Trustees are the provision of pilotage services, to conserve the Harbour for navigation and to generally ensure the safety of navigation within the Gloucester Harbour.

The present limits of the Gloucester Harbour (as defined by the 1988 Harbour Revision Order) extend into the Severn Estuary to a line seaward of the Second Severn Crossing, and include the tidal reaches of the River Wye to Bigsweir Bridge and of the River Severn to the weirs at Maisemore and Llanthony near Gloucester.

To obtain the reasons for the constitution of a body of Trustees to control a defined area of the rivers Severn and Wye, it is necessary to go back to the year 1861.

Up to 1861 the navigation of the Bristol Channel and River Severn was in the hands of compulsory Pilots of the Port of Bristol, but during 1861, owing to the increase in the trades of the Ports of Cardiff, Newport and Gloucester, an Act of Parliament was passed entitled the Bristol Channel Pilotage Act 1861. Pilotage Commissioners were constituted for these Ports with powers to licence Pilots for non-compulsory Pilotage of ships in the Bristol Channel and River Severn bound for these Ports, each Port having a defined area of jurisdiction. The Gloucester District is described as follows:

"That portion of the Bristol Channel which lies Eastward of Lundy Island, including the River Severn to the City of Gloucester and the River Wye to Chepstow Bridge".

The Act authorised the appointment of a Pilotage Board for the Port of Gloucester consisting of members of the Gloucester Corporation and of the Gloucester and Berkeley Canal Company, the two bodies having most interest in the flow of commerce on the River.

At the time, Pilots and Masters were reluctant to pilot vessels up and down the river during the dark winter tides, with the result that vessels were often delayed at the Kingroad anchorage, with consequent injury to the Port. The Pilotage Board was therefore approached by the Canal Company regarding the erection of lighthouses and beacons. The establishment of navigation aids began in 1873, funded by grants and loans from the Canal Company.

By 1888, beacons had been established at eight locations. These were lit from 1st September to 1st May each year. Expenditure associated with the upkeep of these navigation aids was mounting, and with no direct revenue for the service from shipowners, steps were taken to establish a separate organisation with direct responsibility for the erection and maintenance of lights, and which would be empowered to collect dues from ships for that purpose.

In 1889 the Sharpness Lighthouse Order was confirmed and the Sharpness Lighthouse Trustees came into being. Authority to levy light dues on vessels did not commence until the beginning of 1890. The full powers of a Harbour Authority were not conferred until July 1890, whereupon the Gloucester Harbour Trustees were constituted, the board comprising 22 members, some of which were drawn from the Pilotage Board which continued to exist to administer the Pilotage service. The Pilotage Board was reconstituted in 1921, becoming the Gloucester Pilotage Authority before the 1987 Pilotage Act resulted in the merging of the Pilotage and Harbour Authorities as one organisation which continues under the name of the Gloucester Harbour Trustees.

New navigation beacon being erected.

Radar surveillance stationFurther Acts of Parliament in 1921, 1936, 1963, 1988 and 1994 enabled the Trustees to respond in an appropriate manner to the changing nature of the Harbour Authorities responsibilities; the present number of Trustees is 13, the number of navigation aids established and maintained and the geographical limits over which jurisdiction is held has increased.

More recently significant developments along and across the harbour have caused the Trustees to seek new and often innovative methods to maintain satisfactory standards of navigation safety within the harbour. A more detailed history of the Trustees is currently in preparation and should be available later this year.

Right: Radar surveillance station

Pilotage in the Bristol Channel and River Severn

Up to the end of the 18th Century there was no local Pilotage Authority in the Bristol Channel, and therefore no standard of skill and efficiency enforced on persons engaged in the responsible job of guiding ships to and from harbours in that area.

Bristol had always been the pre-eminent Port/City in this part of the country, and so in 1798 steps were taken to introduce a system of control for pilotage, and thus Bristol Corporation were constituted as the Pilotage Authority for the Severn ports, and also those further West, including Cardiff. However, control was loose, and individual ports became virtually autonomous as they grew and developed.

Shore navigation lightThe position was clarified in 1807 by the Bristol Channel Pilotage Act, which received Royal Assent in that year, giving Bristol responsibility for the pilotage of vessels, inward and outward, Eastward of Lundy Island throughout the Bristol Channel and all the creeks and rivers leading thereto. Byelaws were passed, and published in 1809, for the regulation and conduct of pilots, with further regulations promulgated, notably in 1840 and 1853.

Various attempts were made in succeeding years by individual ports to break this monopoly, but it was not until 1861 that Cardiff, Newport and Gloucester took concerted action and petitioned Parliament to press for the passing of a new Bristol Channel Pilotage Act, with a view to achieving the independence that they sought. In this they were successful, as were other ports at different times.

Traditionally, Crowkerne Pill on the West bank of the River Avon had been the home of the Bristol Channel pilots, and as other ports began to set up their own Pilotage Authorities and Boards, so many of them moved and set up family dynasties elsewhere.

Although, to some extent, controlled and regulated by the local Pilotage Authority, pilots were a proud and fiercely independent community, skilled seamen, making a living utilising those hard won skills to guide vessels safely into and out of port, whilst operating and maintaining their justly famous Bristol Channel Pilot cutters recognised worldwide as some of the most efficient and seaworthy type of sailing vessels ever.

The 'living' was hard, and dangerous, in the exposed waters of the Western approaches; no ships - no money; feast or famine, each pilot self-employed, and responsible for himself, his dependents and thousands/millions of pounds worth of property.

One or two pilots would pool resources to invest in a new cutter, or a second-hand one, altered to their own specifications, and employ a professional seaman, and a boy (apprentice) to sail her back when the pilot had boarded his ship. In the mid-eighteen hundreds, Gloucester had the distinction of being home port to two of the largest and most powerful cutters, the "Berkeley Castle", and the "Alaska", the former remaining in Pilotage service right up to the 1960's. Both craft were built with oak keels obtained from one huge tree owned by the Earl of Berkeley (but therein lies another tale).

Rivalry and competition were intense between individual ports, as well as between pilots licenced by different Authorities, as each vied with the other to board the most lucrative ships inward bound from sea. Pilots pushed their cutters ever further to the West, "seeking", as it was called, even patrolling as far afield as the English Channel and St Georges Channel when ships were expected.

However, the historical system of free for all and first come, first served when providing a pilotage service was less than satisfactory, and in many ways inefficient, so moves were made to form the pilots into an amalgamation under a common agreement of service. This set out rules of conduct and service, but more importantly a system whereby earnings and resources could be pooled, managed, and distributed more fairly. Set up in 1903, this agreement met with strong opposition in some quarters, especially from senior, more experienced pilots. Only after the milestone of the Pilotage Act 1913 were all disputes finally settled and the agreement fully implemented in 1914. This agreement set out a regime and conditions of service which stood the test of time right up to the late 1980's.

In the years since amalgamation, the numbers of pilots have fluctuated between 35 when the ports of Sharpness, Gloucester, Lydney and Chepstow were at their peak, to 3 in the late nineties. What had once been a busy trade route from Avonmouth and the South Wales ports for barge traffic has ceased in recent years, leaving the knowledge and experience required for the safe conduct of commercial traffic in this unique area in the hands of four licensed pilots, each of whom remains licensed to pilot vessels as far up river as Gloucester.

In 1957, official recognition was given to the fragmented nature of pilotage around the coast of the UK, and the anomalies in the levels of earnings enjoyed by pilots in different districts. A committee was set up under the chairmanship of Sir Robert Letch, and its findings and recommendations finally agreed on behalf of thirty two ports and districts throughout the nation. Eventually Gloucester too accepted these recommendations and became a "Letch" port.

The next great milestone in the evolution of pilotage was the Pilotage Act of 1987 which reorganised pilotage on a national basis. This Act provided that Marine Pilotage, for any given port, should fall under the auspices of a Competent Harbour Authority (CHA) and also dealt with the cessation of the previous UK system of Marine Pilotage. Gloucester, like all UK ports, was radically affected, the existing Gloucester Pilotage Authority being dissolved and the Gloucester Harbour Trustees taking over responsibility for pilotage.

A CHA has a statutory duty to determine what pilotage services are required for that port, to what classes of ship the pilotage services should apply and the number, authorization requirements and regulation of Pilots at that port. The requirement to provide pilot boats of the approved standard is fulfilled under an agreement with the Bristol Port Company, who operate a boarding and landing service at Barry, South Wales. The CHA may also grant "Pilotage Exemption Certificates" to Masters and/or First Officers of ships who regularly make passages within the Gloucester Harbour and can satisfy the CHA as to their competence.

Each CHA has total autonomy over its area of jurisdiction. Due to the huge diversification of ports and harbours around the UK coast there is considerable variation in the manner in which Pilotage Services are structured.

Buoy maintenanceThroughout the many years of change, during which trading patterns, ship design, alternative forms of goods transport and legislation have had significant effects on the Gloucester Pilots, the men themselves have remained self-employed, retaining some of the independence, character, and strong attitudes of their forebears. Despite some difficulties, they have, in a spirit of co-operation with the Gloucester Harbour Trustees, helped preserve a first class professional service to shipping in the Severn Estuary. This same service is also available to a growing amount of leisure traffic that makes use of the Gloucester Harbour.

Sharpness is one of the ports closest to the heart of the United Kingdom and in consequence the length of the pilotage act is protracted - some 16 miles within the compulsory area, and up to 40 miles within the district. Vessels of up to 10,000 DWT can be accommodated within the harbour under certain conditions. The current average size of vessel is approximately 2,500 DWT.

The River Severn is unique in many ways; not least in that it is home to the second greatest tidal range in the world. It is often possible to experience a rise in tidal level of over 10 metres in under three hours at Sharpness. This feature is, together with the difficult nature of the navigable channel, the existence of two nuclear installations and two motorway crossings, one of the reasons why all but the smallest of vessels are subject to compulsory pilotage.

The experience of the Gloucester Pilots benefits many organisations and individuals on the Severn. Typical examples include the service provided to a wide variety of craft during the four year construction phase of the Second Severn Crossing, the considerable input to the establishment of the River Severn Pilotwatch radar system and the maintenance of the navigation aids and provision of river inspections and channel monitoring under contract to GHT.

The Gloucester Harbour Authority recoup the costs of providing a pilotage service and navigation aids by imposing pilotage charges and local lights dues. See Charges.

Pilotage for pleasure craft and non-compulsory vessels

Gloucester Pilots' Partnership offer pilotage services to all types of craft, including yachts and narrow-boats. Pilots are available, by arrangement, to assist the passage of these craft throughout the Severn Estuary and Bristol Channel within the limits of the Pilotage District. This includes destinations such as Penarth, Ilfracombe, Swansea, Portishead and Avonmouth (for Bristol).

When it all goes wrong When it all goes wrong

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