Start My Family Tree Welcome to Geni, home of the world's largest family tree.
Join Geni to explore your genealogy and family history in the World's Largest Family Tree.

Coast Guard or Looker (17th and 18th centuries)

« Back to Projects Dashboard

Project Tags

view all 17


Coast Guard or Looker

United Kingdom

Image right - The Lifeboat "Our Sea-Coast Heroes; or, Stories of wreck and of rescue by the lifeboat and rocket ... With numerous illustrations"

The purpose of his project is to explore the history of the Coastguards or "lookers" who were employed in combatting smuggling throughout the 17th and 18th centuries in the United Kingdom. Many Coast Guards were found in the early census returns in the South of England where smuggling was common.

Please link GENi profiles of people so engaged to this project.

Variously known as customs men/officers, excise men/officers, coastguards, revenue men, and preventative officers, lookers

Coast Guards were normally recruited from the Royal Navy and early retirement was norm unless a man went on for promotion to Chief Officer. It wasn't good for Coastguards to become too well acquainted with the local people; they were transferred frequently, this often being evident in the range of birthplaces of the children. Couples often settled in the last place of appointment on retirement, far from their places of birth. Keeping track of an ancestor and his family is therefore a particular problem if he was a member of the Coastguard.

See also United States Coast Guard

Useful reference GENUKI British Coastguards and Their Families

Full sizes of the thumbnail images can be seen in the Gallery attached to the project or by clicking the thumbnail image. TIP - Use ctrl+the link to open the image in a separate tab, or use "back" to return to this project page) Sources for the images can be found in the image details as seen in the gallery.

Names with Bold links are to Geni profiles or projects. Other links take you to external biographical web pages.


The Coastguard 's duties included the protection of the Revenue (H.M. Customs & Excise), of the Realm (the Admiralty) and of Shipping (Board of Trade) for 200 years and more. The Service first acted as a Reserve for the Royal Navy during the Crimean War, and 3000 Coastguards were called up. In some of the less vulnerable sites, particularly in Scotland and in Wales, personnel would have been withdrawn temporarily during that period and its immediate aftermath. There seems to have been little Coastguard presence in Wales before 1871.

By 1700 Riding Officers were appointed, stationed along the coast to control the illegal export of wool. An officer had to provide his own horse to patrol an area of coast at night. He was paid £25 a year plus an allowance for his horse. His job was to listen to rumours, keep a low profile and write a daily record of all he saw. It was not a popular service but continued until after 1850.

In 1809 the Preventative Water Guard was established, preceding HM Coastguard. Its primary objective was to prevent smuggling, but it was also responsible for giving assistance to shipwrecks.

In 1821 the National Coastguard Service was introduced. This became a disciplined and uniformed body, with shore based patrols, a rowing guard offshore and men on the Revenue cutters patrolling the sea. Coastguard cottages were built at regular points round the coast to house the officers.

In 1822 the consolidation of related services (The Board of Custom and the Board of Excise) was recommended and they were consequently placed under the authority of the Board of Customs and named the Coast Guard.

The new Coast Guard inherited a number of shore stations and watch houses from its predecessor bodies as well as several coastal vessels, which provided bases for its operations. In 1829 the first Coast Guard instructions were published, dealing mainly with discipline and the prevention of smuggling; they also stipulated that when a wreck took place the Coast Guard was responsible for taking all possible action to save lives, taking charge of the vessel and protecting property. In 1831, the Coast Guard took over duties from the Coast Blockade for the Suppression of Smuggling (which had been run by the Admiralty from a string of Martello Towers on the Kent and Sussex coast); this finally gave it authority over the whole of the UK coastline.

By the 1850s smuggling was on the wane. The most important factor in the suppression of smuggling was the reduction and abolition of most of the duties as part of the policy of Free Trade in the first half of the 19th Century. There was a wholesale reform of the Customs service in 1853, and smuggling became relatively unimportant. The Coastguards remained, but their work became more of a sea rescue and life saving service.The Coast Guard was transferred from the Board of Customs to the Admiralty. The Coast Guard, (or Coastguard), responsibilities still included revenue protection but rescue services began to be undertaken more and more by Volunteer Life Brigades and by the lifeboats of the RNLI, with the Coast Guard acting in a support role.

In 1923, after WW1, the Coastguard was re-established as a coastal safety and rescue service, overseen by the Board of Trade. For the rest of the twentieth century, the Coastguard operated primarily out of local shore stations. In 1931 in England there were 193 stations and 339 auxiliary stations; in 1974 there were still 127 stations (permanently manned) and 245 auxiliary stations.

From the 1960s onwards priorities changed from maintaining coastal lookouts to providing co-ordinated search and rescue services. Old watch houses gave way to new technology-based Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centres. In the 1990s Her Majesty's Coastguard became a government executive agency, and in 1998 the Marine Safety Agency and the Coastguard Agency were joined to become the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA).

Martello Towers Martello Towers are small defensive forts that were first built in 1805 in South East England during the French Revolutionary Wars onwards. Most were coastal forts. They were also built on the East Coast of England and around Ireland, as well as three in Scotland - 103 in total were built around Britain.

References, Sources and Further Reading
// this project is in History Link