The Liverpool Pilots

Presented by: Professor Frank Sanderson

Honorable Pro-Chancellor, I have pleasure in presenting The Liverpool Pilots for the Corporate Award of Liverpool John Moores University.  

Ships entering or leaving Liverpool have to negotiate not only the force of the tides but also shifting sandbanks in the Irish Sea and Mersey estuary. Safe channels do not stay in the same position, making navigation extremely dangerous and the presence of skilled pilots absolutely vital.

An official pilot service for ships coming in and out of the River Mersey has now been operating for 240 years. They have saved many lives in that time and although the service has changed over the years, the Liverpool Pilots remain essential for the safe navigation of the Mersey and its estuary.

Local fishermen with their detailed knowledge of the Mersey estuary tides and places for anchorage were the first unofficial pilots on the river. In the 18th century, the number and size of ships entering the Mersey increased rapidly, with the need for better navigation highlighted in 1764 when 75 people died in a series of accidents on the river.  

This led to the establishment of the Liverpool Pilotage Authority at Princes Dock in 1766, after which time vessels on the Mersey were required to use pilots. A committee met every month to grant licences to pilots and decide what charges were made for their services. 

Anyone acting as a pilot without a licence was fined £10 (that's over £800 at today's prices).  

Becoming a pilot involved an initial interview by the pilot authority's selection committee, a 5-year apprenticeship, time as a boathand on a pilot cutter when a place became available, and annual examinations. Successful completion of this rigorous process - which tested practical competence as well as theoretical knowledge - led to the trainee being issued with a Board of Trade Certificate.  

The pilots had to meet incoming ships outside the Mersey Bar and climb on board to take the ships through the sandbank channels and docks. They did the same thing for ships leaving Liverpool.  

During the Second World War, it has been estimated that the pilot service saved the lives of between 200 and 300 people from ships that had been mined or wrecked. After the War the pilot fleet was converted from coal power to oil power and the first diesel electric motor driven vessel was introduced in 1950. 

The number of vessels was reduced and the decline of the passenger liner trade, the growth of container trade, and increased use of road transport led to a drop in work for the pilot service in the 1970s.  

The pilot-cutter was withdrawn from duty and a shore-based service using launches was introduced. The Mersey Bar pilot station was also abandoned and a radio and radar watch was set up for the pilot service at Seaforth Dock.  

From 1988 the pilot service was provided by the Mersey Docks & Harbour Company, and from 1997, they regained autonomy under the name Liverpool Pilots Limited. Since then, they have sought to expand the business base and now have a contract for pilotage services with Stena at Holyhead. 

Currently there are 45 pilots continuing the long and honourable tradition of service on the Mersey and sharing in the fruits of the remarkable regeneration of the Port of Liverpool. 

Liverpool John Moores University operates the only 360 degree marine simulator in the country at Lairdside, Birkenhead, and this facility is extensively used for pilot training. 

Liverpool Pilots enjoy an excellent working relationship with the LJMU simulator team and have recently assisted in the training of Kuwaiti pilots and tug Masters there.  

It is with great pleasure that we invite Captain Tony Brand, Chairman of Liverpool Pilots Ltd, and himself a pilot for the last 10 years and a former student of ours, to receive on behalf of Liverpool Pilots Limited, the Corporate Award from Liverpool John Moores University.