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From the earliest days of recorded history river pilots have navigated ships through the dangerous waters of the Bristol Channel and up the river Avon, with its twisting bends, shifting sand banks and strong currents. In the early nineteenth century, Bristol was granted rights to compulsory pilotage over the whole of the Channel. The Society of Merchant Venturers managed and regulated licenced pilots on behalf of Bristol Corporation. However, pilots were self-employed and operated in competition with one another. Pilots would sail up and down the Channel hoping to catch first sight of an incoming vessel. Competition was fierce. The first pilot to board an incoming ship secured pilotage rights, a tradition that was long established and well supported by the piloting community.
In the nineteenth century Bristol’s pilots, and their assistants, had to struggle to defend their jobs and their traditional way of working, particularly as steam power emerged to replace sail. Their relationship with the shipowners, masters and city authorities was a complex one, and broke down periodically into open conflict. They lived almost exclusively in Crockerne Pill, a small village, five miles from Bristol, situated on the south side of the river Avon. Pill people exhibited a lack of deference and were looked upon by the Bristol authorities, and many town-dwellers, as disorderly and difficult. As the nineteenth century progressed, however, the realization took hold that the interests of the pilots and watermen of Pill had much in common with trade unionists in Bristol and the wider labour movement.
Pill pilots competed fiercely but fairly among themselves to secure the right to direct a ship through the hazardous waters of the Bristol Channel. Their experience was essential to providing the safe passage of incoming (and outgoing) vessels through the Channel with its large tidal range of 46 feet, strong currents, and shifting sand banks. Crewed by a pilot, a boatman (known as a westernman or westwardman) and an apprentice (boy), sailing cutters, built for speed, sought inward bound vessels. Each cutter (skiff) was marked with a number allocated by the Haven Master. The first cutter to hail a ship secured the right of pilotage and could guide the vessel to stretches of the river where ships could anchor, at King Road, at the mouth of the Avon, or a little further up river at Hung Road, Pill.
The Fury was the first steam tug on the River Avon. She was built in Newcastle in 1835 and destroyed by a boiler explotion in 1859.
In the late 1820s and early 1830s, the political and, economic and social situation was still not a favourable environment for operators to risk investing in steam tugs. Harvest failure and the increase in unemployment in 1829-30 triggered rebellions from below in the form of the Swing Riots; and the initial failure of the House of Lords to support the second Parliamentary Reform Bill resulted in major disturbances in several cities, the largest and most violent of which occurred at Bristol, in September 1831. The rioters’ ‘targets were the wealthy members of the Corporation who undemocratically ruled the city, the religious hierarchy and the prisons’ regarded as unjust and repressive. Such was the mood of the poor and disenfranchised in Bristol.
In this atmosphere, it is little wonder that the Corporation, which continued to hold on to its monopoly over pilotage, characterized by one opponent in August 1833 as ‘plunder’, showed little interest in promoting the use of steam tugs. However, matters came to a head over this issue in 1836. On 8 February, between 25 and 30 Pill men attacked the crew of the steam-tug Fury when it was anchored at Portishead, touting for the business of towing vessels to and from King Road and the Port of Bristol. The Times characterized this attack as a ‘RIOT’ and the Bristol Mercury called it a ‘DISGRACEFUL OUTRAGE AND PIRACY’. Brought in from Newcastle, the Fury was the first steam tug in Bristol to be commissioned with the specific purpose of driving down the cost of pilotage and associated work. It posed a more serious threat to Pill watermen than the occasional use of steam packets had presented.
The Fury was part owned by Mark Whitwill (senior) of the ship broking company Whitwill and King whose premises in Queens Square had been ransacked in the 1831 Bristol Riots. He was on board at the time of the attack with another part owner of the boat, a William Leedham. Armed with pistols, the assailants fired shots; one of them narrowly missed the Master of the ship but it was alleged that Whitwill was the intended target. After a struggle, the crew consisting of the Master, the Engineer and five sailors, together with Leedham and Whitwell, were forced into a rowing boat and set adrift. The assailants then attempted to scuttle the Fury but in their hurry to get away succeeded only in casting it adrift. The tug was recovered the next day with the paddles torn off and the engine damaged.
The first steam tug to appear, the Fury, met a dramatic end. In 1859, minutes after arriving at the mouth of the Avon by King Road, the boiler exploded, hurling her funnel into the air. The damaged incurred caused her to sink almost immediately. The engineer James Jones and the fireman John Case, both residents of Pill, were working below deck and were probably killed by the force of the explosion. In any event they went down with the tug and their bodies were never recovered; another crewmember, John Smith, died of his injuries a few days later.
It was not long before the railway came to the village; Pill station opening in 1867. Many houses were demolished to make way for the line, which was built on a brick viaduct (seven piers and six arches) nearly 100 yards long with foundations in one place laid to a depth of thirty feet. The process of construction aroused some opposition, but nonetheless provided a lift to the local economy. Moreover, the arrival of the navvies introduced a notoriously rowdy group of newcomers, some of whom set up home with local women, possibly helping to reverse the decline in population. The only data available relates to the wider Easton-in-Gordano area and shows that, after a decrease during 1841 to 1861, the population increased by nearly 11% between 1861 and 1871, rising at the even greater rate of 19% between 1871 and 1881.
During the 1880s, Pill pilots, while maintaining their tradition of individual competition for work, shifted away from defending their interests in isolation towards a more collectivist approach. In the process they connected to a wider labour movement beyond Pill. In October 1883, at a meeting in Bristol, the decision was made to form a national association of pilots…
The United Kingdom Pilots’ Association held its inaugural conference on 11 June 1884 in the Athenæum Hall, Bristol. Captain Henry Langdon of the Bristol Pilots’ Association became its secretary. He was aware of, and in contact with, William Morris’s Socialist League, which supported the pilots. In October 1885, he wrote to the League thanking them for their ‘sympathetic expressions, favourable to the Pilots (sic) exertions for relief from the thraldom in which they are now enveloped.’ He went on to remark that capitalists ‘grind down their employees’. The Pill seafarers had travelled a long stormy voyage; from being pirates they had become proletarians.