Historic black and white photograph of five coastguard men in uniform stood in front of a brick wall looking towards the camera

Our history

Our history

From its humble beginnings with coastal lookouts to today’s hi-tech national network – one thing has stayed the same for two centuries – HM Coastguard seeks to search, to rescue and to save.

It was on 15 January 1822, that HM Coastguard was formally brought into existence and has been working to keep people safe at the coast and sea ever since.

HM Coastguard is now a world class leader in maritime search and rescue, on call 24/7 to send help to anyone in difficulties around our coasts, every day of the year. We know what we need to do, the resources we need and how to respond quickly. Protecting and saving lives is what we do, but did you know that our origins lie in the protection of a different sort involving violent clashes and illegal trade?

Our 200 year anniversary

Our very special souvenir magazine celebrating 200 years of saving lives is packed with information and delves into the past, present and future of HM Coastguard. 

coastguard magazine on ipad
Equipped to rescue
Saving lives has always been in the origins of HM Coastguard, even before it was formally adopted as a duty some 200 years ago. After all, helping others is a fundamental human instinct and humankind has always found ingenious solutions. We’ve taken a lookback at some of the rescue equipment of yesteryear.

Some of these early principles still exist today and they are part of a powerful combination of the use of latest technology, training, equipment and communications.

One of the first recorded maritime lifesavers was Captain Manby who experimented firing mortars to carry a line to a ship. His first rescue using ‘Manby’s Mortar’ was in 1808 and by 1809, he’d added a ‘cot’ slung below the line which later evolved into the Breeches Buoy.

Manby’s invention was officially adopted and the Preventive Water Guard were issued with his Life Saving Apparatus (LSA). Apart from rockets replacing mortars, Coastguard LSA supplied by the Board of Trade changed very little until the 20th Century brought electrically ignited rockets and lines of man-made fibre.
Watchet Coastguard team in training with the Breeches Buoy in the 1990s. Credit Simon Bale
image from the coastguard magazine of wartime

War and peace

The tragedies of the World Wars affected everyone and HM Coastguard remembers all those whose lives were lost to this day.

Lives were turned upside down when Britain declared war on Germany in 1914 and as part of the Admiralty’s naval reserve, it was just a matter of hours before coastguards joined the Navy ships.

Milestone moment

This wartime experience proved that a coast watching force was vital. And on 1 April 1923, the Board of Trade took responsibility for the coastguard. By Royal sanction the force retained the title of His Majesty’s Coastguard. This was the first time Britain had a specialised organisation devoted to coast watching and life saving.

The Coastguard Service Act of 1925 still allowed the Admiralty to control the Coastguard in time of national need. In May 1939, that happened as World War II approached and 4,500 Auxiliary Coastguards were recruited on National Service, in time for the start of war in September.

HM Coastguard today

Over the past two centuries, HM Coastguard has gone from strength to strength. 

Although the way in which we operate has changed beyond recognition in the last two centuries, HM Coastguard continues to look to the future.

Innovation has always been a driver – whether it be pushing forward state of the art technology in the national network of maritime rescue coordination centres or leading the way in rope, water and mud techniques.

Helicopter winchman
Victorian coastguard magic lanterns
Report a problem with this page

Help us improve hmcoastguard.uk

Don't include personal or financial information like your National Insurance number or credit card details.