1870; Pilfering pilots in Portland Roads

Being on the coast, and having both Weymouth Harbour and Portland Roads on our doorstep, a lot of the local men had always earned their living from the sea, and fiercely guarded their rights to do so.

Not least the men who worked the local waters as pilots.


These were were the men who from being little nippers sailed the area, often local fishermen, they knew the waters intimately, what sandbars to avoid, rocks to navigate, the tides and tricky currents, their expertise was vital in bringing larger ships safely close to shore or into local ports.

In the February of 1870 a court case was heard at the Guildhall in Weymouth.

The case was against John George Austin and William Austin who were inhabitants of Cowes on the Isle of Wight and skippered their cutter named The Fox.

The man who brought the prosecution against these two ‘touting’ outsiders was a local Portland seadog named Thomas Way, a 50-year-old widower  from Chiswell, who was the sole provider for his children, and was skipper of the  pilot cutter, Turk.

The case attracted a great deal of national attention, a Mr Sandilands, solicitor from Trinty House appeared in court to prosecute the two men. Also gathered in the courtroom were pilots from all around the country, including the Isle of Wight, eager to watch how things developed.

The facts of the case were laid out before the judges.

On the 3rd December 1869 amongst the multitude of shipping to-ing and fro-ing  in Weymouth bay and the two bustling harbours were a pair of pilot cutters. One being the Turk, with Portland skipper Thomas Way on board, the other, The Fox, with John George Austin in charge. Both boats were allegedly flying the pilot’s flag, which was a white stripe over a red background. This quickly identified to boats approaching the area which cutters contained the licensed pilots…it was a legal requirement  that they had to be licensed by the ports to be able to operate.

The Isle of Wight boat was cruising near the Portland breakwater, the Portland boat was further out about 4 miles away in distance.

Onto that busy scene came  an American ship-o-war, a steam corvette, the Plymouth. She’d crossed the seas for a specific reason, she was here to escort the H.M.S Monarch back to America with the remains of Mr George Peasbody, a well renow, and well respected American born business man, who had moved the England, and in his time had donated nearly £2,000,000 (in Victorian values) towards the building of houses for the poor of London and in America.

Espying the standard pilots flag flying on The Fox, the corvette changed direction and approached the cutter, when she reached her, the ‘so-called pilot’ climbed on board. From there the pilot would have taken charge of the boat and steered her towards her destination, which was ultimately Spithead. Unfortunately, that ‘pilot’ had no local knowledge of the area, consequently the corvette ended up being run ashore near the Isle of Wight coast!

As his cutter was further away at the time, all Thomas Way could do was stamp his feet with impotent rage on board his boat as he watched the cheeky interlopers steal his trade.


When the case finally came to court,  local solicitor, Mr Tizard was defending the men He could do nothing but agree that, yes, The Fox had previously lost it’s license to operate as a pilot boat,  and that the man put on board “was not licensed.” What he did try, rather flimsily,  to defend the men with was that the flag flying hadn’t been a pilot’s flag….well, o.k., he agreed that maybe it might have looked  similar, but a very narrow strip had been added to the flag (some mutterings claimed just before it appeared in the courtroom!) making it(very slightly) different!

The Bench didn’t take long to come to their decision. The Isle of Wight men had tried their luck…coming in to our waters and stealing the very trade from the locals, but of course the old seadogs weren.t going to stand for it.

For their cheek, the men were fined a total of £30.


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I have a huge collection that cover illustrations from numerous Victorian articles about travel, prisons, children’s homes, poverty, philanthropy…
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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Elaine says:

    Lovely to see this story about Thomas Way and the Turk. Thomas was my great x2 great uncle! His brother Nicholas Way was my great x3 grandfather and he owned the Turk in the beginning, passing it to my great x3 grandmother Elizabeth Way on his death in 1861. If anyone has more information on the pilots of Portland I would love to know more about them.


  2. cannasue says:

    So glad that the tale found it’s way to someone who was related.
    There are so many fascinating snippets in the local papers about the everyday folks, it’s a shame that they get lost in time.
    I’ll keep a look out for Thomas and his family as I browse them.


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