The Rise of the Falmouth Pilot Cutter’s

The Industrial Revolution and Demise of the Isles of Scilly trade

In the 1850’s the typical cargo ship was wooden and around 400 hundred tons and there were innumerable numbers of these plying the international trade which saw the peak of the Isles of Scilly pilot cutter trade.

However the next thirty years saw the tonnage of ships increased and soon they would be measured in many thousands of tons. Through this increased size and efficiency it was inevitable that the amount of ships rapidly declined. These large steel steam and sailing vessels started to make big inroads into world commerce and within a decade the amount of ships passing Scilly had changed beyond measure. These new large steel sailing and steam ships no longer wished to call at the islands, preferring to stop in Falmouth for orders where a new rail link and good dry dock facilities were offered. Scilly was now a place to avoid. Many of the captains also started to shun the Scillies pilots in preference to those sailing from Falmouth 

Outright Competition

When there was enough work to go round competition was healthy. But by the 1880 with the decreasing number of ships coming into the western approaches it was becoming cut-throat. Falmouth cutters, also feeling the pinch, were now worked far beyond Scilly to catch the incoming ships. To gain the upper hand they worked together aggressively against the Scilly cutters, stopping any opportunity of them offering their services to the ships.

Falmouth had fifteen cutters at this time and being larger and faster boats they had the advantage. The Falmouth cutters would shadow the smaller Scilly cutters with up to five at a time surrounding them. ‘She was boxed in on all four points of the compass, from whatever direction the ship may come, it gave no chance of speaking to a ship before them.’

Trinity House stepped into Moderate

Although it was too late to save the Scillonian pilots, this untenable situation was alleviated somewhat in May 1887. Trinity House seeing the plight of too many cutters chasing too few ships decided to rationalise the pilotage service in many ports around the country. The Falmouth and St Mawes boats were amalgamated and bought under joint ownership and the number of boats was cut to eleven. Thereafter, all the member pilots shared equally in the group earnings, cutting out the fights between rival men over who took the ship. At this time their cruising ground was reduced to a sea area from the Lizard Point to the Dodman Point. No longer could they work to the west and to Scilly. With this change their methods of hailing a ship changed also. From now on the ship came to the boat, with the cutter staying on station, normally off the Lizard.

Built for Speed and Strength

Because of the new practise of sharing proceeds equally among the men, there was no longer a needed to race in order that their pilot boarded first. So the large rig with its unwieldy boom, main-sail, and top-sail was no longer needed. Putting these ashore the pilots now set their winter trysail and small jibs all year round. This made the cutters easy to handle whilst gently cruising about on station waiting for the ships. For this reason most of the photos that have survived of Falmouth cutters only show them setting the loose –footed trysail and ‘choke pole’ rig, i.e. these pictures were all taken after 1887.

Like the Scillies, Falmouth cutters developed ways of supplying ships with all that they could possibly need. To this end the tailors and grocers of Falmouth also purchased cutters to take their trade to the incoming ships. In 1857 R T McMullen was sailing his cutter Leo. In rounding The Lizard he was becalmed and came into conversation with a tailor’s cutter belonging to Falmouth. He was fascinated by their business of ‘boarding homeward bound ships to supply clothes to those who preferred walking ashore in a new suit to being seen in sea-stained garments. In fact, their business was to steal a march upon advertising Moses & Son,’ in which he hoped they were entirely successful ‘for a more civil set of men he never chanced to meet.’

PLEASE NOTE: This was taken from text written for Luke’s book. It was originally compiled from works by; Alf Jenkins, Ralf Bird, Sara Stirling and R T McMullen. I must give great thanks to them for their primary source research that allowed this to be written.

Sail Pellew

A Recreation of Falmouth Pilot Cutter No.8

Pellew is a faithful recreation of the Vincent, Falmouth Pilot Cutter No. 8. Join her on her maiden season in 2020, sailing in Cornwall, Isles of Scilly and Britanny. 

Learn More

Get In touch

(Jo) +44 (0)7790 638 084


28 St Thomas Street 


TR10 8JN