River Pilots ,River Mersey, Liverpool

Looking out across the River you can see Birkenhead from where the Mersey Ferries ply their trade back and forth. To the left of the ferry terminal you can see the steeple of Birkenhead Priory Chapel. This is the oldest building on Wirral and the first on this side of the peninsula. It was from Birkenhead Priory that the first Mersey Ferries came in 1125, Benedictine monks would row across the river to bring their goods to trade in the markets of Liverpool and take passengers across from Eastham to Liverpool. The journey could take up to three hours even in calm weather. In 1320 the monks were granted the first ferry rights by Edward III. The route was deemed so important that it was designated a royal highway, and to this day it still is, with a crown at the top of the posts of Woodside ferry.

I have been researching an Ancestor from Liverpool .He was born around 1823 in Liverpool Lancashire and he was a Pilot.

Liverpool River Pilots
The main port of the North West was Chester until silting of the Dee forced its closure and Liverpool took over. The River Mersey has evidence of silting too and ships coming in to the river have to be steered in by the River Pilot who boards the ships in the mouth of the river. River Pilots have worked on the Mersey since 1766 today there are 44 who guide ships up and down the river. Ships which attempt to navigate the river themselves often end up stranded, River Pilots have a detailed knowledge of where silt and sandbanks lie in the river, the largest silted area is known as Devils Bank. In addition to these hazards the bed of the river is strewn with wrecked ships, so much so that River Pilots have three different charts. An area of the Mersey is closed to ships anchoring because of debris from vessels destroyed in the Second World War.

The distinctive murky brown colour of the River Mersey is not due to pollution as many believe, instead it’s a result of the silt and sand that is kicked up by the fast current of the river. Although the Mersey was heavily polluted in the past, especially during its busiest times, it is much cleaner today and recently won an award for cleanliness.


  1. My Father worked and lived on a sugar barge, taking sugar cane from Liverpool to The Sankey Sugar Works Earlstown, around the 1920s to the late 1930's? He's name was James Cheetham born 1904. We think His father (John) worked on the river mersey aswell, I have tried to find him in the liverpool censurs on other ancestor sites throwing money at them in these years but have drawn a blank each time, if anyone could help or advise me, I would be very greatful. John Cheetham

  2. Hi John

    was your father born in West Derby july/aug/sept 1904?
    You can e-mail me on

  3. Are you sure his father was called John as i found this record
    Baptisms: 10 Mar 1886 St Matthias, Liverpool, Lancashire, England
    James Cheetham - Child of Thomas Cheetham & Margaret
    Born: 20 Dec 1885
    Abode: Boat
    Occupation: Flatman
    Baptised by: J McConwell
    Register: Baptisms 1834 - 1926, Page 231, Entry 1890
    Source: LDS Film 1656207

  4. There was also this record

    Baptisms: 21 Sep 1884 St Martin in the Field, Liverpool, Lancashire, England
    John Cheetham - Child of John Cheetham & Mary Jane
    Born: 22 Aug 1884
    Abode: 143 Athol St
    Occupation: Waterman
    Baptised by: T Richards, Curate
    Register: Baptisms 1876 - 1901, Page 435, Entry 1100
    Source: LDS Film 1656205

  5. i have been trying to find records of my great grandfather who was a river pilot , i think his nane was david jones as that is what it says on his marriage certificate that i have for his son , but i have been sent church records that say his father was william jones , . in 1851 his widow sarah was dependant on the pilots club , can anyone help. his children were elizabeth, william.thomas and david , the latter only being 2 months old on the 1851 census . i have been to liverpool to the museum but could find no records

  6. Hi Liz

    Sarah may have married his brother.You do not say what church records you have, have you looked on this site for parish records. Also you will find a link on here to a British forum,they are very helpfull

  7. My Cheetham link is further back: My gt gt grandmother was Elizabeth Bramhill (various spellings!) nee Cheetham, b 3 Dec 1815 in Liverpool, the daughter of William Cheetham and Mary Weaver. Elizabeth Cheetham's 1845 marriage certificate gives William's job as a flatman. Censuses indicate different ages for Elizabeth with birth years of 1818 or 1826, though IGI has this baptism: Eliz Cheetham bapt 3 Dec 1815, St Peter's Church, parents William Cheetham and Mary.

    The 1861 census has two Cheetham flatmen, Henry Cheetham, 45, master of Flat born in Downholland and James Cheetham, 21, master of flat, born Lydiate.

    In 1816, Hall Lane Liverpool was known as Cheetham's Brow.

    Fazakerly.net also records that a Sarah Jackson was witness to the marriage of Elizabeth Ann Cheetham, father James Cheetham, flatman, to Thomas Snape, tailor, in 1880. Sarah later married a Robert Fazakerley, flatman.

    I believe one of the Liverpool libraries/museums has the records of the Liverpool Watermen's Sailing Club which may give more info. If you do access it, please let me know beforehand: I ahve a favour to ask ;-)

    I have no record of any siblings.

  8. I've also found a will for John Cheetham the Elder, Yeoman, of Witton Stocks, 1798 Blackburn, Lancs, 1791-1800. Cost of £40 from http://www.geocities.com/fountalnpen/wlls2.html

    Caution needed here as Cheetham is a more common name over towards Manchester. My theory is that the family came over to Liverpool via the Leeds-Manchester canal in the late 1700s, early 1800s; Cheetham appears to have been a canal name.

  9. I have found a Betsy Cheetham born 1816,have you checked this one out?

  10. have you seen this record

    Baptism: 13 Sep 1846 St Peter, Liverpool, Lancashire, England
    John Bramhill - Child of James Bramhill & Mary
    Abode: Milk St
    Occupation: Railway Porter
    Baptised by: Thos. Halton Curate
    Register: Baptisms 1846 - 1847, Page 226, Entry 1803
    Source: LDS Film 93885
    It may be the same family,let me know what you thi

  11. I am trying to locate ancestors who I believe where Mersey Flatmen/mariners and sailors. They came from Over, Cheshire, Wharton and Penketh (both in cheshire). They lived in Upper Mann Street at the time of the 1851 census. Their names where Samuel, John, Joseph and Sarah Hulse. I cannot find any trace of them (with the exception of a marriage of John in 1856) before or after 1851. Please help me.

  12. I have found a record for Samuel and Sarah in the 1861 census.
    Sarah is 18 born in Warton, Samuel is 20 birth year aroound 1841.Samuel is listed as a Waterman on the census,so i think it is the same family.
    There is also a Soloman Hulse 10 and a Louisa Hulme
    They are all living in Witton at 87 Church lane.
    They are living with a Robert Bromley and a Sarah Bromley who are in their 20's. The have a 9 month old baby Mary. Sarah and Samuel are listed as son and daughter to Robert and Sarah although with ages given this could not be so. If you would like to e-mail me at janetcatmaylim@yahoo.com.au
    i will see what else i can find for you.

  13. Hi does anybody have any information about Richard HUNT or his brothers James HUNT and John HUNT who were apparently flatmen on the Mersey/Dee river from possibly 1780 onwards? I am not sure where they were from (possibly Northwich) as I have BDM records from there for those names but I cannot connect them. regards martyn_s28@hotmail.com

  14. Hello Martyn,

    I have found a possible link for you. Look on the main page of your ancestors free.

  15. hi i am searching for a thorley lester, he was a pilot working the river mersey , owned a boat called irlam , lived around bootle , everton area 1861-1891, with thanks, brian

  16. Hello Brian
    I have found a couple of things . Please let me know if they are the ones you are looking for.
    Baptisms: 13 Mar 1816 St Peter, Liverpool, Lancashire, England
    Thorley Lester - Child of Thorley Lester & Catharine
    Abode: Plumbe Street
    Occupation: Pilot
    Baptised by: John Fish officiatg. Minisr.
    Register: Baptisms 1815 - 1816, Page 116, Entry 923
    Source: LDS Film 1656378

    Marriage: 18 Aug 1864 St Mary, Walton on the Hill, Lancashire, England
    Thorley Lester - of full age Pilot Bachelor of Everton
    Catherine Ann Williams - minor Spinster of Everton
    Groom's Father: Thorley Lester, Pilot
    Bride's Father: John Williams, deceased, Master Mariner
    Witness: Harriet A Glevin; William Atherton
    Married by Banns by: Thomas Hornby Vicar
    Register: Marriages 1863 - 1866, Page 97, Entry 193
    Source: LDS Film 1647986

  17. In response to the person researching Samuel, Sarah, John & Joseph Hulse have you managed to find anything further? I too am researching them as I believe John to be my Gt Gt Grandfather. I know that John was born at 10 Tamworth Street in 1859 and his father Samuel was a flatman, as was John. If you look at this site http://www.toxtethparkcemetery.co.uk/years/consecrated%20section/1859.htm
    you will see a burial record in 1859 for a 67 year old Samuel Hulse at 10 Tamworth Street. So I'm pretty sure there will be no 1861 census record for Samuel, but Sarah doesn't appear to have died until possibly 1864 so she should appear somewhere. John did marry in 1856 but by the 1861 census his wife Ann (nee Ledsham)was listed as a widow. Have you found any more out, and what is your connection to them?

  18. Anybody in Liverpool may be able to access the Liverpool Watermen's Club records, if they still exist. They are referred to in Jim Sullivan's book, the Liverpool Lifeboat Disaster of 1891. As well as port duties, the Liverpool watermen also acted as lifeboatmen, operating from the Pier Head and four other stations. The Mersey Docks and Harbour Board lifeboats were taken over by the RNLI in 1895 and the Pier Head lifeboat station closed. Thanks to the webmaster for pointing out the Bramhill record: I had seen it and, undoubtedly, they're linked in somewhere further back.

  19. Sorry to be a rather vague but I'm trying to trace descendants of a Mersey ferry pilot with the surname BENNET.BENNETT. He'd have probably worked on the ferries around the 1940's, 1950's or 1960's. Any info would be helpful

  20. Sorry it took so long to reply,i have been away on holiday Have you any more information about your Bennet ,more is needed to be able to place him and his decendants.

  21. I'm afraid not, although I was told that both father and son worked on the ferries as pilots. So, if that's never happened, then I'm clearly barking up the wrong tree

  22. Interesting to see so many looking for pilot/mariner ancestors, as I am. I have run across a great grandfather named John Morris in Liverpool who lists his profession in 1881 as mariner and his father's profession as pilot. John was 41 in 1881 so I'm assuming his father, William, would have been in his 60s. Don't know if pilots worked that long? If anyone can help me with further info on these two, I would be very grateful. I live in Mexico so a visit to the Maritime Musuem is out! Thanks in advance.

  23. I have found a record,do you think this is your John Morris?
    Baptisms: 11 Dec 1842 St Peter, Liverpool, Lancashire, England
    John Morris - Child of Thomas Morris & Mary
    Born: 15 Nov 1842
    Abode: Gibralter Rd
    Occupation: Mariner
    Baptised by: Thos Halton, Curate
    Register: Baptisms 1842 - 1843, Page 88, Entry 702
    Source: LDS Film 93884

  24. Thanks for your quick response. I don't think this is the one. When John married for the second time at age 41 at St. Nicholas church in Liverpool, he stated his father's name was William and he was a pilot. The frustration I've been having with this branch of the family is that the names are so common! I've been down a lot of blind alleys.

  25. This thread is old, but I am hopeful that someone will respond. I am descended from the A. Johnson & Sons that ran Gigs on the Liverpool Docks. (I am a Johnson) I am trying to find some more about this operation. Thanks in advance.

  26. Take a look at this website. A Johnson and Sons are mentioned on here.

  27. Hi. Is this site still active. The Betsy Cheetham mentioned by Cyclo above is the 3 x Gt grandmother of my husband. Fron the Bramhill side.


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