Bengal Pilot Service

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Pilot's Pass c.1890s

The Bengal Pilot Service was responsible for guiding shipping along the Hooghly River between Calcutta and the Bay of Bengal and was part of Bengal Marine

In 1877 the Bombay Marine and the Bengal Marine were combined to form HM Indian Marine, which became the Royal Indian Marine in 1892 and the Royal Indian Navy in 1935.

Amongst other contributions, this article contains extracts from FIBIS member Sage's unpublished manuscript of records for Genealogists interested in India.


According to Massey,[1]


Was formerly styled the Bengal Military Club, the members of which were limited to the I.C.S. and military services. As time, however, moved on and things changed they found that this particular form of exclusiveness was rather an expensive luxury, and very wisely threw open wide the heavenly portals and admitted within their celestial and sacred precincts members of other government services, save and except those of the Bengal pilots. Why the club ever made this invidious distinction, of course I cannot say, but at a later period, recognising possibly the injustice of their action, they rescinded their prohibition, and now the pilots sit in the seats of the mighty amongst the members of the other services."

History of the Bengal Pilot Service

Brice and Labey[2] give a date of 1651 for the foundation of the service, but according to James Prinsep's Chronological Tables,[3] the service dates back to 1669:

[1669 ...] This year also were received orders from home, to institute a pilot establishment at Hoogly, to build a pinnace to be manned with intelligent seamen from the Indiamen, to take charge of the shipping up and down. Thus originated the Bengal Pilot Service.

The Bengal Pilot Service was abolished on the 15th May, 1948.[2]

Composition of the Pilot Service

This table shows the number of pilots of each rank in the service in 1853.

Senior Branch Pilot 1
Branch Pilot 11
Senior Master 23
Master 7
Mate 30
Senior 2d Mate 12
Junior 2d Mate 12
Volunteer 46
Total Complement 142

(Source: IOR/L/MAR/8/9)


National Maritime Museum (Greenwich)

THS 12 The History of the Bengal Pilot Service by Brice & Labey

This is a unique unpublished history of the Bengal Pilot Service in the Historical Manuscripts Collection of the National Maritime Museum. It covers a wide range of aspects to do with the service and its employee's e.g. Appendix G ‘Obituaries’ comprises information from various sources for men of the Pilot service and their families. Some chapters of text, but no Appendices are available online.[2]

The Percy-Smith Collection (MS 88/006)

The Percy-Smith Collection is not held in the main Caird Library of the Museum - access to the items must be requested a week or so in advance of a visit.

  • Item (18) - Bengal Marine ‘Particulars of certificates granted by the Government of Calcutta up to December 1902 to Masters, Mates and Engineers in Mercantile Marine’. These records are of particular interest to persons looking for River Pilots who were born in India who were in service in the 1890’s and at the turn of the twentieth century. The entries include the person’s name, date and place of birth , class of certificate, certificate number and its date of granting.
These records divide into:
Colonial Certificates of competency; Local (Foreign Trade) Certificates of competency; Local (Home Trade) Certificates of competency; Local Certificates of Service; Local (Inland) Certificates of Service; Local (Inland) Certificates of Competency
  • Item (29) - Index Cards : Bengal Medical (1740-1914, surnames A-H only); Bengal Orphans (1780-1840)[4]; Bengal Marine and Bengal Pilots (1700-1914). This link, from Len Barnett’s page Bengal Marine. (see below) shows the information available on one of the Bengal Marine index cards. Note that there are index cards about other topics in the Percy Smith collection at the Society of Genealogists

Asia, Pacific & Africa Collection, British Library (India Office)

There are many records of the India Office at the British Library that pertain to the Bengal Marine and Bengal Pilot Service.

Records marked (#) should appear on FamilySearch/LDS microfilms: 2028922 - 25; 2029155. Search the FamilySearch Catalog and see FamilySearch Centres for viewing access.

Shelf Mark Dates Description
L/AG/20 & 21 1814 - Post 1947 Includes records of leave and service pensions
L/AG/21/9/151-157 1920-1968 Bengal Pilot Fund pensions paid in UK
L/E/6-7 1880-1924 Pilot service recruitment information for this period contained within these papers.
L/MAR/8/1-20 1793-1880 Various lists of employees and volunteers in the Bengal Marine and Pilot Service
L/MAR/C/689 1794-1830 Appointments to Bengal Pilot Service
L/MAR/C/704 # 1858-61 Indian Navy, Bengal pilots
L/MAR/C/755-756 # 1848-60 Europeans in the service of the Bengal marine
L/MAR/C/760-761 # 1824-64 Bengal marine civil and marine casualties
L/MAR/C/762-763 Bengal Marine records of service
L/MAR/C/855 # 1821 Seamen in the Bengal marine who have claims on the company for wages, see L/E/6-7 for later recruitment’s
V/12 1896-1926 Covenanted pilots are included in the Bengal Histories of Service.

L/MAR/8 Series

Most of these records have been microfilmed. The originals are fragile and slowly detoriating so viewing of the microfilms is recommended both for ease of use (especially making printed copies) and for conservation. Note that the hard copy microfilm index file on display at the British Library uses the old L/MAR/C numbering for these records and a translation has to be made using the concordance tables at the back of the L/MAR index file. For example, L/MAR/8/3 used to be L/MAR/C/768 and the microfilm index tells us that L/MAR/C/768 is on IOR NEG 35431. The new numbering is in a different order to the original. Some records are split across two films, for example L/MAR/8/2 is on IOR NEG 35430 and 35431. The following table provides a direct lookup of the film numbers.

L/MAR/8/1-3 provide the most detailed information about volunteers (new recruits). Note that where films are available they are not on the open shelves and have to be ordered using the online system.

Description Date IOR Shelf Mark IOR Film Ref. LDS Film Ref.
Appointment, baptismal and other certificates of volunteers 1818-1844 L/MAR/8/1 IOR NEG 35410 FHL BRITISH Film 2028926 Item 2
Certificates of volunteers 1844-1858 L/MAR/8/2 IOR NEG 35430/1 VAULT BRITISH Film 2028996
Certificates of volunteers 1858-1861 L/MAR/8/3 IOR NEG 35431 VAULT BRITISH Film 2028997
Nominations 1858-1861 L/MAR/8/4
List of ranks of volunteers 1838-1861 L/MAR/8/5
Lists of pilots giving dates of promotion etc., A-M 1796-1858 L/MAR/8/6? IOR NEG 35408 FHL BRITISH Film 2028925 Items 7-8
List of pilots, N-Z 1796-1858 L/MAR/8/7? IOR NEG 35408 FHL BRITISH Film 2028926 Item 1
Certificates and lists of European employees 1793-1852 FHL BRITISH Film 2028998
European employees 1852-1869 FHL BRITISH Film 2028999
European employees 1869-1880 FHL BRITISH Film 2029000 Item 1
Quarterly Returns of Europeans in their Order of Station in the Pilot Establishment 1836-1853 L/MAR/8/8 IOR NEG 35432/3
Quarterly Returns 1853-1862 L/MAR/8/9 IOR NEG 35433
Quarterly Returns 1862-1880 L/MAR/8/10 IOR NEG 35433
Quarterly Returns 1793-1833 L/MAR/8/11 IOR NEG 35432
L/MAR/8/12 IOR NEG 35405
L/MAR/8/13 IOR NEG 35456
L/MAR/8/14 IOR NEG 35405
L/MAR/8/15 IOR NEG 35405
L/MAR/8/16 IOR NEG 35408
L/MAR/8/17 IOR NEG 35408
L/MAR/8/18 IOR NEG 35408
L/MAR/8/19 IOR NEG 35406/7
L/MAR/8/20 IOR NEG 35406/7
Printed rules & Regulations 1827 L/MAR/8/21

Society of Genealogists

Information available at the Society of Genealogists:

Bullock’s Directory of Non Official Europeans in India (1780-1820) – lists of Europeans and Anglo-Indians not in the King’s Service. The information extracted from the East India Register and similar publications for Bengal.. Includes a number of Free Mariners/ Country Traders/ Free Merchants, Indigo Planters and River Pilots. However persons in many other professions are included, also some women and children.

Index of Pilots

  • Appendices From M.H. Beattie on FIBIS Search (see details below)
  • Index to L/MAR/8/1 (in preparation)
  • Pilots and pilot vessels contained in the Marine lists in civil publications such as the East India Register, see the list of Directories

Published works

On The Hooghly by Malcolm H Beattie (1935) is a personal account of the Hooghly Pilot Service, in which the author served 1878-1913. Of particular interest to family Historians are the appendices:

Appendix A comprises a list of serving Branch Pilots (1847-1888)
Appendix B comprises a list of men joining the Service as Licensed Pilot or Covenanted Pilots (1858-1876) and men who joined the service as recruits from the training ships Worcester and Conway (1877-1893)
Appendix C comprises a list of men joining the Service (1893-1916)

This book is available online, refer below.

External links


  • Arthur David Linklater, Master Mariner - Duncan Linklater's excellent site contains information on shipping and navigation in the early twentieth century, including details of Linklater's employment by the Calcutta Port Commission. Originally with scans and transcripts of many original documents, exploring the site is recommended, but pages of particular general interest include:
  • On the River Hooghly by Khwaja Sayeed Shahabuddin (born 1923). He was a Leadsmen Apprentice with the Bengal Pilot Service for one year in 1946-1947, until he needed to wear glasses, which was not allowed.

Historical books online

An interesting and informative short story for younger readers depicting the work of a pilot on the Hooghly. The story was first published in 1895 and set in a time 'a good many years ago'. Notes from the Kipling Society.


  1. Recollections of Calcutta for over Half a Century by Montague Massey
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Labey, Capt G.T. and Brice, Capt R.K.H. (1970), The Bengal Pilot Service. National Maritime Museum, Ref. THS/12/1-9. Some chapters are available online, see Historical books online, above.
  3. Prinsep, James (1836). Useful Tables, Forming an Appendix to The Journal Of The Asiatic Society. Part the Second. Chronological and Genealogical Tables, page 160. Google Books
  4. The index is arranged alphabetically by name of orphan, with details such as date of birth, baptised, name of father and occasionally more details such as where apprenticed, etc. A cross reference card at the front of the index reads 'see also Alipore schools', which may possibly refer to further material in one of the Percy- Smith collections held in other institutions . "Four Orphan Schools in Calcutta and the Lawrence Military Asylum, Sanawar, Part II" FIBIS Journal No 23, Spring 2010, by Maureen Evers, page 14