Vigilant logo

HM Customs Cruiser VIGILANT

History of the Ship

model detail




Vigilant History 1
Click for general arrangement plan

Specification 1901

The specification for Vigilant was drawn up for the Commissioners of His Majesty’s Customs by the Superintending Engineer and Constructor of Shipping. His Majesty was of course Edward VII and the Constructor of Shipping was a certain Mr H.Travis. In the last decade of the 19th century the Customs had built 15 new steam driven vessels. This caused considerable problems as no “technical establishment” had been formed. An expert was urgently required. This is where Mr Travis came in. He was seconded from the War Office.


Vigilant History 2


In 1901 the Inspector General of the Water Guard in consultation with Mr Travis presented a report on the condition of the then operating 35-year-old Vigilant. He recommended that a new larger vessel should be built, not only capable of patrolling outside the Thames Estuary but to cruise between Dover and Yarmouth. A tender form was issued on 29th June 1901, which had to be delivered to Custom House, London by 19th August 1901. It was for the supply of a Single Screw Steam Cruiser.

Provision was to be made for separate compartments not only for Captain, Engineer and crew but for "any other officials".
Tendering companies were asked to quote for four engine options, two Compound and two Triple Expansion. Each engine type was to achieve a mean speed of either 10 or 11 knots.


Vigilant History 3

Built 1902

Tenders were sought from various shipbuilders. The successful tender was submitted by Messrs. Cox and Company of Falmouth. The preferred engine was the triple expansion which would propel the vessel at 11 knots and the price was to be £5390. The rejected choices were priced as follows:
Compound, 10 knots, £5050
Compound, 11 knots, £5260
Triple Expansion, 10 knots, £5250.

It is noted that Cox and Co. changed the completion date from 9 months after the date of acceptance to 12 months. A penalty of £1 would apply for every day after the due date for delivery.


Vigilant History 4


Vigilant, the seventh Customs Cruiser to bear that name, was to be 124 tons, 100 feet between perpendiculars, 16 feet moulded breadth and a draught not to exceed 8 feet. The triple expansion engine would have cylinders of 8.5, 13, and 21 inches diameter with 15 inch stroke and achieve an indicated horsepower of 200 and 210 revolutions per minute. The boiler was to have twin furnaces, be of the return tube type, and have overall measurements of 8 feet 6 inches in diameter and a length of 8 feet 3 inches.

Working pressure would be 150 psi. In August 1902, just a year from submitting the tender, Vigilant’s engineer gave her a good report at her trials, and by the end of the month she was accepted into the Customs Service.


Vigilant History 5


Vigilant was based at Gravesend on the River Thames and her duties were the control and clearance of ships using the Port of London. After a year of routine work, Mr S.F.Parry, Deputy Chairman of the Board of Customs, used Vigilant for an “inspection” of every port from Gravesend to Penzance in Cornwall. This happened to be in the holiday month of August, and not to let a precedent go to waste, a similar cruise was organised for the members of the Board every year thereafter.

There is a panelled deckhouse on the after deck of Vigilant. It is hard to allocate a purpose for this interesting feature relating to the everyday work of the vessel.


Vigilant History 6
Picture: Andrew Dandridge



In 1911, to celebrate the coronation of King George V, a Review of the Fleet was held at Spithead. This is the stretch of water between Portsmouth and the Isle of White. An Admiralty order had been published that after 8 o’clock on the morning of the review “no vessels, other than those flying the White Ensign were allowed to approach or enter the lines of warships”. Sir Laurence Guillemard, Chairman of Customs and Excise, (amalgamated in 1909), informed the Admiralty that Vigilant would proceed down the lines, stating that the Department held a charter from King Charles II which gave it greater powers than the Navy in home waters.

At the appropriate time Vigilant, flying the Customs flags, and in spite of heated objections, sailed down the lines of battleships and anchored at their head. It is a salutary thought that Vigilant is the only surviving vessel of the 1911 Review.



Vigilant History 7

Vigilant History 8
Photos: Portcullis

In 1920 Vigilant was sold out of the Customs Service for £1850, converted from steam to diesel and became a cruising yacht. She was renamed Shalimar. During the Second World War she was laid up. Being in American ownership she escaped requisition and possible destruction. After the war she continued to cruise. Renamed Eileen Siocht she was bought by a “delightful lady” called Mrs. Nancy Kelly who is said to have had a deep affection for the vessel and used her as a houseboat.

Originally berthed at the Lady Bee Marina in Shoreham, she was later moved to a mud berth on the other side of the River Adur. In 1988 Nancy’s health caused her to start thinking about a move ashore and she asked a local estate agent to advertise Vigilant for sale.

Vigilant History 9
Photo: Portcullis

The Vigilant Trust

The estate agent contacted HM Customs and Excise to ask for details of Vigilant’s early life and an ex-cutter officer, now Head of Customs Maritime Branch, got to hear about it. Following a visit to the vessel, he came away enthused and immediately set about forming a charitable trust to launch an appeal among his colleagues in Customs and Excise. The asking price was £30,000 but when Nancy became ill the Trust had not raised sufficient funds.

She had to sell the vessel with the berth to a property developer, who immediately asked £100,000 for Vigilant. During the following year the price reduced in stages until the original selling price was reached. By this time the Trust had enough money and in March 1992 a deal was struck. Vigilant became the property of the Vigilant Trust.


Vigilant History 10
Photo: Vosper Thorneycroft



It was not known at this stage, but restoration was not going to be completed in one attempt. Vigilant was found to be completely perforated at the waterline along her entire length. An amazing effort and a gruelling schedule of work by David Hewer and his colleagues achieved results. From a vessel unable to float and stuck on a sandbank Vigilant was patched and eventually towed to a slipway at shipbuilders Vosper Thornycroft in Portchester.

Funds were raised from several sources including the National Heritage Memorial Fund, Portsmouth Naval Base Property Trust, the Science Museum, the European Community, and from individual members of the Customs Service who elected to contribute via their payroll. Repairs to the hull were effected while a Business Plan was prepared.


Vigilant History 11
Photo: Evening Argus

Rejected Business Plan

It is invariably the case that when funders offer money they not only require “partnership funding” but also a “business plan” to ensure continuing maintenance. This was the case with Vigilant. An impressive plan was presented with the co-operation of Portsmouth Council to make Vigilant part of the Portsmouth tourist trail which would of course include HMS Victory, Warrior, the Historic Dockyard etc. They donated some money and a berth. The plan was rejected on the grounds that the public would not be willing to pay extra money because of the presence of Vigilant and she would therefore be unable to support her own upkeep in the years that lay ahead.

David Hewer, Chairman of the Vigilant Trust, expressed his point of view; “This is a familiar story to anyone who has ever tried to obtain funding for an historic vessel and is, in effect, a ‘catch 22’ situation which agrees that the ship should be funded for restoration but denies that very funding on the grounds of upkeep costs.” The theory of the Medway Maritime Trust is that historic vessels are rarely able in their own right to earn sufficient money for their future maintenance. Another source of continuing funds must be found.


Vigilant History 12

Harry Pounds Shipbreakers

Owing to the lack of space, Vospers then had to ask the Vigilant Trust to remove the vessel from their yard. A deal was struck with the nearby Harry Pound’s Shipbreakers yard in Portchester to tow the hull there. Many of Vigilant’s fixtures and fittings had been removed and placed in store. The deal with Pound’s was that the hull could remain in their yard free of charge while the Trust continued to try to raise the needed funds, and only if they eventually failed would Pound’s get it for scrap.

This situation went right to the wire when Pounds yard was sold for redevelopment and the Trust was advised that all potential scrap had to be disposed of. In the meantime Vigilant had sunk at her moorings.


Vigilant History 13

The Medway Maritime Trust

The Medway Maritime Trust came to Vigilant’s rescue with one week to spare after being put in touch with the Vigilant Trust by the Advisory Committee of National Historic Ships. They offered a permanent berth for Vigilant in Faversham and the Vigilant Trust were able to provide sufficient money to fund the pumping out, preparations and towage required. This was all organised by the Medway Maritime Trust and the assistance that they have provided now offers Vigilant a future again.

Click here for an album of historical photographs (opens a new page)

Now read about “The 2006 Rescue”.


I History I The Rescue I Recent News I Links I Fundraising I Contact Us I Main MMT Page I