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‘The Vigilant and the Negligent’. British Coastal Administrations in the Eighteenth Century

Hannes Ziegler

The eighteenth century history of the British coast in popular as much as in academic perception is currently usually dominated by images of sea bathing and the beach (viz. history of leisure and health), of Martello towers and men-of-war (viz. military and naval history), or of small sloops laden with brandy barrels (viz. history of smuggling). And yet surrounding, underlying, and at times even closely connecting all of these issues and activities was an intricate network of administrational practices that has to date rarely been studied in detail. From its origins in 1671 up until the establishment of a modern coastguard unit at the beginning of the 19th century, the administration of the English and Scottish coasts lay formally in the hands of the Board of Customs. By means of a number of administrational units such as riding officers and revenue cruisers, an elaborate mechanism of watching the coasts, controlling movements along the coasts, and communicating incidences regarding the coasts was put in place on an ever increasing scale. Always questioned concerning its indeed dubitable economic and political efficiency this mechanism led to a complicated and dense overlapping of administrational activities, involving the military, the militia, the navy, the civil administration, and even the local populations of these coastal regions.

The book project explores the history of the administration of the British coasts in the eighteenth century from the perspectives of administrational and political history in a cultural perspective. It focuses on the various administrational units that were charged with guarding and watching the coasts. At the same time, however, emphasis will be placed on the interchange and competition between different central organisations (Treasury, Admiralty, War Office, Home Office, etc.) regarding the problem of the coast, on the channels of communication between centre and periphery, on the interrelations of government officials and local population, and on the administrational consequences of an essentially preventive system of guarding the coasts. The results will thus ultimately allow for a discussion and re-evaluation of supposed processes of state-formation in eighteenth century Britain.