For a long period the Government had fought their endless battle against smuggling before they replaced the familiar Excise men and revenue cutters by the Coast Guard under the Admiralty in 1856. at Charmouth the old order provided incidents as picturesque as any seen elsewhere: such as the adventure of Mrs Hodges brandy. The Excise men, if single, were lodged in the row opposite the Mill, now called Mill View; married men had to live elsewhere. From Mill View they were moved to the Coastguard Cottages in sea Lane, when the license of the Inn, which then stood there, was transferred to the Royal Oak. The Inn had a skittle- alley which ran along the garden wall and ended in the present small isolated building on the lane. This little room was used by the Coastguard as an armoury; and a cannon- ball used to surmount the gate-post leading to the cottages. The iron standard from which the Inn sign was hung remained fixed in the wall until recently. The small window which has since been made looking into the lane marks the site of the inn cellar.
The Excise men occupied the cliff slope immediately west of the Cement Factory. Here they built the little octagonal lookout, fortunately still standing, and put up a flag-staff on a plot behind it. These were held at will from the 10 th of June, 1855, from Mr George Frean at £3 a year.
With the passing of the Coast Guard Act in 1856, the Admiralty took over the establishment. The officer in charge at Charmouth was Benjamin Simpson, Master R.N., who held the appointment since the 3 rd . September 1851. His predecessor was Lieutenant Charles Partridge,R.N., appointed non the 28 th January .1847. From this it will be seen that Naval officers were filling these posts, and that there was a station at Charmouth before the actual transfer to the Admiralty took place. The title deeds of the cottages would have been transferred to the Admiralty in consequence of the Act of 1856. The earliest record at the Admiralty of the houses at Charmouth is a lease dated 17 th May 1878 for 21 years from 25 th March, 1878, made between the Admiralty and the trustees under he will of the late John Hodges at a rent of £50 a year. When this lease expired it was renewed for a further term of years from the 25 th of March 1899, at the same rent, the lessee then being Richard Hodges. The station was abolished in 1909, and was surrendered to the landlord in consideration n of the payment by the Admiralty of £150.
In 1891 the rent of the look-out house and flag-staff became payable to J.J. Coulton and an agreement was entered into on a yearly basis in 1895 at its former rent (£3 a year). The Admiralty determined the tenancy on the 29 th of September 1909.
While they were in Charmouth, the Coastguard formed a useful and attractive element in the life of the village. They were forward to lend a hand wherever they could be useful. Was bunting needed for a village festival, the Coast supplied it; they supplied the cool-headed and skilful- handed aid to guide and control the blazing tar-barrels when they careered down Charmouth Street on Guy Fawkes night; and their unofficial activities in their degree were perhaps as beneficial to the nation as their public duties were essential.
In 1801, John Oliver, Master R.N., wrote to Captain Boteler R.N,. Coastguard Station, Lyme Regis, During the last war with France, a Privateer chased a Brig past the Town to the Westward within half a gun-shot of the batteries, when there was not a gun serviceable to defend her, and the enemy captured her near Seaton. A small battery of three guns opposite the Cobb and another at Charmouth under the direction of the Coastguard service would be very desirable in the event of war. Perhaps this was the origin of the gun kept by the Charmouth Coastguards on the West cliff. It was kept in a shed above the Look-out house; and it used a 6lb. Shot. A target was fixed in the sea at about 300-400 yards range; and the shot was retrieved at low water and used again.
History of the Lookout
Visitors to Charmouth are also often puzzled by an unusual, octagonal-shaped building which stands on the crumbling edge of a low cliff above the foreshore and beach, near the mouth of the river Char. The walls are of the soft local stone, and have been rendered as a protection against the weather. There is a timber door on the more sheltered landward side, and windows are set in the three seaward walls - one facing south-east to command a view along the Chesil Beach and towards the Isle of Portland; another facing south across Lyme Bay and out to the Channel; and the third facing south-west towards the Cobb harbour at Lyme Regis. This unusual building is The Lookout'.
It was built by the Customs & Excise Service in 1804, at a time when England took the threat of a Napoleonic invasion very seriously. The south-east coasts were the ones thought to be most at risk from a sally by the French from their great port at Boulogne, but in addition to the redoubling of vigilance at the Cinque Ports, preparations were made all the way along the south and south-west coasts. An observation and warning system of lookout and signal posts was established at prominent points along the shoreline, together with beacons on the highest hills inland, all designed to enable invasion warnings to be flashed across the country with great speed and- urgency. The invasion, however, never came.
Nevertheless, smuggling had for some time been rife along this coastline and, during the first half of the 19th century, the Lookout was used very effectively by the Excise & Coastguard Service in their endeavours to intercept the running of brandy from France, and to apprehend the smugglers. There is still a sunken lane running inland from the eastern cliffs of Charmouth which retains its earlier name of the Smugglers' Path. The Western Flying Post reported that one Saturday night in January 1825, three men of the Lyme Preventive Station were on the look-out near the mouth of the Charmouth river, where they captured 150 kegs and two men. But they were then discovered and attacked by 70-80 drunken smugglers who, in the struggle that followed, made off again with most of the brandy, leaving behind three of their number who subsequently served three months in Dorchester gaol. The registers of Dorchester gaol recorded similar imprisonments of Charmouth smugglers, including 21 year old Elizabeth Powell in 1824, and a 49 year old seaman, Henry Tippen, in 1828.
In 1856, the Excise & Coastguard Services were formally taken over by the Admiralty, who continued to rent the Lookout and its adjacent flagstaff from the lord of the manor for £3 a year. In 1909, the use of the Lookout as an observation post was discontinued, and in 1945 the building was given to Charmouth Parish Council. In 1989, it was designated as a Grade II listed building by the Department of the Environment.