Heritage consultant David Hicks brings us the stories behind some of East Lothian’s historic properties.

It seems strange to think of the peaceful Anchor Green in North Berwick as a rocket base, but in this case it was with the intention of saving lives. In Victorian times this was the location of the Coastguard station, and the gathering point for the town’s volunteer life-saving brigade with their rescue rockets.

Coastguards had been based in North Berwick since the 1820s, initially helping to combat smugglers. But by the 1850s they had come under the control of the Admiralty, and acted as a naval reserve. This more warlike posture required new buildings, and in 1857 a small Coastguard station was built on Anchor Green, now the Rocketeer restaurant. This acted as mustering point and as a magazine for weapons and gunpowder. The porch of the medieval church next door was used as a lookout bothy, with a fireplace added to help keep officers warm through cold winter nights.

In 1870 the Coastguards had their own living quarters built in Melbourne Place, with a row of stone cottages facing out to sea. The design is simple and functional, with the largest cottage at the end of the row kept for the senior officer. Sometimes the cottages were designed to be defensible, with communicating interior doors and few entrances. In 1887 Lieutenant Fletcher planned a new addition, a Rocket Cart House to be built at the end of the row.

A key part of the Coastguards role was to oversee shore-to-ship life saving, and in North Berwick they had charge of the Rocket Brigade. This group of volunteers operated rescue rockets, transported on a specially built cart, which fired a rope over a stricken ship to help pull the crew ashore. 

The limitations of this system were tragically shown with the wreck of the schooner Bubona in October 1859. The ship was wrecked off Canty Bay and the Rocket Brigade successfully landed a line across the stern, but the crew were too exhausted to clamber ashore. A crowd of onlookers could only look on in silence as the ship broke up and all aboard perished. The disaster spurred the community into action under the direction of Coastguard officers, and less than a year later the town had its first lifeboat.