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Invention that helped many cheat sea

PUBLISHED: 16:18 07 February 2008 | UPDATED: 10:23 03 July 2010

THEY clung white-knuckled to any hand-hold they could grab on their battered ship, shouting for help until their throats dried up, whereupon they prayed silently for deliverance from the threat of a watery grave, the seven latest victims of the treacherous North Sea.

THEY clung white-knuckled to any hand-hold they could grab on their battered ship, shouting for help until their throats dried up, whereupon they prayed silently for deliverance from the threat of a watery grave, the seven latest victims of the treacherous North Sea.

As their Plymouth brig Elizabeth lay helpless, stranded on a sand bar and concealed by darkness and a blizzard, they feared she would break up.

Death seemed inevitable, almost a welcome release from their torment...and the irony was that they were not miles from the nearest land but no fewer than 150 yards from Great Yarmouth beach where would-be rescuers stood frustrated and impotent because there seemed no way they could be reached.

But for one man on the shore, it was the blessed opportunity to put into practice his brainchild, a revolutionary invention designed for this very situation of trying to save the lives of distressed mariners in the so-near/so-far predicament. That man was Captain George Manby, 42-year-old barrack-master at Yarmouth.

The would-be saviour galloped from the south beach to his barracks (where the Sainsbury supermarket stands today) to fetch a mortar to fire a line from the shore to the stricken brig. He returned to discover an extra complication: fog had descended!

Undeterred, the optimistic Manby set up his crude apparatus as the crowd watched in wonderment, excitement and expectancy. But where to aim?

Manby pointed his mortar in the direction he thought the Elizabeth was - and the rocket whizzed off into the dark distance. His judgement was precision perfect, and the line found its target...but he was unaware of his success and thought he had missed for some agonising minutes until his end of the rope began to slither slowly seawards over the sand as the desperate crew hauled it in.

Those helpless seamen, already in fear of their lives, were probably even more frightened by what they might have thought was an attack when a rocket whooshed dangerously towards them. When they realised that succour was at hand, they made the line fast and waited to see what would happen next.

That was Manby following the rope through the night, rowing his allegedly unsinkable specially buoyant boat to pluck them to safety and land them in the breakers where willing helpers grabbed them, turning seven potential victims into surprised survivors.

Immediately Manby had waded ashore himself, he took brig master James Prouting aside and made sure he wrote a testimony of the dramatic rescue. This was to ensure that Manby's inventiveness and execution were not discredited by the numerous beach companies who earned much of their living as rescuers and salvors in pre-lifeboat days and might well have regarded his technique as a threat to their own livelihood.

But without doubt, the North Sea had been cheated and, thankfully, countless more people were to be similarly saved from Davy Jones's locker (death by drowning) in the two centuries that followed that epic rescue by equipment evolved from Manby's rocket prototype.

One development was the familiar version of a lifebelt with loose canvas trousers in which those in peril were pulled individually shorewards to safety, dangling from a rope between ship and land - forerunner of the breeches buoy used until 1988 when the British Government abandoned it as having outlived its usefulness because search-and-rescue techniques had become more sophisticated.

The date of that epic Elizabeth incident was exactly 200 years ago next Tuesday! It is significant not only in the annals of lifesaving but also in the history of our borough, yet I doubt it will be marked hereabouts.

There is still plenty of interest in the eccentric barrack-master whose achievements are recorded in our Time and Tide Museum. Also, many folk continue to enjoy the talks on his life regularly given by Les Cole, a Manby enthusiast and volunteer custodian of the Nelson Museum locally.

There is a link between Manby and Norfolk's hero admiral, the former worshipping the latter to the extent that he was to knock two rooms into one in his Southtown home to make space for a Nelson museum! Suggestions that the two officers might have been boyhood chums in West Norfolk have been discounted.

Captain Manby was well-known in and around Yarmouth where his office and home were in at Bauleah House, still standing today on St Nicholas Road. The property then commanded uninterrupted sea views, and he saw the waters both benign and smooth, and angrily gale-lashed, and pondered on ways of cutting the death toll among sailors.

In 1807 he witnessed major disasters involving the loss of more than 100 lives that gave him impetus in his search for a solution. A horrendous storm claimed many victims: for example, a ship broke into pieces with all hands perishing, and another was smashed to smithereens until her wretched crew were engulfed and lost from sight.

A third was the gunboat Snipe that ran aground only 50 yards from Yarmouth beach, driven by that same tempest. Manby mounted his horse and went to the shore, seeing her rigging filled with entreating men and her forecastle crowded with women shrieking for help. And he was distressed when the men fell from the rigging because of numbed hands and exhaustion, and the women were swept overboard by raging waters.

The 67 Snipe victims included women, children and French prisoners-of-war. From the shore, Manby watched helplessly, but his resolve to find an answer strengthened.

He concluded that communication with the shore was the first step toward rescue. He borrowed a mortar from the Board of Ordnance and invented apparatus to throw a rope from the ship to the shore, where a lifeboat was launched to save the victims. But Manby - an army officer, not naval - appreciated that the boat idea was impracticable despite the Elizabeth success, and searched for improvements.

He devised an aerial rope fixed to a mainmast along which a man in a sling could be pulled, and was the pioneer practice “victim” watched by the Admiral of the Port of Yarmouth.

Soon the perfected technique was available at 59 places between Yarmouth and the Firth of Forth, and European countries adopted it, recognising Manby by conferring awards on him.

After retiring as barrack-master in 1842, Manby and his wife moved to High Road in Southtown where he commissioned for its rear garden a pedestal with a relief stone carving of a rescue and an inscription recording its significance. He renamed the property Pedestal House; today it is Manby House.

In his 12 years there until he died in 1854, Manby could look out and see in one glance his pedestal, the shore where that initial success was achieved...and the 144ft Nelson's Monument dedicated to his hero and, arguably, friend and acquaintance.

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