How Captain Manby becoming a lifesaving pioneer
PUBLISHED: 07:00 21 October 2018
It was simple but effective, eliminating the “so near but so far” agony of shipwrecked mariners perishing only yards from the safety of the shore.
Lifeboats would ground in shallows, and would-be rescuers were helpless, beaten back by crashing breakers.
But a distraught eye-witness of this scenario determined to find a solution. That was Captain George Manby, barrack master, of Bauleah House (still there today) on St Nicholas Road in Great Yarmouth.
Before properties were built there, he had uninterrupted sea views, and in 1807 saw ships and crews lost in appalling weather, one vessel smashed to pieces with the loss of all hands when a tempest struck. Another broke up with “her wretched crew engulfed and lost from sight.”
Over in Gorleston, the gun-boat Snipe ran aground in the same storm. Manby galloped there on horseback, seeing “entreating men” clinging to her rigging and women thronging the forecastle “with the most piercing shrieks, imploring our succour and assistance.”
As he watched, helpless and frustrated, exhausted men were falling from the rigging into the cauldron of a sea which was sweeping women overboard to their deaths. That night 147 souls perished... all within 50 yards of safety!
So Manby set to work. After much frustrating trial and error, he devised a system under which those being rescued were hauled ashore beneath a pulley on a aerial line fired across the stricken vessel by mortar.
He demonstrated it with himself as “the endangered mariner”, and also created a star shot for work in darkness.
It was put into use for real in 1808 when the brig Elizabeth grounded 150 yards offshore in a blizzard. After tense moments, the line was successfully fired across the brig and secured, and seven relieved seamen were hauled to safety by pulley-on-line through snow, sleet and rollers.
Anxious to spread the benefits elsewhere, Manby pinpointed 59 spots between Yarmouth and the Firth of Forth in Scotland as potential breeches buoy sites. Parliament and European countries rewarded him for his endeavours.
When he died in Gorleston at his Ferry Hill/High Road home in 1854, aged 89, he knew that 1,000 lives had been snatched from death by his breeches buoy invention.
Two streets in the borough were named Manby Road in tribute to his lifesaving innovation. I am sure blue heritage plaques pinpoint his former residence.
Thirty years ago I reported here that the Government had decided to abandon the breeches buoy apparatus for saving lives around our shores. In Great Britain the method had been used only twice in the previous five years, having been overtaken by improved technology.
A month after I launched my career in provincial journalism in 1955, the breeches buoy system was in action for real on our stretch of the Norfolk coast.
I was too inexperienced to be involved in covering the drama when coastguards and a specialist team overcame terrible conditions to haul seven French fishermen to the safety of the sands when their trawler, the St Pierre Eglise, went ashore in a blinding blizzard at Waxham.
But I was there for the aftermath. Because my father was a drifterman and trawlerman, it all seemed too close to home - not the so-called perils of the deep but the perils of the shallows, so to speak.
The other time was in 1981 when the coaster Wegro ploughed on to Yarmouth’s South Beach in a fierce storm. Our Coast Rescue Company (the re-named Life-Saving Apparatus team) received its first Mayday call in 20 years, pulling to safety her crew - plus two schoolboys sailing with relatives in the crew.
Recently I wrote that when the collier White Swan was driven on to Gorleston beach in 1912 in violent weather, her crew of 20 were rescued by breeches buoy. It took 13 worrying hours before four ropes were fired across the stranded collier, but no life was lost, all thanks to Manby.