The eccentric engineer

E&T recounts the life-saving exploits of Captain George Manby - a man who can claim more than one extraordinary legacy.

By 18 February 1807, Captain George Manby of the Cambridgeshire militia had already had a fairly eventful life. He had, he claimed, been a childhood friend of the greatest hero of the age - Horatio Nelson;  studied at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich; volunteered to fight in the American War of Independence (for which he was rejected on age and height grounds) and joined the militia. He had also become a published author; married a wealthy heiress; very nearly gone bankrupt and, according to one account, run away to Clifton in Bristol after being shot in the head by his wife's lover.

But, on that fateful Wednesday, 18 February, George was thinking how lucky he was. A gale had blown up and, as barrack-master at Great Yarmouth, he had come down to the shore with many others to watch the inevitable. As the storm raged, ships out at sea foundered, while those in the supposed safety of the shallows broke their lines or fouled their anchors and were driven towards the beach.

One particular horror that day was the fate of the gun-brig Snipe. She had become tangled in her anchorage, forcing the captain to order her cables cut. Cut loose, she drifted shorewards, her crew, some Napoleonic prisoners and many women and children, still aboard. Near the pier, just 60 yards from where Manby stood, she then foundered in the huge waves and those on the beach heard the screams of the dying as they were thrown in the water. Some 67 people were lost, just yards from safety. The following day another 147 bodies were recovered along the coast from other ships that had sunk in the same storm.

Such shipwrecks were then considered the dreadful but inevitable consequence of seafaring - but not by George Manby. As an 18-year old he had fired a line from a mortar over Downham church, and it was this youthful prank that he now turned to for inspiration. After all, a line fired to a sinking ship might just provide an escape route for her otherwise stranded crew.

Manby had gained an engineering background at the Royal Arsenal, so he knew what tools he needed. The problem of firing a heavy line accurately out to sea proved a hard nut to crack. In early experiments, the rope caught fire, then the huge acceleration of the shot from the mortar broke the link between it and the heavy rope. Chains split and ropes frayed until finally he hit upon using platted rawhide, which had both the strength and the flexibility to hold fast.

Manby's first chance to use his rescue apparatus in earnest came almost exactly a year after the sinking of the Snipe. On 12 February 1808, the brig Elizabeth got into difficulties in a storm, just 150 yards from Great Yarmouth beach. Crew members had lashed themselves to the rigging and all appeared lost. Then George Manby and his portable rescue apparatus appeared on the beach and a line was successfully fired to the brig. This was lashed on to the deck and a boat sent out along the line. All seven members of the crew were brought safely to land.

More rescues followed, and the apparatus eventually came to the notice of the House of Commons where Manby was rewarded with £2,000. As well as the money, Manby was rewarded with seeing the commissioning of the first organised coastal rescue system in the country - a series of 'mortar stations' using his apparatus. As such, he has been claimed as the true inspiration for the RNLI.

Success led Manby to redouble his efforts rescuing those in peril on the sea. The problem with night rescues was seeing far enough in a storm to accurately fire a mortar at a ship, and so he invented the 'night-ball', a mortar-launched flare, the precursor of the modern 'starshell'.

Not all of Manby's inventions were quite so well received, however. Along the coast, the shoremen had for centuries supplemented their livelihood with salvage from sinking or distressed vessels and the idea of no ships sinking frankly disturbed them. When Manby demonstrated an 'unsinkable' boat, which used flotation tanks to retain buoyancy, the crew sabotaged the demonstration by rocking it until it capsized, tipping them - and Manby (who couldn't swim) - into the water.

Realising that discretion is the better part of valour, Manby moved his lifesaving activities inland, inventing an apparatus for saving those who had fallen through the ice before developing his final triumph, the 'extincteur'.

The extincteur was Manby's method for dealing with that other great life-taker - fire. His machine consisted of a pressurised three-gallon copper vessel filled with a solution of the fire-suppressant potassium carbonate, which could be directed onto the fire through a nozzle. In short, it was the world's earliest fire-extinguisher. He then backed up this life-saving work by becoming the first to call for the formation of a national fire brigade.

Manby died at his home in Great Yarmouth in 1854 just ten days short of his 89th birthday. At the time, his legacy was considered to be his huge collection of Nelson memorabilia but, in fact, it was perhaps the lives of thousands saved by his ingenious mind.


The winner of our previous caption competition was John R. Hey, with: "You can put horse-muck on your rhubarb if you like; I prefer custard on mine."

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