Some time ago I was offered the opportunity to take part in the lunchtime talks programme at Time and Tide in Great Yarmouth, and when asked to come up with a subject for my talk there was only ever really one choice. It would be fair to say that my traineeship has been fairly Nelson-centric (that tends to happen when you work on a major summer exhibition called Nelson & Norfolk), but for this talk I decided to focus on one of Norfolk’s lesser known maritime figures.
I first heard of Captain George William Manby a few years ago when he was featured in the BBC series Shipwrecks: Britain’s Sunken History presented by Dr Sam Willis. On 18th February 1807, Manby witnessed the scene as the naval gun brig Snipe ran aground just off the coast of Great Yarmouth. The stricken ship was less than 100 yards from shore, but the crashing waves near the ship made it impossible for boats from shore to reach the desperate crew. 67 lives were lost that day, and Manby resolved to come up with a device that would help to provide assistance to crews of wrecked ships in future.
The result of Manby’s efforts was the ‘Manby Mortar’: a line-throwing device which would allow a light rope to be fired over the rigging of the stricken ship. The smaller line could then be used by the crew of the stranded vessel to haul across heavier lines, which could then be used as a means of evacuating survivors by either boat or harness. On the night of 12th February 1808, almost a year after Manby witnessed the tragedy of the Snipe, his apparatus was used to rescue 7 seamen from the brig Elizabeth just off the coast of Great Yarmouth.
The mortar was just one of Manby’s inventions, with his other ideas ranging from an unsinkable boat to the first pressurised fire extinguisher. His life outside of his many inventions was also far from dull, with Manby surviving at least two attempts on his life and meeting with royalty on several occasions. Ultimately he never achieved the recognition he felt he deserved. In retirement, Manby moved into his basement and converted his house into a museum of Nelson memorabilia. When Manby died on 18th November 1854, he was found alone in the chair in his living room looking out at the sea which had inspired his greatest invention.
To find out more about Captain Manby, come along to my talk at Time and Tide, Great Yarmouth on Friday 3rd November 2017 at 11.30. £3 entry (talk only) or £1.95 for Norfolk Museums Pass holders. Booking essential. Click here for further details.