Early 19th Century Life Saving Apparatus



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Although the Coastguard service, as such, was not formed until 1822 there were those around the coast who, appalled at the loss of life from stranded vessels, set their minds to producing a means of rescue by those on shore; this some 15 years before the formation of the Coastguard. Of the four men most closely involved, I will cover the background of three since very little is known of the fourth.

The first attempt to produce some form of rocket apparatus was by one Sgt Bell, of the Royal Engineers, in the late eighteenth century but the pioneers of ship to shore rescue, as we know it, were Henry Trengrouse and Captain George Manby who were contemporaneously working on the problem albeit at opposite ends of the country - Trengrouse at Helston, Cornwall and Manby in Norfolk. Both had the same aims but their methods of propelling the line from shore to wreck were diametrically opposed.


George Manby (1766-1854), a boyhood friend of Lord Nelson, concentrated on adapting a 6 1b mortar extensively used throughout the Napoleonic wars as the main armament of Bomb Ketches - to carry the line twixt ship and shore. His initial idea was that a boat should then be hauled out to the wreck on the rocket line, and to this end the apparatus was adapted to enable the use of any available boat.

The first recorded rescue, using the new Manby apparatus, was effected by this line and boat method on 18 February 1808. The Plymouth Brig Elizabeth stranded 150 yards from the shore at Great Yarmouth and with Manby himself in charge, the crew of seven were brought to safety under conditions which would otherwise have spelt their certain death.


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Manby's equipment was not without its critics, the prime objection being the reliance on having a boat to hand to effect a rescue. Manby immediately set to work on an alternative using a basket or cot. This more complicated method was not initially to Manby's taste yet in it lay the germ of the apparatus which was to do such yeoman service until its demise in 1987.

The idea was that, as soon as the line carried over the wreck, a large hawser and a tailed block would be hauled out with an endless whip line rove through the block; the crew would having hauled the block to the ship, make it fast at as high a point as possible. Meanwhile the shore party would make an anchorage with three stakes driven into the ground and a gun tackle purchase made fast to them. As soon as all was fast the shore end of the hawser would be passed through rollers at each end of a canvas and cordage cot; the loose ends of the endless whip then made fast either end of the cot which could then be hauled twixt ship and shore with suitable tension being kept on the hawser by means of the gun tackle purchase.


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Thus the forerunner of the modern whip and hawser equipment was born. It was felt that if no cot or boat were available then a clove hitch in the bight of the line would be passed over the head of the casualty and he would be hauled ashore (how many crushed chests would have ensued from this crude method is not recorded).


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Then at a wreck in January 1814 a form of sling was improvised by cutting off a length of hawser and making a grummet on the hawser large enough for a man to sit in, the bight of the whip was made fast to the grummet and hauled between ship and shore effecting the rescue of all seven crew.

Manby fought bureaucratic apathy for many years but the only real progress with his method was around the coast of East Anglia. To emphasise this point by 1823, 220 lives had been saved around the coasts of Norfolk and Suffolk and only 19 over the rest of the country. No more than 100 sets were ever introduced to the coast and it is probable that the final death knell of Manby's mortar was the advent of Captain Boxer's rocket in 1865.

Manby devoted his life to maritime rescue and, when he died in 1854 had the satisfaction of knowing that 1000 lives had been saved using his inventions.


Henry Trengrouse (1772-1854) spent his whole life in and around Helston and it was his impressions, gained as an observer, of the wreck of H M S Anson, with the loss of 100 lives, on Loe Bar on 29 December 1807 that led to his interest in effecting maritime rescues by rocket and line fired from the shore.

Trengrouse's apparatus, like that of Manby was designed to effect rescue by line and hawser, the crew to be brought ashore in a chair rather than a cradle. The important difference was the use of a rocket to make contact with the ship, as opposed to a mortar, and he may justly be regarded as the father of modern rescue rocket apparatus. The rocket was fired from an ordinary musket to the barrel of which was fitted a section of cylinder by means of a bayonet joint. The rocket, with line attached to its stick, was inserted into the cylinder in such a manner that its priming was ignited immediately on discharge of the musket. This rocket had obvious advantages over the cumbersome Manby mortar being far lighter and more portable with less risk of the line parting as the rocket velocity increased gradually - this as opposed to the immediate shock of discharge from the mortar. Also the whole of Trengrouse's equipment could be packed into a chest 4ft.3" x 1ft.6" x 1ft.6" and could as well be carried on ship as on land.

It was not until 28 April 1818 that Trengrouse finally got the chance to exhibit his apparatus before the government committee, headed by Admiral Sir Charles Rowley, which had been appointed to investigate ways and means of maritime rescue. The committee found "Mr Trengrouse's model appears to be the best that has yet been suggested for the purpose of saving lives from shipwreck by gaining communication with the shore,. and as far as experiments went, it most perfectly answered what was proposed ".

The government placed an order for twenty sets but subsequently had them made by the Ordinance Department, Trengrouse being granted 50 in compensation. The Society of Arts awarded him its large silver medal and thirty guineas; and Czar Alexander 1, of Russia, presented him with a diamond ring, accompanied by an autographed letter. But these apart, Trengrouse received no pecuniary advantage from his invention and, in fact, there appears to be no record of a rescue using his apparatus, except for a rather vague reference in the inscription below the print of the wreck of the Anson (published by T Gillard, 8 Strand, 1825), which reads:

Wreck of the Anson frigate on the Lee Pool Bar in Mounts Bay Cornwall December 25th(?) 1807, when notwithstanding the beach was within a few fathoms, Captain Lydiard, with upwards of 100 of his crew, were drowned in attempting to gain it.

Mr H Trengrouse, of Helston, having witnessed the wreck, was so intensely affected by such great destruction of human life, as finally to invent a rocket apparatus that may be used on shipboard or on the shore for the preservation of lives and property in cases of general shipwreck. The experiments made with this apparatus before Official Committees clearly exhibited its efficiency, as well as superiority, both of which were officially reported. But the great superiority of Mr Trengrouse's method of forming a rope communication by means of a rocket was most eminently demonstrated recently at the Isle of Wight, when a line was carried over a wreck by the first essay of a rocket in a most admirable manner, after the Manby mortar had failed in repeated efforts. (There is no record of the wreck mentioned in this paragraph. GHR).

As the Anson lay in the breakers, is here correctly represented. Also, the manner how Mr Trengrouse's apparatus would have been applied generally to all vessels wrecked under ordinary circumstances.

Explanation First a line is projected to the shore by a rocket, (discharged from a small musket, as shown at the shoulder of a man on the quarter deck, or it might be done advantageously from the forecastle even before the ship grounded; by that line the person on the shore draws a deep sea lead line to them, and other small ropes in succession, to be used as hauling lines (the other ends of these lines to be retained onboard). Then the end of a hawser is hauled to shore and secured to a rock or to a piece of wood from the wreck inserted in the sand (where possible) and made taut onboard by the Capstan. Another Hawser might be made fast to the stump of the main mast (or to the foremast under the cap and kept sufficiently taut by several persons on the beach holding hard on the end of it. A traveller is then applied, each hawser and a flexible chair suspended to it with a hauling line, attached by which the most timid, sick, females or children are quickly and safely brought (above the waves) to land. There are also represented in the water men having on Trengrouse's Sailors' Life ..... (Unfortunately the remainder of the caption is indecipherable GHR).


It seems unfortunate that Trengrouse did not receive the rewards his efforts so obviously warranted but there was a third contender on the scene, at the same time as Manby and Trengrouse, who did reap the rewards for his ingenuity. John Dennett (died 10 July 1852) put his rockets on trial before a government committee, headed by Captain Clavell RN, HMS Prince, commanding the ordinary at Portsmouth, in January 1826. The committee's verdict was that the rockets would answer every purpose for which they were designed and that they were preferable to every other apparatus seen by the committee. As a consequence three complete sets were ordered by the Royal National Institution for Saving Life from Shipwreck (this body was the forerunner of the R N L I). These sets were established at the Freshwater, Atherfield & St Lawrence Coastguard Stations on the Isle of Wight. Further trials and familiarisation exercises were carried out at Freshwater in May 1827 and the following are extracts from the reports submitted by Captain T R Brigstock, Inspecting Commander of Coastguard Isle of Wight to Mr G Spain Secretary to the Isle of Wight branch of the R N I S L S dated 4 May 1827:

On Wednesday 2 May I ordered that the Ranger cruiser should bring the lieutenants and four each of their crews to Freshwater Gate, this to enable Mr Dennett to explain to them, as well as the Freshwater crew the proper use and application of his invention. In the presence of several Army and Navy officers, tried both apparatus (Manby and Dennett GHR) for throwing a line between two flagstaffs placed 80 feet apart at a range of 200 yards. Several of the Naval officers, who were accustomed to seeing the Mortar in use, and all who witnessed the trial are of the opinion that the rocket apparatus had the advantage of Captain Manby's Mortar.

We have no details of the results of the trial but a second report, listing the pros and cons of the two methods, states:

Although the charge of the mortar was varied, the average range of the rocket was considerably longer. The official witnesses to the trial were unanimous in their praise of the rocket and their advantages over the mortar, most making the point of the far greater ease of transport.

In addition in a letter, from the Volunteer in Charge at Atherfield, he states:

The first set of Captain Manby's apparatus ever supplied to the Isle of Wight was placed under my charge in consequence of the proximity of my residence to the most dangerous part of this coast and remained in my possession for several years. I availed myself of frequent opportunities of exercising the mortar, for the purpose of making myself experienced in its proper use and application, and am therefore able to judge of its power and efficiency. I have also seen trials with Mr Dennett's rockets and I agree with the opinions that the rockets are greatly superior to the mortar for the saving of life.

The first successful use of Dennett's rocket occurred at a casualty five years later, the following is a detailed account of events as noted by the only passenger onboard:

Narrative of the loss of the ship Bainbridge wrecked on Atherfield Rocks, Isle of Wight on 8 October 1832 and the saving of the crew of 19 persons, by a single discharge of a Dennett's rocket, this after Captain Manby's Mortar had been fired four times in vain. There follows a description of the Stranding of the Bainbridge. After beating upon both tacks in as hard a gale as ever blew, she eventually struck upon the rocks at Atherfield, in the centre of Chale Bay. It was dark, and although we could see indistinctly the loom of the land, we could not at all imagine our distance from it. The sea was making a clean wash over us and the ship striking with every heave with such violence that it was evidently impossible that she could long hold together.

Our situation being discovered on shore, a crowd of persons soon collected, and before noon Captain Manby's apparatus was in readiness, and four attempts were made to throw a line over us, but owing principally to the distance (nearly 500 yards) failed. A rocket of Mr Dennett's invention was then fired and succeeded completely, although the position of the vessel - end on with her bow to seaward - made such success almost hopeless. By means of the line, a strong warp was hauled from the shore and a boat, manned by two of the Coastguard Crew, was hauled through the surf, and in two trips landed the whole, in number 19, safe upon the beach.

The Chief Officer of Coastguard at Atherfield, LT Knight RN., writes rather more stiltedly, but to no less effect:

On 8th inst. I proceeded with the men under my command to use every exertion to save the crew of the ship Bainbridge, driven on the Atherfield rocks by the heavy gale which was then blowing. Captain Manby's Mortar was accordingly brought down to the foot of the cliff and we fired three times to endeavour to throw a line over the ship, but could not succeed in consequence of her distance from the shore. A water cask with a rope bent to it had some time before been thrown overboard and veered away from the ship, in the hope that the cask would wash on shore but, as almost invariably happens on such occasions, it only washed in and out upon the breakers, without being thrown upon the beach, gradually drifting along the shore to the Eastward with the set of the tide. A fourth rocket was fired over this rope in the expectation of hauling the cask on shore by means of it, but in this we also failed, as the line to which the shot was attached could not, in consequence of its weight, be hauled in again. A rocket and apparatus, invented by Mr Dennett, was in the meantime got ready, and at the first fire carried the line directly over the ship. This line enabled me to send off the end of a hawser, by the assistance of which James Thomas and Henry Stubbs, two of my men, at imminent risk of their lives, twice ventured off in a boat and happily succeeded in bringing every person, 19 in number, safely ashore. Had not the Station been provided with rockets it is evident that communication would not have been made, and it would not have been possible to get a boat off with it.

The two Coastguardsmen named received 5 each from an onlooker and were later rewarded with the medal of the R N I P L S, together with a further 5 each.

The rocket having now proved itself on service was more widely adopted round the coast and, by 1853, was supplied to 120 Stations.

John Dennett lived at Berberry, Clatterford Road, Carisbrooke, where he and his son carried on the business of supplying the apparatus, the rockets themselves being made in his workshop, near Gunville Lane. He died on 10 July 1852, and is buried, as is his son, in Carisbrooke Churchyard.

For how long Dennett's rockets remained in use is not clear, but there is a report of a thrilling rescue in the Isle of Wight by means of his apparatus in January 1890; when 36 of the crew of the three masted ship Irex, driven ashore in Scratchells Bay, were hauled one by one to the top of the 400 foot cliff by the Freshwater Bay Life Saving Apparatus Company, assisted by the gunners at the Needles Fort.


That concludes the basic facts in regard to the pioneers of rocket rescues. There were others in the field during the 19th century, i.e. Captain Boxer and his rocket - in use from 1865 to 1946, Admiral Kisbee inventor of the lifebuoy and the Breeches buoy (first exhibited at the Paris Exhibition of 1854) and so on through to Schermuly and his line throwing pistol and the post second world war Rescue Rocket, this a by-product of wartime technology.

Acknowledgment: Coastguard Magazine


Print, "Wreck of the Anson" published by T. Gillard

Reports by T.R. Brigstock, Inspecting Commander of Coastguard, Isle of Wight

Narrative on the loss of ship Bainbridge by passenger on board.

Report by Lt Knight, RN on above.

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