by Regina Jeffers
Captain George Manby was born 28 November 1765 in Denver, Norfolk. He passed in Great Yarmouth on 18 November 1854. Manby attended school at Downham Market. Later in life, he claimed to have become a friend of Horatio Nelson while at Downham, but Nelson had long been gone from the school before Manby started. At age 17, Manby volunteered to fight in the American War of Independence, but he was not accepted for service because of his youth and his small frame. As an alternative, he entered the Royal Military Academy in Woolrich before joining the Cambridgeshire Militia. His exemplary service led him to the rank of captain.
As part of his marriage in 1793, Manby inherited his wife's family estates, but they separated in 1801 following a domestic dispute. Mrs. Manby's lover shot George when he caught the pair together. Afterwards, he moved to Bristol. While there, he published several books: The History and Antiquities of St David's (1801), Sketches of the History and Natural Beauties of Clifton (1802), and A Guide from Clifton to the Counties of Monmouth, Glamorgan, etc. (1802).
Manby came to the attention of Charles Yorke, then Secretary of War, after publishing a pamphlet, An Englishman's Reflexions on the Author of the Present Disturbances, in 1803. The pamphlet discussed Napoleon's plans to invade England. Yorke was so impressed that he appointed Manby as Barrack-Master at Great Yarmouth.
Manby's life changed when he witnessed the Snipe run aground 60 yards off Great Yarmouth during the storm. On that fateful day (18 February 1807), 214 people drowned, including French prisoners of war, women, and children. Manby took the tragedy quite personally; he began to experiment with mortars, eventually developing his Manby Mortar. The Manby Mortar fired a shot with a line attached from the shore to a wrecked ship.
For many years, it was used by the Waterguard (a division of the H M Customs and Excise) and by H M Coastguard. This device was later developed into the breeches bouy (a round emergency personal flotation device with a leg harness attached). The breeches bouy could be deployed from either ship to ship or ship to shore and allowed single person evacuations. People in lifebuoys could pull themselves across the water and reach the shore. In 1808, Manby himself used his Mortar to rescue sailors from a ship sinking 150 yards from Yarmouth's shore. The Manby mortar fired a thin rope from shore into the rigging of a ship in distress. Officially adopted in 1814, the government set up a series of mortar stations along the coast. By the time of Manby's death in 1854, 1000 persons had been rescued from stranded ships by means of his invention.
Manby also built an "unsinkable" lifeboat. Unfortunately, because his Manby mortar threatened the livelihood of those who depended upon the loot of wrecked ships, during his first test run, the seamen rocked the boat forth and back, until it eventually turned over. Ironically, Manby had to be rescued from his "unsinkable" ship.
In 1813, Manby came up with the idea of a portable pressurized fire extinguisher. It was a copper vessel filled with 3 gallons of pearl ash (potassium carbonate) water solution contained with compressed air. The liquid was jettisoned through a narrow tube, which could be aimed toward a fire. This first fire extinguisher was called the "Exincteur." He also came up with a device intended to save people who had fallen through ice ponds and lakes, as well as a mechanism for safely catching people who jumped from burning buildings.
In 1821, Manby sailed to Greenland with William Scoresby. Scoresby was known for his study of meteorology and the natural history of the polar regions. Manby had hoped to test a new type of harpoon for whaling (based on the same principles as his Manby mortar). Again, Manby knew disappointment. The device was sabotaged by the whalers. He did, however, publish an account of the journey. It was entitled Journal of a Voyage to Greenland and contained observations on the flora and fauna of the Artic regions, as well as the practice of whale hunting.
Manby was the first to advocate a national fire brigade and is considered by many to be a true founder of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. In recognition of his many accomplishments, Manby was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1831.
Later in life, Manby became obsessed with Nelson. He even turned his house into a Nelson museum, filled with memorabilia, while he lived in the basement. In 1851, Manby published his memoir, A Summary of Services Rendered to the State, in Saving the Lives of Its Sailors from Shipwreck.