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Norfolk on a stick: The curious story behind Captain Manby's livesaving mortar

PUBLISHED: 16:25 04 September 2019 | UPDATED: 16:25 04 September 2019

The village sign of Hilgay in west Norfolk features the Manby Mortar. Picture: Dr Andrew Tullett

The village sign of Hilgay in west Norfolk features the Manby Mortar. Picture: Dr Andrew Tullett

Archant

A lifesaving mortar is memorialised in the village sign at Hilgay. Dr Andrew Tullet explores the curious tale behind Captain Manby's contraption.

A portrait of Captain Manby, inventor of the Manby Mortar. Picture: Archant LibraryA portrait of Captain Manby, inventor of the Manby Mortar. Picture: Archant Library

All Saints Church appears to be under attack on the village sign at Hilgay, but not all is as it seems.

The canon is actually a Manby Mortar, a device invented by Captain George William Manby to rescue passengers from ships in distress.

Captain Manby conceived the idea after he witnessed the grounding of the gun-brig HMS Snipe.

The ship ran aground just 50 yards off shore at Gorleston, near Great Yarmouth, on 18 February 1807.

The Hilgay Silver Band parading in 1974. The trumpets on Hilgay's village sign pay tribute to this well-established band. Picture: JHGThe Hilgay Silver Band parading in 1974. The trumpets on Hilgay's village sign pay tribute to this well-established band. Picture: JHG

Despite being so close to land, over 60 people were drowned, including French prisoners of war, women and children, as waves crashed over the hull.

Although Manby was eventually awarded £2,000 by Parliament for his invention, it is clear that he never thought he received the accolades he deserved.

In the garden of his home in Southtown, Great Yarmouth, Manby erected a monument to mark his own achievements.

The inscription read: 'In commemoration of the 12th Feby 1808, on which day, directly eastward of this spot, the first life was saved from shipwreck by means of a rope attached to a shot fired from a mortar over the stranded vessel, a method now universally adopted and to which at least 1000 sailors of different nations owe their preservation. 1842'.

The Toby Carvery in Gorleston is named after Captain Manby. Picture: JAMES BASSThe Toby Carvery in Gorleston is named after Captain Manby. Picture: JAMES BASS

Almost exactly one year after the HMS Snipe disaster, Manby had employed his mortar successfully for the first time. It resulted in the rescue a crew of seven from the brig Elizabeth.

So successful was this that a number of his devices were subsequently installed along the coast.

During his life Captain Manby invented several other means of saving lives and property. Many of these are described in detail in a remarkable treatise he published in 1838 entitled, 'An address to the British public; with suggestion for the recovering property from sunken vessels; also, for the means for rescuing the lives of sailors from stranded vessels; and for the prevention of shipwreck; likewise, on the extinction and prevention of destructive fires; and for rescuing persons from houses enveloped in flames: and for saving from drowning persons who break through the ice.'

Captain Manby died in 1854. He is buried in the churchyard of All Saints at Hilgay.

A plaque acknowledging the Manby Mortar was once on a pedestal in Manby's Gorleston garden but later in the Time and Tide Museum. Picture: Archant LibraryA plaque acknowledging the Manby Mortar was once on a pedestal in Manby's Gorleston garden but later in the Time and Tide Museum. Picture: Archant Library

His gravestone bears a weather-worn depiction of a Manby Mortar.

A wall mounted plaque inside the church provides evidence that Manby may not have been alone in believing that his inventions were under-appreciated. Below the original epitaph an additional inscription has been added. It states simply: 'The public should have paid this tribute'.

If he were alive today, Manby may have assumed that the fanfare apparently being played on either side of the sign was for him. In fact, it is displayed in honour of Hilgay Silver Band, still going strong over 100 years after its formation around 1896. Its original members were agricultural workers from the local area.

Generations from the same families have played in it. To help keep the tradition going the band offers instruments for loan and gives free tuition to youngsters who attend their weekly training band.

An 1842 illustration of a Manby Mortar. Image: Johann Jacob Weber/Public DomainAn 1842 illustration of a Manby Mortar. Image: Johann Jacob Weber/Public Domain

The bridge depicted between the two instruments is Hilgay Old Bridge.

It was built in 1899 to transport traffic from the centre of the village over the River Wissey to the north. Within site of the bridge, one hundred metres or so to the west, the A10 Hilgay bypass bridge now carries the majority of vehicles across the water.

A small plaque attached to the bottom of the supporting post informs us that the village sign was 'Erected by Hilgay Parish Council 1987'.

***

This is part of a series about the stories behind Norfolk's town and village signs called 'Norfolk on a Stick'. Image: ANDREW TULLETTThis is part of a series about the stories behind Norfolk's town and village signs called 'Norfolk on a Stick'. Image: ANDREW TULLETT

You can read Captain Manby's 'Address to the British public' here.

You can see an image of the plaque at All Saints Church at Hilgay here.

You may also want to watch:

You can see the monument he erected in his garden here.

Andrew Tullett. Image: SONYA DUNCANAndrew Tullett. Image: SONYA DUNCAN

You can see an image of a Manby Mortar in action here.

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