Port Elizabeth of Yore: Saving lives using the Manby Apparatus

Before the age of helicopters, shipping disasters usually resulted in severe loss of life. Without a method of rescuing passengers and crew from a stricken ship, they either drowned in the attempt to reach shore in an era when swimming ability was the exception rather than the rule, or they clung to the rapidly disintegrating ship only to die once it no longer offered protection.

The development of the Manby Apparatus was the first attempt at offering stranded passengers and crew a method of being resued. In Port Elizabeth, this equipment was operated by the detachment of the Prince Alfred’s Guards known as the Rocket Brigade.

Main picture: Prince Alfred’s Guards Rocket Brigade with the Manby Apparatus

Development and operationalisation

In 1807 Captain GW Manby invented a new and improved method of throwing a line from the shore to a vessel in distress. This consisted of employing a light mortar in order to throw a shot, to which a light line was fastened, across the vessel. Manby’s method was first used at great Yarmouth on February 12, 1808, when he was successful in rescuing the seven members of the crew of the brig Elizabeth of Plymouth.

The invention was so generally successful that it soon entirely replaced the earlier method of throwing sticks with lines attached. For this Capt.  Manby was voted £2000 by Parliament in recognition of his services. Forty-five mortar ss were established in 1814 in the UK and these remained in use until the general adoption of the Rocket Apparatus in 1851. By 1876 however, mortars for line throwing had been completely obsolete, although some of them were retained in service, as sound signals to call out the crews of the rocket apparatuses, as late as 1928.

Manby’s apparatus consisted of an obsolete bronze army mortar (made in 1805) with a bore of 5.5 inches such as the one exhibited in the hall. The earlier projectile was a special iron shot of 24 lbs weight into which was screwed a large iron eye bolt. A plaited leather thong was made fast to the eye bolt and to the other end of this thong – introduced to avoid scorching – a 1 1/2 inch rope was attached.

The later form of projectile, such as ours, consisted of a specially designed shot, hemispherical at the lower end and cylindrical at the other, with a long iron bolt and ring for the attachment of the thong and rope. The four holes seen in the cylindrical end of the shot originally held four spikes, which were normally fitted to the shot so as to form a sort of grapnel. The mortar weighed 1 1/4 cwt, and together with its wooden bed brought the total weight to 3 cwt, easily transported on a handcart. Even under adverse conditions it was possible to achieve a range of 200 yards.

After communication had been established between ship and shore the ship’s crew hauled out a heavier rope which was attached to the end of the 1 1/2-inch line. When this had been made fast, men were hauled from ship to shore, suspended from a large snatch block by means of a sling or a cradle. 

The mortar in the hall is one of the 52-inch mortars ordinarily employed by the Army at the beginning of the l9th century and was made at Woolwich in 1818. It was paid for by public subscription and was bought from the Ordinance Department, Woolwich.

Drawing of the Manby Apparatus in use

The normal dimensions of these mortars were:- weight 140 lbs, length 1 ft.3 in.; calibre of bore 5.6 in.; length of bore 11.9 in.; and they fired a shell of 17 lbs. 3 ozs. or a “carcasse” of 19 lbs. 4 ozs.  Naval mortars were very much larger, 8-inch and upwards. The carriage is one specially constructed for lifesaving purposes and was probably made locally.

Usage in Algoa Bay

While the whole issue of harbour facilities was being debated in the 1840s , two black southeasters during 1846 reminded everyone of the vulnerability of shipping. During March a gale forced three ships ashore and a subscription list was immediately opened for a Manby’s apparatus. Before anything more could be done in Port Elizabeth, a violent gale in October wrecked five ships.

The immediate result was to divert local energy into improving life­ saving facilities. The Manby’s apparatus subscription was reopened while the government granted £1182 10s 10d towards the setting-up of a lifeboat station under the harbour master. Regulations pertaining to the lifeboat were published by the lieutenant governor in October 1847. The nine-metre lifeboat was built locally by W & R Kemsley for £175 from plans furnished by the harbour master, Lt Jamison. The Manby’s apparatus arrived in September 1847 aboard the VISCOUNT HAMDON. It cost £44 15s 6d but £79 15s had been subscribed, £30 14s of which had come from Grahamstown. It was first tested on September 25. Charged with 227g of gunpowder, the mortar threw the first shot 230 metres along the beach. The second threw a line over the prow of the wreck of HMS THUNDERBOLT which had been beached in February after striking a reef off Cape Recife.

At first it was manned by soldiers based at Fort Frederick and later by the Volunteer Artillery. On September 19 and 20, 1854, a three mastered wooden transport ship, the Charlotte, was driven ashore during a gale and wrecked. Bound for Calcutta with men of the 27th Regiment, the ship struck the rocks at the bottom of Jetty Street and although the Manby apparatus was used successfully, there was panic on board and most of the crew, 62 soldiers, 16 women and 26 children were drowned.

Charlotte, Algoa Bay carrying the 27th Regiment driven ashore near Jetty Street Port Elizabeth 19 September 1854

In 1880 a Rocket Brigade was formed by Prince Alfred’s Guard and it was used to save many lives when ships were driven ashore by severe gales.
On the 30th August 1888, during a south-east gale nine vessels were wrecked on the North End beach. The ships were: “Andreas Riis”, “Dorthea”, “Wolseley”, “Drei Emmas”, “Elizabeth Stevens” “Jane Harvey”, “Lada”, “Natal”, “C. Boschetto”. The Rocket Brigade, life-boat and crews of other ships assisted and only one drowning, a member of the life-boat crew, occurred. William Alcock used his limelight apparatus to provide light for the Rocket Brigade thus enabling them to rescue the crew of “C. Boschetto”.


Thesis of Jon Inggs, “Liverpool of the Cape: Port Elizabeth Harbour Development 1820-70“, MA thesis, Rhodes University, 1986

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)

Algoa Bay in the Age of Sail 1488-1917A Maritime History by Colin Urquhart (2007, Bluecliff Publishing, Port Elizabeth)

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