Manby, George William, FRS, Captain


Manby was born at Hilgay near Downham Market in Norfolk in 1765. He entered the Military Academy, Woolwich in 1776. When his parents died, Manby returned to Hilgay to manage the family estate. He combined estate working with soldiering by entering the Cambridgeshire Militia. With the outbreak of the war with France the regiment was moved to Warley in Essex. His Captain there was the Honourable Charles Yorke who later became the Secretary-at-War.

Manby married Jane Preston of Waldingfield. Her lavish lifestyle nearly bankrupted him and, in 1797, he was forced to sell his estate. Later his wife eloped with an officer of the East India Company. In a subsequent duel with the officer in 1799, Manby survived being shot in the head. Manby wrote: the slugs that were deeply imbedded in my head were taken out. It was one of the most painful operations that, perhaps, ever a mortal underwent. On my death, I have directed that my head be taken off, and with the bullets, delivered to Yarmouth born surgeon, Sir Astley Cooper, trusting that some public benefit may result. The person who performed the operation assured me that a trepanning was necessary and that he distinctly saw my brain. His first wife, Jane, died in 1814 and in 1818 he married Sophie, the daughter of Sir Thomas Gooch of Benacre Hall in Suffolk.

In about 1802, Manby settled at Clifton near Bristol. During this time he wrote The History and Antiquities of St David's, Sketches of the History and Natural Beauties of Clifton and A Guide from Clifton to the Counties of Monmouth, Glamorgan etc. All these books were illustrated with his own drawings. Later he wrote about the threatened invasion of England by Napoleon.

This last work attracted the attention of Charles Yorke, now the Secretary-at-War. In August 1803, Yorke appointed Manby as Barrack Master at Great Yarmouth. Manby had previously offered his services to Yorke to assassinate Napoleon. He moved to the Cottage on the Denes (now Bauleah House/Herring House Trust) at the north end of, what is now, Manby Road.

When the old barracks, of which he was the master, in St. Nicholas' Road was sold by the Government in 1814, Manby became the Barrack Master at the Royal Naval Hospital/Barracks at Great Yarmouth, with the rank of captain-lieutenant.

Manby invented an apparatus for saving the lives of shipwrecked sailors marooned on their vessels. A 6lb. mortar was used to carry a rope from the shore to the stricken vessel. His first idea was to use the line fired from the mortar to pull a boat to the shipwreck. This was adapted later to use a sling to bring sailors ashore. His greatest difficulty was to create a fireproof link between the shot and the line. Chain and rope broke under the sudden strain of the shot and eventually he successfully used plaited hide. With the mortar he could fire a line 400 yards. During his lifetime 1,000 sailors were rescued using his apparatus. His interest in saving lives from shipwrecks developed after watching the loss, in a gale, of the gun brig Snipe, off Yarmouth in 1807 when 67 people drowned within 60 yards of the shore. The Snipe was carrying 30 French prisoners of war, a full crew and some women. During this severe north northeasterly gale twelve ships were wrecked on the shore between Cromer and Yarmouth.

Later in his life he invented the hand-held harpoon gun, which he tested on a voyage to the Arctic. He wrote about the voyage in 1822 in an article entitled Journal of a Voyage to Greenland.

Manby was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1831. He was the first to advocate a national fire brigade, and is considered by some to be a true founder of the RNLI. He received many awards from European countries but very little from his own country. For example he was never knighted.

He moved to Southtown in 1842. The only monument to him was the one he erected in his front garden. Manby also invented a portable fire extinguisher and a lifeboat.

Manby died, penniless, at his house in Southtown, Great Yarmouth in 1854, at the age of 88 years. He had built up a collection of the relics of Nelson in this house. He was buried close to his mother and father in Hilgay churchyard.