Captain George William 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.
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.
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, the Secretary-at-War.
In August 1803, Yorke appointed Manby as Barrack Master at Yarmouth. Manby had previously offered his services to Yorke to assassinate Napoleon. When the old barracks in St. Nicholas' Road were 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 six-pound mortar was used to carry a rope from the shore to the stricken vessel. With the mortar he could fire the line 400 yards. During his lifetime, 1,000 sailors were rescued using his apparatus. Later in his life he invented the hand-held harpoon gun, which he tested on a voyage to the Artic. Manby was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1831. 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 in 1854, at the age of 88 years. He was buried close to his mother and father in Hilgay churchyard.