HOME OF THE LADY DENMAN - Local history isn't always about the big story - the everyday story of life in the early development of the region can be a fascinating, entertaining and educational journey.

21 June 2015

Rocket Apparatus from ship to shore.

"lost ships can be replaced, but lives lost are gone forever"

Many shipwreck reports mention the use of a “Rocket Apparatus” by a “Rocket Brigade” while trying to rescue survivors of a shipwreck.,

What is it?,  how was it used? 

Rocket Apparatus exhibited at the historic Trial Bay Gaol.

While many vessels were lost at sea far from the help of anyone on land,   many other vessels were lost close to shore, running aground on beaches, reefs, and break walls,   lives were lost when only a short distance away on land were onlookers helpless to offer any kind of assistance

The wreck of the
Walter Hood near Bendalong in 1855 was one such vessel.  Sailors and passengers lost their lives trying to get to shore,  while people gathered in increasing numbers on land watching the terrible situation unfold, without being able to help in any way.

Similar situations happened wherever man sailed the open oceans,  something needed to be done.


1807 - A mortar launching device devised by Captain Manby, F.R.S. was used for many years,  it had proved successful in saving many lives,  but the device was found to have a limited range and the violent nature of the initial blast often caused the life line to break.

Britain 1807Henry Trengrouse. During a furious mid-winter gale in 1807 a large frigate (H.M.S Anson) drove ashore on a bar  in Mount's Bay. .  Of those onboard,  upward of 100 were drowned.  Among those who witnessed from the shore the loss of the gallant ship was Trengrouse,  the scene made and indelible impression on his mind,  and day and night he pondered upon the means whereby some assistance could be given to the shipwrecked,  some communication be established between the stranded vessel and the shore.

His idea was a rocket launching apparatus with a line attached, similar to the the Manby device,  it could be launched from shore across the wrecked vessel whereby a line could be drawn from shore to the stricken vessel, upon which a chair was attached for transporting survivors,  could be pulled back to shore.

The rocket proved to be more successful than the mortar because of the gradual launch speed,  the line would not snap and the rocket travelled a far greater distance than the mortar.

1808 -  His eventual solution lay in the direction of the vessel being equipped with the apparatus by the use of those onboard to get in touch with the would be rescuers on land,  in preference to the first efforts coming from shore to the men on the wreck.

220px-Henry_Trengrouse1818. Trengrouse finally exhibited his apparatus before the government.    The government ordered 20 sets, but later had their own ordinance department construct the apparatus,  he was compensated with 50 ponds and a silver award, a small compensation for so much work and expense, his health deteriorated and he died penniless in 1857.

As time went on the rocket design was improved by Colonel Boxer who devised a double rocket combined in a single case, increasing the range considerably.

1872.   Rocked brigades were established right along the British coast and many ships carried their own portable device and the British Marine Department of the board of trade issued instructions and illustrations of the official use of the apparatus,  to all masters and seamen, including how women, children, passengers,  and helpless persons should be landed before the crew of the ship.

The device proved it’s worth and was responsible for saving thousands of lives.

1859. After the loss of many lives on the wreck of the S.S. Admella in South Australia the Victorian government placed an order for 12 sets of rocket apparatus. Over time many coastal communities had their own Rocket Brigades, these men did regular training in the use of the apparatus.

Despite shore based rocket brigades being established along our more populated areas,  the  Australian situation was different to the well populated British coast, where any wreck would surely be spotted.   Australia had vast areas of uninhabited coastline, thereby making it impractical to have only shore based rocket brigades.

slwa_b3048771_1State Library of Western Australia - https://slwa.wa.gov.au/

One such wreck at Catherine Hill bay in April 1914 of the collier Wallarah, illustrates the problem.

"The Rocket Brigade had to travel 26 miles overland from Newcastle to effect the rescue of all hands".

The shore based apparatus had other failings,  most shipwrecks required the rockets to be fired into the teeth of a severe storm, resulting in many attempts being required to achieve it's aim and the delays cost lives.

w,schermuly pistol1899 - The need for lighter more portable rocket apparatus led to many improvements, wire hawsers were replaced with a lighter canvas hawser,  the rocket base and anchor back were reduced in size and weight, making transport easier. 

1908 exhaustive tests were in progress with a view of discovering the best type of portable rocket apparatus to be carried onboard.

After the loss of so many ships and lives along our coastline, the need for the apparatus to be carried aboard vessels was making news,  many articles appear in Australian newspapers for action to be taken to address the problem and make it compulsory for every ship to carry  a portable rocket apparatus.

Despite the public outcry, wrecks and loss of life, a portable devices still wasn't made compulsory.

Testing went on.


wil 1947 The British designed and widely used "Schermuly Pistol Rocket" was successfully exhibited at Homebush Bay. Great interest was taken in the demonstration by representatives of practically every shipping and maritime company in Sydney.

Was it ever made a compulsory piece of safety equipment on board coasting vessels,  I'm not sure,  I have been unable to find any evidence to support this notion..  If you have information that can help, I would be very please to hear from you..

William Schermuly.

Continue to the story about the Walter Hood.



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