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The mortar that saved lives

1813 engraving of Captain George William Manby

It’s called the Manby mortar, but unlike the kind that takes lives, this mortar was built to save them.

George Manby (1765-1854) designed his device to fire a cannonball, with a line attached, over the deck of a floundering ship. The rescue crew onshore lashed a small boat to the other end and paddled out to the sinking ship to pick up the crew.

The etching shows the first use of the mortar in 1808, to rescue the ‘Elizabeth’ off the coast of Great Yarmouth, England. This particular Manby mortar was used for many years by the Indian River Life Saving Station at Indian River Inlet, Delaware.

The Indian River Life Saving Station is a relic of the days when the Delaware coast was a notorious graveyard of ships. It stands near the site of the old Indian River inlet, scene of many shipwrecks from colonial times forward. The building is one of the oldest surviving lifeboat stations on the coast.

Ships approaching Delaware Bay were forced to follow a course dangerously close to the offshore shoals south of Cape Henlopen; for this reason, the Delaware coast claimed a large number of ships in storms. An early move to improve the situation was the erection of the first Cape Henlopen lighthouse by Philadelphia merchants in 1765.

The actual saving of lives was left to private enterprise. Farmers along the shore would rally to shipwrecks to scavenge whatever washed ashore and to rescue survivors. The United States Life Saving Service, now a part of the Coast Guard, eventually was established to provide regular rescue services on the beaches. Patrols would walk the beach or scan the shore from lookout towers. If a ship in distress were sighted, a lifeboat would put out from the station or a subsidiary boat house.

The Manby mortar shown here was donated to the Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes in 1952.

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