From Mortar to Rocket

The transition from the use of Captain Manby’s mortar to Mr Dennett’s rocket was one of the most significant developments in the history of the apparatus.

The change was prompted by an incident on the Isle of White, Mr Dennett’s place of residence, in October 1832. Although the change followed numerous trials, one of the earliest took place on the Herd Sands, South Shields and the Newcastle Society for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck was the first Society outside of the Isle of Wight to purchase the new rocket.

Isle of Wight. — On Monday last an American Ship, of 400 tons burden, laden with rum and deals, was wrecked in Chale Bay, in the Isle of Wight. She struck at about daybreak, at a distance of a quarter of a mile from the shore, all her three masts having been cut away. There was a tremendous sea, and it would have been madness for any boat to have attempted to venture out. Capt. Manby’s gun was placed at the foot of the cliff, and was three times discharged. It failed every time. The Preventive Service men were preparing for a fourth discharge of the gun, when a gentleman, named Ghimes, discharged a rocket of the invention of Mr. Dennett, and with this, at the very first trial, a line, which was attached to the rocket, was thrown over the ship, and thus a rope was made fast to the ship at one end, and held by number of men ashore at the other. A boat was then attached this rope, and by working the boat along the rope, in the manner of a ferry-boat, two Preventive Service men, at the imminent risk of their lives, proceeded to the ship, and at length extricated the whole of the crew, in number, from their most perilous situation. The rocket which did such good service was about half a yard long, and about as thick as a man’s wrist. The outside of it was of iron, and a stick nine feet long, and as thick as a footman's cane, was affixed to it, and also the line which was thrown over the ship. The rocket was placed on a three-legged stand, similar to the stand of a surveyor’s theodolite, or telescope, and from this stand it was fired at a slight elevation. This species of rocket appears to possess a decided advantage over Captain Manby’s gun.

Source: Newcastle Chronicle: 20 October 1832

Dennett's Rockets. —A quantity of these rockets has just arrived here from the Isle of Wight, in the Acorn, Captain Wardell, for the Society for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, and are intended for one of its stations on the coast. It will be remembered that on the first occasion of using this valuable invention, the crew and passengers (consisting of nineteen persons) of the Bainbridge, wrecked on Atherfield Rocks, Isle Wight, during a tremendous gale, on the 8th October, 1832, were saved, by the firing of one of these rockets, after several shots from Manby's apparatus had failed to reach the ship. We understand this is the first set that has been made for any part of the coast distant from the Isle of Wight, where Mr. Dennett, the inventor, resides, and trust this effort of the society will be found a useful one, when occasion shall require the rockets to be used. We learn it is the intention of the committee to have a trial of this apparatus shortly, which is expected to be superintended Mr. Dennett.

Source: Newcastle Journal 22 March 1834

Shipwreck – Dennett’s Rockets

The great and humane invention of a simple, portable and efficient apparatus tor forming a speedy communication from shore to a wrecked stranded ship, in those cases of distressing accidents and calamities which frequently occur off our coasts, has at last been completed by the perseverance and ingenuity of Mr John Dennett, of the Isle of Wight. The public are familiar with the merits of Captain Manby’s apparatus, to effect the same object, and which has been for some years in use at Tynemouth, and other stations in the neighbourhood, under the auspices of the Committee and Members of the Shipwreck Society. In order that a fair trial might be made of the comparative merits of Mr. Dennett's and Captain Manby's apparatus, an interesting exhibition of their respective powers took place on the Herd Sand, South Shields, on Wednesday last. There were present the Committee and Members of the Shipwreck Society, the Master and brethren of the Trinity House, the Shipowners' Society, together with a large concourse of the respectable inhabitants of Newcastle, Shields, Sunderland, and the surrounding neighbourhood. Captain Manby’s apparatus was superintended by the officers and men of coast guard stationed at Tynemouth, who are of course conversant with the method of using it; Mr. Dennett's rockets were fired under his own inspection, that gentleman having been induced to visit Newcastle for the purpose. The following is an accurate account of the operations, collected from our own personal observation:

The experiments commenced with a shot from Manby's apparatus, directed as to carry a line between two objects placed on the beach to represent the length of a ship, a distance of 200 yards; owing to too small an elevation being given to the mortar, the shot fell short of the object Mr Dennett, who directed the rocket apparatus person, then fired one of the rockets, Which went off most beautifully, falling considerably beyond the objects, and nearly in the centre of them, and the line came to the beach between them. The range of this rocket was 314 yards, audits success was greeted by a burst of cheering and applause from the assembled multitude. A second rocket was fired with a view to show the precision with which rockets can used; its line of direction did not vary from that of the first more than about four yards at the spot where it fell; its range rather exceeded that of the first, being 321 yards; whilst owing to the strength the breeze the line was carried a little leeward of the objects. A second shot was now fired from Manby's apparatus, with an increased elevation of the mortar, and an increased charge (10oz ) but with a much better effect than before; the shot fell a few yards beyond the objects, and placed the line well between them: the range this shot was about 220yards. Another rocket was now sent off, with the intention of placing the line between the objects, its direction being altered to allow for the breeze; in this instance the rope was well placed between the objects, and the range the rocket was 310 yards; it fell before the composition was entirely expended, an attempt having been made to check the progress of the line after the rocket had passed over the marks. At the third shot with Manby's apparatus, the large line was attached but on firing it parted near the shot. Mr. Dennett now fired a rocket without any rope attached it, to show the resistance the rocket has to overcome when it has a rope to carry out. This rocket went away with a most magnificent flight, cleaving the air, and ascending a height several hundred feet in its course, until its progress was nearly lost to the sight; the presumed range of this rocket was considerably above 2,000 yards; it passed over the heads, and fell several hundred yards beyond some men who had gone out for the shot that had broken away from Manby's apparatus. At this period rain was beginning to fall, and the experiments closed, the company bestowing three hearty cheers on Mr. Dennett and the rockets before they separated, and strongly expressing the delight and satisfaction they had experienced.

The merits of Mr. Dennett's plan may be briefly summed up. When the men appointed to attend each apparatus were in travelling order and directed to advance to the station appointed for the experiments, the immense advantages be gained in actual service by the superior portability of the rockets were at once apparent to the commonest observer. Two men, with the greatest facility, took six rounds of rockets, (each having three), most conveniently stowed in cartouches, strapped their backs. The men also carried between them six poles, to which was attached a light chest, containing 200 fathoms of line, coiled in a peculiar manner, ready for running out, without danger of fouling; and over these was laid the iron frame or stand from which the rockets are fired. The load to be thus transported is only one hundred weight and two quarters; whilst that of Captain Manby's mortar, and its six corresponding rounds of ammunition, balls, and stores, little less than six hundred weight, and required the aid of ten men to remove it to its appointed place, nor has this duty ever been performed by a smaller number. On arriving at the spot, the rocket could have been ready for firing in two minutes; but from the anxiety the spectators to examine it in every part, it was some time before the ground could be cleared for commencing operations. When one or two rockets had been discharged, the most sceptical were convinced that an opinion previously entertained this neighbourhood, that the rocket would be uncertain in its direction had no foundation; and that, in precision of aim, it is fully equal, if not superior, to Captain Manby's apparatus. In extent of range it has a decided advantage; and from the lesser angle with which it flies, a smaller quantity of rope is taken out, and the liability of the rope being taken to leeward of the object fired at by the action of the wind, is thereby much reduced. It has also another advantage over every other means yet introduced for saving the lives of seamen in cases of shipwreck during the night; for the explosion of the composition, casts strong light, that not only the crew the ship, but the operators on shore, will be instantly enabled to discover whether the shot is a successful one. From the portability, simplicity, and lightness of Mr. Dennett's apparatus, we do not see why ships navigating our coasts ought not to be provided with it; and thus an instant communication be effected, in cases of danger, from the ship to the shore. For the above interesting experiments, the public is indebted to the spirit and enterprise of the Shipwreck Society; a most useful and important institution, which, we regret to add, does not receive a tithe of that support from the public which the extent of its operations and the invaluable nature of its services so imperatively demand. This society has not only incurred great expence in purchasing, but its members have been at considerable personal inconvenience testing, various means devised for snatching our finest sailors from the horrors of shipwreck, and, even in cases where destruction seemed inevitable, it has been the means, under Providence, of restoring many individuals to their families and friends. It is therefore to hoped that the committee having introduced to the notice of the public, a very superior agent for opening a communication from the shore to a ship in distress, the public will not be backward in placing funds at the disposal of the Shipwreck Society, to enable them to procure an adequate supply, not only for their present stations, but even to extend its usefulness to other parts of our dangerous coast. Mr Dennett attended a meeting yesterday, at the Trinity House, at which the subject devising the best means for immediately extending the adoption of Rocket Stations on this part of the coast, was taken into consideration, and the resolutions passed at which will found in another column.

Source: Newcastle Journal 21 June 1834

Shipwreck Association

The sets of Manby's Apparatus and Dennett's Rockets, kept at the Tynemouth station, were exercised on Tuesday last, by the Committee, who were attended by the Deputy Master and some of the Brethren of the Trinityhouse. A very large and highly respectable concourse of spectators (estimated from 3,000 to 4,000 persons), comprising the company staying at Tynemouth, and many ladies and gentlemen from a distance, assembled to witness the practice, which took place on the Long Sands, to the north of the village. The day was very windy, and to avoid the risk of an accident it was necessary to fire in a direction which exposed the lines to the action of a heavy cross-wind. The poles, which were placed 70 feet apart, were distant from the firing ground 290 yards. The first shot fired was with the Manby's apparatus, with a ball weighing 24lbs., charge 10ozs. of powder, elevation 45 degrees the range produced was 198 yards, the ball falling as nearly as possible in the centre between the poles; in this case the ball being only two yards short of the poles, a communication with a ship may be said to have been gained. A small 31b. experimental rocket, to practice the men in the use of the rocket, was now fired, the frame being placed considerably in advance of the mortar, and nearer to the poles. This rocket produced a range of 241 yards, fell far beyond the poles, and laid the line nearly in the centre of them, the rocket itself being a little more to windward and in the centre; it took out the whole its line, the end being dragged few yards beyond the line chest. This is the greatest range that has been obtained with the experimental set; it was produced with an elevation of 40 degrees, and detected an error in placing the poles, which were intended have been 250 yards from the firing ground. The next shot was with a station rocket (a nine-pounder) from the firing ground, at an elevation of 40 degrees, which produced the greatest range that has yet been got with this weight of rocket in this district, viz., 333 yards. The rocket fell in a line between the poles, but its great range beyond them (133 yards), combined with the action of a heavy gust of wind at the time, caused the line to fall 19 yards to leeward of the poles at the point where it passed them. A communication may be considered to have been opened in this instance with a ship, as a vessel's mast, from its elevation, would have been struck by the line. The fourth shot was with Manby's apparatus, with a 24lb. ball, and charge of 12ozs. of powder, elevation degrees. The shank of the ball broke immediately upon leaving the mortar, and the line was not taken out. The mortar was again charged as before with 12ozs. of powder and a fresh ball, and fired, producing a most excellent range of 275 yards, the greatest by many yards the Committee have ever obtained in the practices they have held. The line fell nearly in the centre between the poles, and the ball rather more to leeward. The sixth shot was made with a nine-pounder rocket, at an elevation of 37 degrees; it produced a range of 286 yards; the rocket fell about six yards to windward of the weather pole exactly in its line of aim, and the line scraped down the side of the pole as it fell. The low elevation had an evident effect in diminishing the range of this rocket, though it caused less spare line to be taken out. At this time scarcely an hour and a half had elapsed from the mortar being ready, and notwithstanding the time occupied measuring the ranges, hauling in lines, and instructing in the use of the rocket, and the interruptions consequent upon a crowd of spectators, a communication may be said to have been effected five times in that short period. A nine-pounder rocket was, by way of conclusion, fired off into the sea, without line, at an elevation of 45 degrees, and made the most magnificent flight that has yet been witnessed from them, much to the gratification of the company present; at the lowest estimate it must have ranged a mile and half. The conclusions deducible from this practice are, that the rocket will give a range greater than the mortar at all times, and this at various elevations, thereby securing in the event of firing in a cross-wind a greater certainty of hitting the object, from its taking out less at low elevations. The mortar practice certainly was never good in this district, as on the present occasion, and the Committee feel greatly indebted to Mr. Share, the officer of the Coast Guard at Tynemouth, and his men, for the able manner in which the mortar was conducted, and for their assistance generally. The committee being desirous to ascertain the effect of the rocket by night, a practice for this purpose was appointed for seven o'clock in the evening, which was also very numerously attended, and by which time the wind had moderated. The crowd at the firing ground was considerable, but being composed principally of boys could not kept in order. Two three-pounder rockets were fired with the line attached at a distance of 150 yards from the poles, the situation of which was made apparent by lanterns being hoisted upon them. The first rocket, although the line fouled in consequence of the line chest having been disturbed, ranged 154 yards, about ten yards to windward of the weather pole, and the line was laid about 6 yards to windward of the pole. The second rocket fell about 40 yards short of the poles, but in the direction of the centre of them. The short range was occasioned by the line being very much fouled; from having to be faked on the ground, and several persons in the crowd running over it, and disturbing the faking. A large rocket was now fired along the line of coast, at a low elevation, that the light it showed might be more apparent. It grazed a projecting point the cliff, at five or six hundred yards distance, and soon afterwards fell into the sea. 'This rocket, the first one fired in the evening, and the one fired without a line the afternoon, showed very distinctly the power the rocket possesses working to windward. The committee were well satisfied with the effect of the rocket by night, as it not only is clearly discernible in its flight by persons placed opposite to its direction, but makes the object fired at visible, if it ranges near it, and also makes the persons who fire it visible to those who are situated at the object fired at, which are all points of great moment in actual service. The night signals of the Royal National Institution were used on this occasion, and answered well. In fact, everything would have answered well if the unruly part of the crowd could have been controlled. In the afternoon, Mr. Davison, of Whitburn, exhibited his excellent cliff waggon, which, on a rocky coast, is so well calculated to open a communication with a beach otherwise inaccessible in storm. Several persons were hoisted from the sands to the top of the cliffs, and the simplicity and efficacy of its working fully shown. The interest excited by these trials was very great, and it to hoped that, besides the advantage gained by them keeping the practice of the men, some benefit will be derived to the funds of the institution, which are very inadequate to the demands that come against them, and the providing of many requisites yet wanted to render the stations complete.

Source: Newcastle Journal 3 October 1835

NORTH SHIELDS, Feb. 20. —The brig Oak, Penton, of Poole, attempting to take this harbour during a heavy gale of wind from the S.E. on Friday evening, struck the rocks off the Spanish Battery, and having lost her rudder, and become unmanageable, drifted to within 150 yards of the shore. the sea was very high at the time—the tide rising and darkness coming on, whilst the vessel was beating and rolling on the rocks tremendously, great fear was felt for the safety of the crew, who were distinctly heard calling for assistance. Three of them attempted to leave the ship in their own boat, but were deterred by the people assembled on shore. About an hour after the vessel struck, one of Dennett's rockets was thrown, which fortunately went directly over her behind the mainmast. A strong rope was speedily drawn ashore and made fast; but much delay occurred in consequence of the people on board not understanding how to manage it. By this time, however, the more immediate danger was passed, as the bottom of the vessel being broken in, she became more steady. Great praise is due to the men of the Preventive Service and others, who managed the rocket apparatus; for although considerable delay occurred which a little previous arrangement might have avoided, it was quite clear that all the men might have come shore with the aid of the rope soon after the rocket was fired. The master and one of the men ultimately did so between eleven and twelve: the rest of the crew remained until the tide left the vessel, when they were able to walk ashore. Manby's mortar apparatus was also in readiness for use, in case it had been necessary; and the life-boat from Shields was speedily out, but unable to render any assistance in consequence of the rocks. This is the first occasion on which Dennett's Rockets have been used in actual service on this coast, and although the firing was made under many disadvantages of locality and pressure from the crowd, it proved most correct and effective. We would beg to draw the attention of our nautical readers particularly to the fact of the crew of the Oak not understanding what use to make of the Line after it was thrown to them, which under less fortunate circumstances might have occasioned the loss of their lives; and we would recommend masters of vessels to acquaint themselves and their crews with the means they should use for sending a shoal rope on shore attached to the line thrown them with a running line which the people acting on the land may haul them on shore.

Source: Newcastle Journal 24 February 1838