[From Manx Quarterly, #5 Nov 1908]
BRONZE MEDALLION ON DOUGLAS SHELTER, HARRIS PROMENADE.
CAST OF SIR WILLIAM HILARY,
Douglas is doing something (says the " Manchester Guardian"), by its placing of a memorial tablet in the town, to redeem from obscurity the name and deeds of Sir William Hilary [generally spelled Hillary], the founder of the lifeboat movement, It is rather sad to hear (from one of the speakers at the Town Council meeting) that his grave has been left "neglected and without an epitaph" for sixty years, At his funeral, according to a contemporary account, he was "followed to the grave by crowds who had witnessed his heroism and self-devotion in saving the life of the ship- wrecked mariner," Hilary, who was born in 1771, settled near Douglas in 1808, having already distinguished himself by raising a large body of soldiers for the French war at his own expense, He was prompted to his lifeboat work by seeing wrecks go aground at Douglas Head, especially in 1822, when there was great destruction of ships off the Island,
In 1823 Hilary published a pamphlet on The Humanity and Policy of Forming a National Institution for the Preservation of Life and Property from Shipwreck," The suggestion was taken up by members of Parliament, and the society soon after-wards started. Hilary himself provided lifeboats and crews for the four chief harbours of the Island, and often, in his remaining years, went out in the boat himself and saved many lives, In 1827 he and his son helped to save seventeen men from a Swedish ship, In the same year he was prominent in saving the crew of the St. George, when he had six ribs fractured. A few years later he set out with a crew of volunteers and saved sixty-two persons, and was nearly drowned in so doing, For this he was given the Institution's gold medal, It was he who planned the Tower of Refuge on St. Mary's Rock in Douglas Bay, He founded a sailors' home in Douglas, wrote pamphlets to enforce his pet schemes, and in other ways showed himself a master of vigorous philanthropy,
The memorial, which consists of a bronze tablet about three feet square, is the gift of four Douglas gentlemen who have taken a deep interest in the question, and it has been erected on the front of the Shelter on the Harris Promenade, Douglas.
The following is from a London journal -Apropos of the statement which recently appeared to the effect that Sir William Hilary's grave in St, George's Church-yard, Douglas, is unmarked by a monument, a correspondent points out that the body lies in a fine handsome vault, and on the slab which closes the entrance to it appear three words only, deeply and plainly cut, "Sir William Hilary." Our informant, Mr Charles Swinnerton, continues: "It so happens that this vault was made by my father, who told me a singular circumstance concerning it, There was a time when the vault had to be opened for some purpose or other, and Sir William Hilary's coffin was found to be lying, not on the stone shelf, its original position, but irregularly in a tranverse position on the floor, Lady Hilary was surviving at the time, and felt considerably agitated over so strange a mystery, Examination, however, revealed a high water mark round the walls of the vault, and it was easily shown that at some period a heavy flood had penetrated the chamber, and, after lifting the coffin from its ledge and floating it about, had, on subsiding, deposited it safely on the floor. Little did Sir William, who, when residing at Fort Anne, Douglas, was often afloat in heroic endeavours to rescue distressed mariners, imagine the voyage he was destined to make after death,"
Investigation shows that Mr Swinnerton is incorrect in several details mentioned in the above paragraph: (1) The vault he describes was erected by Sir William, and his name is only on it as owner; (2) Lady Hilary predeceased her husband by eighteen months.