[From Manx Quarterly, #14 Sep 1914]

A Manx Patriot

Sir William Hillary, Bart.

The Founder of the Royal National Institution for the preservation of life from shipwreck. Born, 1771, Died, 1847.

An Account of his Writings.

By G W. WOOD, Streatham,

IN an interesting account which appeared some time ago in the " Manx Patriot," of the life of Sir William Hillary, the distinguished founder of the National Institution for the preservation of life from shipwreck," reference was made to a series of pamphlets which he wrote on a variety of subjects, and it was stated that only copies of a few of them were in the Douglas Public Library, In view of this, and of the fact of Hillary's intimate and personal connection with the Isle of Man-he married a Manx lady and resided at Fort Anne for some years-and also of the Manx interest which attaches to some of his writings, it may fitting to put on record a few particulars of the contents and drift of those in my possession. The pamphlets in question were published during a period of years, viz., from 1823 to 1845, and prove Hillary to have been a man of far-reaching capacity and versatility no less than the possessor of his better known qualities of benevolence, philanthropy and heroism.

His first pamphlet appears to have been An appeal to the British Nation on the humanity and policy of forming a National Institution for the Preservation of Lives and Property from Shipwreck; published in Douglas, 1823. The appeal is a stirring one, and he sums up his proposals with these words: "My utmost wishes would be accomplished by seeing these international regulations established in connection with one great Institution, to extend to the most remote province of the Empire on the exalted principle that wherever the British flag should fly her seamen should be protected, and there those who risked their own lives to save their fellow creatures from the perils of shipwreck should be honoured and rewarded, whilst every stranger whom the disasters of the sea may cast on her shores should never look for refuge in vain." Nor in vain were these words written, for as the Appendix states, " A year had scarcely elapsed after the first edition of the pamphlet was committed to the Press when the great object it recommended was accomplished," and the "Royal National Institution " was founded. In March, 1825, the gold medallion of the Institution was presented to Hillary in commemoration of his services,

In 1824, Sir William wrote a pamphlet entitled: A Plan for the construction of a Steam Life Boat, also for the Extinguishment of Fire at Sea, etc. The principle he proposed for the former was " to combine the safety and the incapability of being submerged which the life-boat possesses, with the commanding power of being propelled against both the wind and a heavy sea, which the steam vessel alone can effect to any great extent," For the latter, " the general measure here proposed for vessels not worked by steam is to convert their pumps into powerful engines for throwing water for this important object." The elaboration of details connected with these two matters occupies 19 pages.

A second edition of this pamphlet appeared the following year,

In 1824, Hillary published Suggestions for the Improvement and Embellishment of the Metropolis, To effect these objects he advocated the establishment of a permanent board invested with statutory powers, Readers will know that London has undergone many important improvements during the last fifty years under various authorities, viz., the Government, the City of London, the Metropolitan Board of Works and its successors the London County Council, Traffic requirements have, however, not yet been adequately met, and in the report of the Royal Commission on London traffic of 1905, the establishment of a permanent board somewhat on the lines suggested by Hillary was foreshadowed, A statutory authority has since been constituted under the title of the " Road Board," with power to vote money for the creation and improvement of highways throughout the United Kingdom. Some of the schemes advocated by Hillary have since his time been carried into effect, e.g., the grand approach from Whitehall to Westminster Abbey (Parliament-street), the continuation of the then proposed Embankment from Scotland Yard to Westminster Bridge (Victoria Embankment), and the formation of a great central street from Waterloo Bridge, northward (Aldwych and Kingsway). In connection with the extension of baths in the Metropolis, Hillary suggested that an ample supply of sea-water might be provided at a moderate expense. About twenty years ago a company was formed to bring sea-water to London by means of iron pipes, but the project was not pursued.

A further point touched upon by Hillary in this pamphlet possesses a peculiar pathos in connection with what was alleged respecting the neglect of his own grave, He wrote: " Some places have been proposed where tombs or testimonials of respect, according to the status the deceased had filled in life, might be erected by their surviving friends over their remains, where it might be possible to visit the graves." Sir William was buried in St. George's Churchyard, Douglas, and in 1906 his grave was stated to be indistinguishable 1

His next pamphlet appeared in January, 1825, and is entitled A Sketch of Ireland in 1824: the sources of her evils considered and their remedies suggested. In this, Hillary describes the Irish according to their history and their traditions. " They were the earliest civilized people of the West; certainly one of the first who received Christianity, Blessed with a luxurious soil, placed in a happy temperature of climate, situated most favourably in commerce with every quarter of the globe, inhabited by a brave, ardent and intelligent people, the country for many succeeding centuries has been stationary in misfortune whilst all the surrounding nations have been advancing in prosperity and civilization; for six hundred years treated as a conquered people, alternately the prey of civil dissensions or religious persecutions; of partial insurrections or open rebellions; horrible burnings, barbarous murders, martial law and numerous executions." The reasons he gives for this are unequal laws unequally administered; an absentee nobility and gentry drawing the produce of industry and expending it in another country; agents and middlemen oppressing and impoverishing the people; the lower orders deplorably neglected, uneducated and unemployed, whilst vast tracts of fertile land remain uncultivated; all confidence in the tranquility and prosperity of the kingdom completely destroyed by civil and religious discord, etc." Sir William refers to " the lamentable discord subsisting between the Protestant and the Roman Catholic Churches," and truly says that "religious dissensions may go far to disorganize and ruin a people," He asks, " Must religious discord and civil war again spread devastation and misery over that ill-fated land?" In dealing with the remedies suggested by himself, he writes: " In this eventful crisis the British Government stand in the most awful situation in which those who have in charge the happiness of millions can be placed, from their duties as Statesmen and their feelings as men, however they may differ in their opinions as to the means firmly to establish the tranquility and the prosperity of Ireland." How appropriate these words to the present position, although the point at issue is now not the same as when Hillary wrote!

In July, 1826, there appeared from the same pen, The National Importance of a Great Central Harbour for the Irish Sea, accessible at all times to the largest vessels proposed to be constructed at Douglas, Isle of Man. This pamphlet was accompanied by a " Plan of Douglas Bay and Harbour, with the Breakwater, etc., as proposed and planned by Sir William Hillary, Bart " The plan proposed was the construction of a breakwater to commence near the point at which the two-gun battery was afterwards placed on the South side of the bay (Douglas Head), to be continued in a northerly direction for about 500 yards until it nearly outflanked the insulated rock of St. Mary or Conister, on the eastern. side, and leaving an entrance of about 150 yards between the head of the breakwater and St, Mary's rock, Sir William claimed that this scheme would facilitate the despatch and safety of the steam packets and navigation generally of the Irish Channel and give protection to the fisheries, The Manks herring fleet, he stated, was then registered at 250 vessels of from 25 to 30 tons burden, and employing 2,000 men. He quotes the loss of life from the then recent disasters to the American ship Minerva, H.M. cutter Vigilant, the Racehorse sloop of war, and the s.s. City of Glasgow-a total loss; of 36 vessels and £200,000 worth of property in 30 years. "Placed as the Isle of Man is," he writes, " in the centre of three kingdoms, the importance of its relative situation in a naval and military point of view appears as yet to have been very inadequately estimated," It is not very long ago since there were rumours that action was likely to be taken by His Majesty's Government in this direction. but present requirements for landing-accommodation will necessitate larger measures than the carrying out of a scheme on Sir William's lines. He did not, with all his perspicacity, anticipate that the Island would become the pleasure ground of so vast a multitude as now visits it.

In 1830 was published A Letter to the Trustees of the Academic Fund (see "Bibliotheca Monensis," p. 137), but of this I do not possess a copy.

The next pamphlet is Observations on the Proposed Changes in the Fiscal and Navigation Laws o f the Isle of Man addressed to the Delegates from that Island to His Majesty's Government; dated Fort Anne, 1837, This was written in support of a memorial of the people of the Isle of Man to the Home Secretary to advocate the interests of the Island in connection with a proposed increase in existing duties, notably those upon the Importation of foreign timber, on tea, coffee, and Museavado sugar. Hillary made a special point of the Island being unlike the other Colonies, and having no voice in the levy of duties or the expenditure of their proceeds, nor in the application of the £10,000 surplus after defraying the cost of its internal civil Government. On the question of the then proposed assimilation of the duties on brandy, hollands, rum, tea and tobacco with those of England, he remarks that the increased price would reduce consumption, smuggling would again become prevalent, a large coastguard would be necessary, and the revenue greatly deteriorated, He further says, " With an ungrateful soil and a stormy climate, with a long winter and a short summer, how can the Isle of Man compete with the commerce of the surrounding shores?" And in conclusion he asks that they (H.M. Ministers) will deal mercifully with the Manx people, and not unnecessarily add to their burdens, but will expend a part of the income thus derived for the improvement of her ports, her public works, and for humane and charitable endowments.

The above pamphlet was followed by another, dated 1838, on The Naval Ascendancy of Britain. It was dedicated to the gallant Navy of Britain, and traces the Naval power of England from the time of the Heptarchy through its varying vicissitudes under Harold to the days of the Tudors and Stuarts and onward to the time of the immortal Nelson and our own. He says: " But at the moment of our highest Naval triumph, a new power began to, show itself in the West, which has conceived the daring project to become her rival on the ocean! This State is the Republic of North America." A still more alarmist view of the situation follows, and there are many who at the present day share Hillary's view that America, is a standing menace to England's ambition, and is destined to become more so as time goes on, Hillary next discusses the increasing introduction of steam navigation in every quarter of the globe, and the application of that power to every purpose of nautical improvement, including the weighing of sit anchor, the working of the capstan, and every mechanical purpose required in ships of war, It should be remembered that steam power was, at the time Hillary wrote (1838), in its infancy, and was practically confined to the propulsion of vessels through the water, Hillary suggested that a board of Naval architects should be appointed " to obtain the utmost possible speed in vessels so propelled, the practicability of dispensing altogether with the funnel; getting rid of the smoke; reducing the quantity of fuel and the space and weight of the machinery, placing it so as to be most protected from the shot of an enemy . that this mighty power (steam) may be successfully applied even to many of the line-of-battle we now possess,"

No doubt at the time these words were written, such views were regarded by many as Utopian, but they are now in these days of submarines, etc., almost literally fulfilled, and afford a striking illustration of the author's acumen and foresight.

The next pamphlet is dated Fort Anne, March 15th, 1839, and its title: A Letter to the Shipping and Commercial Interests of Liverpool on Steam Life and Pilot Boats. The author refers to the plan he suggested for such boats more than fourteen years before, and contends for the application to them of steam power,

In 1842 was published A Report of Proceedings at a Public Meeting held at the Court House, Douglas, on January 18th of that year. The object of the meeting was to promote the provision of a " Great Central Harbour of Refuge for the Irish Sea in Douglas Bay, by means of Floating Breakwaters." The requisition was signed by a large number of the leading inhabitants of Douglas, and Sir W. Hillary was voted to the chair. A memorial was approved for presentation to Her Majesty's Treasury in furtherance of the object proposed, On the last page of this pamphlet is a view of a Rescue Harbour protected by Captain Taylor's Floating Breakwater,

Sir William having approached the Government with a view to State aid being afforded to the Shipwreck Institution of the Isle of Man, and having been informed that " similar institutions are left to private benevolence," and that in the opinion of the Secretary of State the Isle of Man ought not to be an exception to general principles, he (Sir William) addressed a letter to Lord John Russell, Home Secretary, dated Fort Anne, 1st November, 1838, In it he says: " Our efforts, our boats, our expenditure are all employed not for Insular purposes alone, but for the benefit of the shipping of the British Empire and of foreign powers which navigate the Irish Sea, as borne out by the singularly striking fact that out of about twenty wrecks from which in the command of our boats in Douglas Bay alone I had the happiness to assist in the rescue of more than three hundred persons from extreme peril-not one of these vessels was owned by the inhabitants of the Isle of Man, Our funds are derived from the voluntary contributions of a poor country containing about 40,000 inhabitants," At the end of this pamphlet are printed an account of the wreck of the St, George's Steam Packet and a copy of a letter from Admiral Lord Exmouth to Sir William Hillary, in 1831, complimenting him on his heroic deeds, which filled him (Lord Plymouth) with admiration, wonder, and surprise, and assuring him that his example will be admired by generations yet unborn, Then follows a list of the numbers of persons saved from vessels wrecked since 1822 on the coast of the Isle of Man, and how and by whom saved,. The number saved was 509.

The wreck specially referred to took place on St. Mary's rock, in Douglas Bay, in a violent storm on 20th November, 1830, when Sir William, accompanied by Lieut. Robinson, Capt. Corlett, and fourteen volunteer boatmen, with the veteran coxswain Isaac Vondy, rescued all on board consisting of twenty-two persons, ' Sir William was washed overboard against the wreck, and was with difficulty saved, having had six ribs fractured and was otherwise much hurt," This wreck formed the subject of a print depicting the wreck of the City of Glasgow Steam Packet, from a, sketch by Edward Price. who was on board at the time, dedicated to Sir William Hillary and dated 1825 [sic ?].

On 11th April, 1844, Sir William presided over a numerously attended meeting in Douglas to take into consideration certain propositions of the Governor regarding a scale of future duties to be levied on the Island. A statement of the deliberations of the meeting was laid before the Governor, Council and Keys in the form of a memorial, which Hillary prepared. This was printed in pamphlet form by Robert Fargher, of Douglas.

The last pamphlet is one dealing with quite a. different matter from any of the foregoing. Sir William was a. Knight of St. John of Jerusalem of the British Langne, and the interest he took in the East prompted him to write Suggestions for the Christian Occupation of the Holy Land as a Sovereign State by the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. This he published in 1841, He states: " The Christian occupation has for many centuries been the most momentous of any subject which has ever engaged the attention of mankind, For nearly a thousand years it called forth the religious and warlike enthusiasm of the Christians and the Moslems through every region of Europe and Asia." After tracing the history of the movement from the time of the first crusades in 1099 to that when " England, France, and Russia took Greece from the Turk to place a Christian King upon its throne, but Syria we conquer from one infidel (the Pasha of Egypt) to give to another (the Sultan of Turkey)," he expresses the hope that an effort might be made to stimulate the Powers, in conjunction " with France, to establish the Holy Land as a Christian and a Sovereign State," with the Order of St. John restored to its old state and dignity, and becoming the protector and defender of Palestine, He asks, " Shall the ardent devotions of the disciples of Mahommet for the tomb of their prophet exceed the veneration of Christendom for the sepulchre of their Redeemer?"

Such were the principal writings of this estimable man, who left an abiding monument to his memory in the form of the Tower of Refuge in Douglas Bay, which he intended for the benefit of his fellow-man, and to the cost of which he was the chief contributor,

G. W. WOOD,

Streatham, S.W.


 

Back index next

 

Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received MNB Editor
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2002