The seas off Douglas, Isle of Man, are vicious and innumerable vessels and sailors have perished, often within sight of land.
At least fifty boats of the four-hundred-strong Douglas herring-fishing fleet sank, with the loss of at least 161 lives, on September 21st 1787.
An early lifeboat, provided by the 4th Duke of Athol, was launched in 1803, but was not replaced after its loss in a storm in 1814.
Sir William Hillary (1774-1847), who lived at Fort Anne above Douglas Harbour, witnessed the Royal Navy cutter Vigilant in difficulty in Douglas Bay on October 6th 1822: he gathered a volunteer crew and saved the lives of the 97 people on board.
Later, after the brig HMS Racehorse sank off Langness with the loss of six crew and three Manx rescuers, he made a public “Appeal to the British Navy on the Humanity and Policy of Forming a National Institution for the Preservation of Lives and Property from Shipwreck”.
For lack of Admiralty support he raised £115 from a group of insurance companies to launch the Douglas-based rescue-vessel True Blue.
The following year he founded the Royal National Lifeboat Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck (as it was originally called), and its first boat, Nestor, was based at Douglas.
Nestor was destroyed during the rescue of the City of Glasgow off Douglas Head on October 19th 1830: Sir William and his crew, together with the entire complement of the ship, were rescued by the True Blue.
Sir William also led the rescue of the entire crew of the packet-boat St George when it foundered on Conister Rock in the middle of Douglas Bay in 1830.
Two years later Sir William built the distinctive Tower of Refuge on the rock both as an eye-catcher and as a practical place of safety in case of shipwreck: its cost was divided between a public appeal (£101), the harbour commissioners (£75) and Sir William himself (£78).
Sir William Hillary could not swim.
The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2014 Manx Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing. To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.