Thursday, January 22, 2009
I'm currently writing the last book of my rakes trilogy (The Secret Wedding, shown left, is the second, and will be out in April) and in researching, I found this in the Annual Register, Vol 7, Dec 1764, page 99. It's a description of a test of various devices for keeping people afloat in the water. The test took place in the Thames, with the people going through under the bridge, where the water was notoriously swift and turbulent.
"...then two men and a woman in a mob cap and red ribbons with through likewise in air jackets; these were followed by two men in the marine collar and belt. Thus secured, they danced in the eddy a considerable time, to the no small diversion of thousands of spectators, whom one of the men in air jackets presented with apples at the same time that he regaled himself with bread and cheese; after which he fired a pistol: these things were contained in his cap, which was made on purpose. On the whole it was a droll and not indecent sight, they all being dressed in flannel shifts and linen breeches."
Any number of questions and comments come to mind. Was the woman also wearing breeches? One supposes so. But isn't it delightful that a woman was included?
What cheerful fun they all seem to have had with it. Splendid.
Now the big question. What happened to these devices? In accounts of maritime disasters in the 18th and early 19th centuries I've never heard a mention of them. This came to the attention of the Gentleman's Magazine of 1869.
You can read it here.
"In the year 1761, when this Magazine was a mere stripling, having attained only to its thirty-first volume, we inserted amongst our items of incidental news, the following (p. 426):
" Was found, near the Spaniard, below the Nore, a fisherman who had been cast away seven hours, and saved his life by means of a cork jacket."
Antiquarian research is no doubt yet competent to find out what was meant by " the Spaniard below the Nore ; " but not competent, we fear, to say where that lucky fisherman bought his cork jacket . If, however, Mr. Greenwood should happily discover that it was made by anyone whose descendants still carry on the business, he will doubtless make known the address.
In 1764 we recorded, again (vol. xxxiv. p. 448), that—
" Several new inventions to preserve men's lives in shipwrecks near shore were tried at London Bridge, namely, the cork jacket, the air jacket, and the marine collar and belt; and all of them seemed to answer the intent. The persons employed to make the experiments played a number of tricks in the water to the no small diversion of the spectators."
In the first fifty years of our existence these two notices comprised all we had to say on the subject of appliances for saving life at sea.
There is not wanting, in fact, abundant evidence of a general concurrence of public opinion that the dangers of the sea were fixed beyond all human power of diminution, and that any attempt to battle with the watery forces savoured of impiety. It might be allowable to put up a few dim lights along the coast by which the shipwrecked mariner could make a rough guess as to where it was that he was being drowned. But when that was done, all was done. And, moreover, as the greatness of England depended to no small extent upon her marine, it would be well to keep the whole subject of loss of life at sea as quiet as possible, lest a check should be given to the supply of sailors."
Very interesting, but how odd that such a useful technology be ignored. Even if the devices weren't provided, you'd think some prudent seafarers would take one along.
Of course they weren't much use far from shore, as the chances of being rescued were tiny, and close to shore many wrecks were caused by the sort of wild weather and harsh shoreline which would mean a lifejacket would be of little use, but still, I know what I'd have squashed into my luggage somehow.
In poking around this subject, I came up with these tidbits from 1764.
"A Gentleman, well known at Newmarket, has engaged, we hear, for a considerable Wager, to ride one Horse from Hyde-Park-Corner to Oxford, and back again, within seven Hours; upon which several large Bets are depending."
That's about 50 miles each way, so about 14 miles an hour without allowing for stops for the horse. Of course, the attempt might have failed. I found not record of that.
"A Noble Lord has laid a Wager of One Thousand Guineas, that he causes a Boat to go Twenty-five Miles in one Hour; the Experiment will be tried one Day this Week on the River near Chelsea."
Again, no report on this.
But such things remind us that the past is full of surprises.
The above are from transcripts of a Worcester newspaper, available here.