Helston Folk Museum salutes its most famous son, heroic Henry Trengrouse

By Ralph Gifford | 07 April 2011
a photo of a rope rescue seat in a museum with other artefacts on the walls
A bosuns chair in the display at Helston Museum© Cornwall Museums / Bernie Pettersen
Tales and relics of nautical adventure and invention are never hard to find if you are seeking an old maritime yarn in one of Cornwall’s many harbours. As England’s most westerly county reaches out into the north Atlantic, its wind and wave-battered coast has brought fortune to some and tragedy to others. 

Of its many famous brothers and sisters there is one who is always forgotten - Mr Henry Trengrouse, a man who in a just world would need no introduction.

Born in 1772 in Helston, Trengrouse was educated at Helston Grammar School before going on to become a cabinet maker. In 1807 he witnessed the drowning of over 100 men as HMS Anson was shipwrecked on Loe Bar near Porthleven after breaking her anchor in strong winds.

The tragedy of this event drove Trengrouse to devote his life and fortune to the invention of lifesaving equipment for getting men from ship to shore. His most notable were the rocket line, the Bosuns chair and the lifejacket.

Trengrouse’s story and life of invention is one that can be discovered at Helston Folk Museum. In this surprisingly large museum - situated in Helston’s old butter market building - you can find a large exhibit about Trengrouse which includes inventions, portraits and photographs.

a photo of a model ship
The collection also includes a new exhibit: a replica model of HMS Anson, the ship that inspired Trengrouse’s life work.  

Given to the museum by Len Griffin from Essex, the scale model is intricately detailed, giving visitors a sense of the struggle the men faced during the wrecking of 1807. Janet Spargo, Helston Folk Museum’s operations manager, says she is delighted to have been able to add the model to the Trengrouse exhibit.

“To have another item for what I feel is our most important exhibit really is fantastic," she tells me. "The model is perfect in every detail, we are going to hopefully get an optical camera inside the ship so that visitors can get an idea of what life was like below deck.   

“The museum has had a display especially for Trengrouse since it opened in the 1940s, and since I have been here I have become passionate about him as I think he is Helston’ most famous son.”

After watching the heart- breaking wrecking of the Anson, Trengrouse immediately set about making a device that could get a line out to a wrecked ship from the shore by means of a rocket. 

a photo of a museum interior with a rescue seat suspended before walls of paintings and other artefacts
© Cornwall Museums / Bernie Pettersen
At the same time, Captain George William Manby was also experimenting with a line that could be fired by mortar. Like Trengrouse, Manby had witnessed first-hand people drowning when he saw the naval ship Snipe run aground 60 yards off Great Yarmouth. All 214 people on board drowned.

Trengrouse’s rocket proved to be much lighter, cheaper, simpler, portable and most importantly, accurate.

However, it took him ten years and more than £3,000 to perfect his invention. In comparison, Manby got a working prototype of his mortar fired device in operation by 1808. 

It was officially adopted in 1814 and mortar stations were set up around the British coast. Ten years of graft by Trengrouse finally saw him able to present his rocket fired line to Admiral Sir Charles Rowley in 1818. After rigorous testing the invention was approved and he received his first order for 20 rockets. 

This initial success was short-lived. The admiralty decided to take over production, giving Trengrouse just £50 in compensation. He also received 30 guineas and a silver medal from the Society of Arts as well as a handwritten letter of thanks and a diamond ring from the Tsar of Russia, Alexander I.  

The compensation and gifts of thanks would probably have come as an empty gesture for Trengrouse. He had spent most of his life savings on creating the device which had essentially been snatched from him.

a photograph of four rockets mounted on a green board
© Cornwall Museums / Bernie Pettersen
This did not stop him, though, and he went on to further develop his rocket and other lifesaving equipment. An invention that is now seen across the world today is the life-jacket, or buoyancy aid. He also pioneered the Bosuns chair - a seat that stranded seamen would sit in when they were pulled ashore via the lines fired out to the ship by the rocket.  

Despite his ongoing endeavour Trengrouse died on the brink of poverty in 1854. It is rumoured that on his death-bed he said to his son: “If you live to be as old as I am, you will find my rocket apparatus all along our shores.”

Trengrouse was right - his rocket was adapted and improved and spread throughout Britain’s merchant and naval fleet. Today the techniques pioneered by Trengrouse are still in use across the world today.

Henry Trengrouse’s rockets can be found in Helston Folk Museum, along with the new replica model of HMS Anson. Interestingly, his rocket is also part of Cornwall Museum's 100 objects project. These objects have been carefully selected to try and represent Cornwall and its people. 

The harsh reality of living so near to nature at its most ferocious spurred people like Henry Trengrouse to create tools that would help save the lives of thousands. He is a forgotten hero who deserves every accolade that can be bestowed upon him.

Sadly this has not yet happened, but in his home town of Helston, at least, Henry Trengrouse’s place in history is rightfully preserved.
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