Historical information

This rescue line-throwing rocket set was made for the Dennett rocket system, which was used by the Rocket Rescue crews in South West Victoria from around the 1860s to the 1890s.

John Dennett -

John Dennett was from Carisbrooke, in the Ilse of Wight, UK. In 1826 he invented, patented and demonstrated an improved method of rocket powered, line firing rescue equipment for saving lives. The rockets had a longer range than the mortars being used, they were lighter, needed less preparation time, only needed one line for repeated shots, and fewer people were needed to move the equipment. Very favourable reports of Dennett’s rockets were received by those in charge of His Majesty’s Naval and Military services. In 1832, Dennett’s rocket-thrown line was sent out to the wreck of the ‘Bainbridge’, and was responsible for nineteen survivors coming ashore in two boatloads, along the fired line. Dennett’s rocket received national fame, and a one-year contract to supply rockets to the Coastguards. He became known as ‘Rocket Man’ and his rockets were used in rescues at least until 1890, when his son Horatio was running the business. A rocket weighing 23 lb would have a range of about 250 yards (228 metres), on average.

Saving lives in Warrnambool –

The coastline of South West Victoria has had over 600 shipwrecks and many lost lives; even in Warrnambool’s Lady Bay there were around 16 known shipwrecks between 1850 and 1905, with eight lives lost. In 1859 the first Government-built lifeboat arrived at Warrnambool Harbour and a shed was soon built to house it, followed in 1864 by a rocket house to safely store the Rocket Rescue equipment. In 1878 the buildings were moved to the Breakwater area, and in 1910 the new Lifeboat Warrnambool arrived with its ‘self-righting’ design. For almost one hundred years the lifeboat and rocket crews, mostly local volunteers, trained regularly to maintain and improve their skills, summoned when needed by alarms, gunshots, ringing bells and foghorns. Some became local heroes but all served an important role. By the end of the 1950s the lifeboat and rescue equipment had become obsolete.

Rocket Rescue Method -

The first use of a lifesaving rocket rescue system is often credited to Captain Manby and his invention of a life mortar, first used in 1808 to fire a line onto a ship to rescue lives. Henry Trengrouse’s invention of 1820 was the first to use a sky rocket’s power to throw a line, and his invention included a chair for carrying the shipwrecked victims to shore. In 1832 John Dennett invented a rocket specifically for shore to ship rescue. It had an iron case and an 8 foot pole attached and could shoot the line as far as 250 yards (about 230 metres). From the 1860s the rocket rescue apparatus was in use. It comprised a breeches buoy and traveller block that was suspended on a line and manually pulled to and from the distressed vessel carrying passengers and items. Colonel Boxer, who had invented an early line-thrower, designed a rocket in 1865 with a range from 300 to 470 yards. It was the first two-stage rocket, with two rockets placed one in front of the other in a tube that carried the rescue line. The hemp line was faked, or coiled, in a particular way in a faking box to prevent twists and tangles when fired, and the angle of firing the rocket was measured by a quadrant-type instrument on the side of the rocket machine. Schermuly invented the line-throwing pistol around 1920, which used a small cartridge to fire the rocket.

Victoria’s Government adopted lifesaving methods based on Her Majesty’s Coast Guard in Great Britain, which used Colonel Boxer’s rocket apparatus rescue method. The British Board of Trade published instructions in 1850 for both the beach rescue crew and ship’s crew. It involved setting up the rocket launcher on shore at a particular angle measured by the quadrant, inserting a rocket that had a light-weight line attached, then firing it across the stranded vessel. A tally board was then sent out with instructions in four languages. The ship’s crew would haul on the line to bring out the continuous whip line and attach the whip block to a mast or sturdy part the ship. The rescue crew on shore then hauled out a heavier hawser line, which the ship’s crew fixed above the whip block. The hawser is then tightened using the block on the shore end of the whip. The breeches buoy and endless whip are then attached to the traveller block on the hawser, allowing the shore crew to haul the buoy to and from the vessel, rescuing the stranded crew one at a time. The rocket system could also be used from one ship to another.


The Dennett rocket set is quite rare - there are not many examples in existence and little information is available.

This Dennett's rocket set is significant for its connection with local history, maritime history and marine technology. Lifesaving has been an important part of the services performed from Warrnambool's very early days, supported by State and Local Government, and based on the methods and experience of Great Britain.

Hundreds of shipwrecks along the coast are evidence of the rough weather and rugged coastline. Ordinary citizens, the Harbour employees, and the volunteer boat and rescue crew, saved lives in adverse circumstances. Some were recognised as heroes, others went unrecognised.

In Lady Bay, Warrnambool, there were around 16 known shipwrecks between 1850 and 1905. Many lives were saved but tragically, eight lives were lost.

Physical description

A Dennett rocket set in six parts; the rocket head, three shafts (poles) and two rocket-head toting boxes. The rocket head, mounted on one of the shafts, is a long, red painted, iron tube with rounded ends and a protruding fitting around each end. The wooden rocket shafts are octagonal, with a metal sheath at the ends, carved elongated slots towards each end, and a scribed channel above the black foot. The rocket head toting boxes are thick timber, covered in fabric and painted black. They have a hinged wooden lid that slants downwards from back to front, and a metal closure. Small deliberate holes, in groups of four, on the box’s sides, indicate missing attachments, likely to have been handles.

Inscriptions & markings

Impressed one a shaft "8"