Now there's a funny thing

I suspect that the world is divided into two types of people. There are those who can come across a strange looking gadget and just wander past, and there are those who will get drawn magnetically towards it and can’t get it out of their mind until they have worked out what on earth it is meant to do. I’m not talking about electronics, which baffle me completely, but things like a piece of bent iron, sharpened at one end with a well-worn wooden handle half way down the shaft. Before you all say "Oh that’s a left handed West Yorkshire caulking raker” or such like, I better tell you that I just made it up.

However this gadget shown above is for real. I found a few of them in an old crate in an upstairs room at Arthur Beale’s and was intrigued. It has cast into it “The Neo Belay" - Schermuly Patented - Arthur Beale - Sole Agent and it is obviously some kind of snatch block. It has a sliding bar with a twisted hook on either end which looks like you can use to insert the block into a rope which is fastened at either end. Maybe it could be used on the shroud of a yacht as a flag halyard although it looks rather chunky for that. However, it doesn’t look chunky enough to use on a Thames Barge as a hauling block.

I showed it to my friend Martin who is a Patent Attorney as well as being a keen sailor and expert climber. A few weeks later he sent me a copy of the original patent which was lodged by Frederick Arthur Bullivant and Augustus William Louis Schermuly.

Original Patent

Bullivant was described as a Wire Rope Manufacturer of 72 Mark Lane, in the City of London. There can’t be many people making wire ropes in the City today! A little further investigation shows that the wires were actually made at Bullivant’s Wharf in West Ferry Road on the Isle of Dogs and the company was a large local employer. Bullivant was a prolific patenter.

Schermuly is a more familiar name. William Schermuly was the inventor of a practical Breeches Buoy rocket. In fact Shackletons ship, the Endurance was fitted with one. After serving some time at sea Schermuly worked as a wire splicer, presumably at Bullivants Wharf. His life sounds fascinating and deserves some further investigation at another time.

So now I knew more about this strange pulley but still didn’t really know who would buy such a device. One day, in a rare idle moment, I sat down and had a little browse through one of the old books in Arthur Beale’s archive. In it I found an order and delivery note for a Neo Belay Pulley from no less less than Sir Ernest Shackleton himself. Beales delivered it to SY Quest moored in St Katharine Docks. We still deliver pulleys to yachts in St Katharine Docks. I need to check the ledger to see if he has actually paid the £1-7s-6d for it! If you look carefully you can see that Shackleton has personally signed the order. As he ordered the pulley together with 60 ft of Beale’s famous Alpine Club Rope and a Chamonix Ice Axe I assumed that it was used as climbing gear, maybe to assist in crevasse rescue? Then it occurred to me that it could be part of the Breeches Buoy rescue system.

This is just one of the many treasures from Arthur Beale’s archives. It goes to show how much care is needed to preserve these old items which some people might think of as useless junk or clutter but are actually part of our wonderful maritime heritage. If you are in Beales please ask and we will show you one of the pulleys. If you have seen one before or know anything about them then we would be really grateful to hear from you.


1 comment



Presumably “Schermuly” having invented the breeches bouy went on to develop various pyrotechnic distress signals and he or someone related to him formed “Schermuly” (now part of Pains Wessex) famous for flares and other distress systems on many of our boats in not so distant times.

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