and his Rockets

"lost ships can be replaced, but lives lost are gone forever"

William Schermuly, Founder 1857-1929

including extensive gallery of original artefacts at bottom of page

William Schermuly, seaman, inventor, reformer was born in 1857 of Dutch origin, British born from a family that emigrated from Holland in the mid 1600`s. As a seaman he had little formal education apart from 10 months or so on the training ship "Warspite" in 1871, he later served on the Devonshire, Bride, Astante, Lochee, Mary Ann Annison, Fairlie, Covona, Greta, Ben Nevis and Daccia. In 1880 he left the sea and joined the London Fire Brigade, then he became a wire splicer, Dock Policeman, marine cable layer.....came up with many simple, small yet successful life saving inventions.
Horrified at the needless loss (1,000+ pa.) of life on foundering ships within British waters, resolved to do something about it. To do this he had to invent the means and reform the thinking that put cost above seamans lives.
At this time there was little help available to the crews of stricken vessels, often lifeboat crews and coast guard rescue parties would see tragic loss of life often within a few yards of the shore and safety.
Some "devices" were available, such as this "contrivance for drowning persons",basically a cannonball with a rope attached: but very often prevailing conditions limited their effectiveness. One of these was to fire a rocket from shore to ship; this is not easy as the ship is pitching up and down and represents a small target when seen from the shore, ie. easy to miss. Very often these rockets were modified from other designs and not really up to the job and large, even up to a 10 foot stabilising stick, this is not easy to aim. Efforts were needed to find a device to fire a line from ship to shore....basically easier as the shore is a large target! The whole point of all this is to secure a line from the vessel to the rescuers on shore to help get the survivors off.
And of course it all costs money. Cardboard tube rockets were prone to failing due to damp. Other devices were a bit like being able to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same a gale...and standing on one leg, laughable. They would work perhaps on a fine calm day with a glassy sea, but the fact is that most rescues take place in atrocious conditions.
Schermuly set about the task of inventing an idiot-proof rocket system that a seaman could use in the worst possible storm conditions from a wildly pitching boat to fire a line accurately to the shore. An early Schermuly rocket of around 1897 is seen here, Schermuly also devised a better way of coiling the line to prevent tangles, this is known as "flaking."Here is seen what he calls a "selveged edge", the whole line making a compact mat. This technique allows 3/4 mile of 1/2 inch circumference line to be stored in a box 20in by 20in by 12in. This device could be deck or bridge mounted, the example seen here is fitted to the "Endurance" which was the vessel used by Sir Ernest Shackleton Antarctic expedition. Also he sought to manufacture a damp resistant rocket made of metal. A comparison is seen here between an ordinary rocket and a Schermuly rocket. The Schermuly rocket is the bottom item. It is guided by a comparatively short stick connected to a line that is fireproofed for the first foot or so to protect it from the rockets flame.
Like all manufacturers he had a catalogue and hawked his wares about giving many demonstrations, this one being on a vessel on which he once served as a seaman, the "Daccia" He called this era his "heartbreak years", supported by his wife Susan; the Admiralty and ship owners were for the most part uninterested in his, money, money.............
Some far sighted shipping lines saw the wisdom and life saving potential of his invention, these include the Royal Mail Steam Packet, being the first in 1912, followed by the Union Castle and P & O Line. After the Rohilla was lost off the Yorkshire coast, having struck a mine en route to Belgium to pick up wounded soldiers; her crew and compliment of nurses and doctors drowning, the Admiralty did place an order for Schermuly rockets for troop and hospital ships. A supply of Schermuly rockets had also being carried on the "Terra Nova" which was Scot`s ship on his exploration of the Antarctic, being freely donated by Schermuly.
World War I in 1916 saw the War Department saw a military use for his line rockets by the Canadian army; that of throwing telephone lines from trench to trench, or from front line to rear line, while under enemy fire. It was also used for sending urgent messages rather than runners. Hardly lifesaving,........but perhaps it was...... The Admiralty, the obvious user, was not interested. Also used was a grapnel rocket , basically a grapnel on the front end of a rocket, was used to fire at barbed wire and haul it away
1922 saw 22 leading shipping lines using Schermuly products.

Slowly one or two, then three , then more ship owners warmed to his ideas, but Schermuly still was not happy with his own product. Seeking a device that could literally be "fired by a child" small, light, easily aimed, accurate, long shelf life, waterproof, or as well as could be, safe and simple to use....he invented the S.P.R.A., the Schermuly Rocket Pistol Apparatus, and as he said "this was it, then". In essence this was rocket fired from a small hand held pistol.. He used his grandson, age 8, who was later to become a paratrooper, to demonstrate his apparatus. Also there were many demonstrations to M.P.`s, and here we see a demonstration in 1927 to a group of labour M.P.`s including Lord Ammon.This device was unaffected by crosswinds, powerful enough to lift line...without breaking it,weatherproof, almost instantaneous ignition to preserve aim, and visible through out it`s flight to help correct aim, and have low recoil. The company was now run in 1920 by Schermuly and his third son Captain Conrad David Schermuly D.C.M..Here is his autograph. Up to 1926, most components were bought in and assembled by Schermuly and his staff, however in 1926 he set up his own factory in Cheam manufacturing from the raw almost every thing, including the pyrotechnic components. Oddly most of this rising trade was from overseas. To set this up, extra investment capital was provided by Mr. H. A. Thompson who had earlier founded the Board of Trade, a body to set maritime standards. With Thompson as chairman, The Schermuly rocket Pistol Apparatus Ltd. was born. Here we can see their products.

the S.P.R.A. itself in a box.

the No.2 size S.P.R.A. range 250 yards.a floating head can be seen to keep the rocket afloat to aid rescuers pick it up.
A supply of rockets for the S.P.R.A., as used by the R.N.L.I. Royal National Lifeboat Institution. A heat shield drape is seen hanging down from the pistol to protect the firers hand. Also can be seen are the small ignition cartridges, rather like a shotgun blank cartridge. These cartridges both ignite the rocket, then the expanding gases overcome the inertia of the rocket, propelling it from the muzzle, once clear of the muzzle, the rockets own charge carries it onwards.
As the company grew, so did it`s products, each for a specific use.The 12lb. Line Rocket for Coastguard with a 1inch line and a 350 yard range. It`s flight would carry a heavy strong line further and was aimed at the shore to ship use. You can see why the line had to be protected from the rockets blast.
Family members now proliferated in the company, Alfred Schermuly, a pyrotechnist, become works manager, Charles Schermuly being the works engineer. By 1937 orders were picking up again and the company moved from Cheam to a larger site at Newdigate, Surrey. Here the site had a convenient close by test firing range.
On January 1st. 1929, William Schermuly died, nineteen days after it was made compulsory for all vessels over 500 tons to carry line throwers, his dream and life work accomplished. This was the Merchant Shipping (Line Throwing Act) and it caused the companies trade to soar by 800%. However in 1930 a slump in world shipping caused orders to fall, slowly being built up again as it was a must have for small trawlers in order to get insurance. Also War Department orders built up.
Around this time, Captain H.K. Fairbrother MBE became chairman and brought more capital. 1938 saw a new Act enforcing new regulations that made for the compulsory carrying of line rockets by all ships of over 80 tons or 50 feet in length. Vessels of 500 tons and over had the maximum attainable distance of their line rockets increased from 120 yards to 200, and the line width go from 5/16inch to 1/2 inch. These requirements, combined with a compulsory need for accuracy virtually killed off the opposition, such as the vintage Boxer rocket. Thanks to Brixham museum.The Boxers wind deviation was 29%, while the Schermuly product was only contest.
This illustration shows the rescue of the vessel Cap Fagnet off Iceland with the first shot.

World War II breaking out caused the company to venture into many varied fields of manufacture.
Some of these are rocket lofted kites; the Kite Launching Rocket flown from a liferaft, suspending a distress radio`s aerial up high for effective transmission. Grapnel rockets used to climb sheer cliffs by troops on D-Day in 1944, Signal flares for silent signaling by the R.A.F. A variant on the S.P.R.A. was used to project a line over dangerous bombed ruins, and to help safely demolish them by pulling them over. When the R.A.F. bombed enemy targets they used target markers, TIFFS...Target Identification Flares, to mark targets by the Pathfinder squadrons. This was a 7,000,000 candle power skymarker flare suspended by a parachute to show up against false enemy counter flares.6lb. P.A.C. rockets were used as a rocket barrage, akin to a Balloon Barrage to parachute suspend thin wires with explosive devices attached to foul the wings of attacking aircraft. This system was used on ships extensively. Lifeboat Parachute Distress Signal was a rocket device thrown overboard into the sea, firing after a 45sec delay a rocket to 1,000feet a 150,000 candle power parachute suspended flare, visible for 50 aiding rescue. this was 10 times more distance than existing distress signals, reducing the time crews of sunken vessels took to be spotted and rescued. A most amazing device was the Air Sea Rescue Discharger..this was an inflatable liferaft dropped among crews swimming in the water; it would automatically open, inflate and rocket propel lines into the water for crews to haul themselves into the liferaft. Even the national airline, B.O.A.C....British Overseas Airways Corporation used a 9lb. rocket parachute suspended illuminant of 400,000 candle power to aid seaplanes land on water at night.

A letter from the National Union of Seaman says it all. The companies own publication "From Ship to Shore" has been used to illustrate some of this page
Today the Schermuly name lives on as part of Pains-Wessex, the world known manufacturer of marine signals and military pyrotechnics. Some of their products bear that proud name within their own: Pains-Wessex- Schermuly

Some of William Schermuly`s descendants are alive to this day, his grandson, Fred Schermuly lives in Bideford, Devon, while his great grandson Mark Schermuly lives in Dover. In constructing this web page it has been by privilege to speak to them both. Most surviving Schermulys are in Kent and Sussex


of items made by Schermuly or very similar

ACTUAL ITEMS: N.B. THE WEB MASTER POINTS OUT THAT IT IS DANGEROUS AND ALSO ILLEGAL UNDER THE EXPLOSIVES ACT OF 1875 TO TAMPER WITH OR DISMANTLE PYROTECHNICS, THE ONES SEEN HERE ARE EITHER, DUMMY, TRAINING AIDS, INERT, FIRED, OR SOME ARE REPLICA MADE BY COMPUTER PRINTING OF LABELS AND ARTWORK. If you want a collection the best way is to collect bits and eventually make an inert part authentic, part replica whole and to hang around old men of the sea who have kept their training pyros they fired many years ago!! Also some items have been kindly loaned by the M.O.D. for illustrative use.


THE S.P.R.A. TODAY AND IN RECENT USE: 3 inch Breeches Buoy rocket compared to modern line throwing rockets, and modern buoyant (floating) head. The same but with buoyant head attached. A "modern" or recent S.P.R.A. pistol and rocket. S.P.R.A. in two views...A....B.....The pistol on it`s storage box. A line rocket on it`s box of flaked line. A line rocket and pistol on their storage box containing two boxes(normally four) of flaked line, one open, one closed. The complete system in it`s box, with cleaning rod and oil bottle.NOTE line rockets that are grey are ignited by the flame from an ignition cartridge, while the black ones have an internal percussion cap system that needs to be struck and are incompatible with the traditional pistol, instead they are fired from a modern user friendly unit which needs no preparation before use and is literally point and fire. The flaked line can just be seen in the combined rocket projector/line container unit....The SCHERMULY SPEEDLINE INTERNATIONAL. The rocket has it`s buoyant head attached, this makes it easier for persons in the water to grab the rocket....otherwise it would sink. N.B. THIS PISTOL IS DE-ACTIVATED.

SKYMARKER AND T.I.F.F. DEVICES.........1,....2,....


RANGE OF SIGNAL CARTRIDGES from a technical handbook.

LINE ROCKETS of the 1940`sstill in use in 1960`s

LINE AND SIGNAL ROCKETS of the 1940`sstill in use 1960`s

HAND FLARES of the 1940`s still in use 1960`s

RED STAR SIGNAL ROCKET of the 1940`s still in use 1960`s

HAND SIGNALS of the 1940`s still in use 1960`s........1...........2.......

AIRCRAFT FLARES...........1..............2.......


1950`s HAND FLARE AND BUOYANT SMOKE as seen in above advert.......flare..........smoke(also signal cartridge)

1940`s SCHERMULY ROCKET PISTOL APPARATUS rockets, note brass cased ignition cartridges and "asbestos" sleeve protecting line......1.........2......

1950`s era SCHERMULY SHIP`S BRIDGE ROCKET PARACHUTE DISTRESS SIGNAL: types 1 and 2 compared side by side///type 2 with rocket stabilising skirt extended and stored///type 2 with parachute and dummy flare candle///type 1 with rocket stabilising skirt extended and stored

3 INCH BREECHES BUOY ROCKET used for projecting a line from shore to ship, in use in the U.K. until 1982, this item is 1945. It is seen here with it`s bridle folded in the store position. A similar 3 inch rocket is seen here compared to an early non-Schermuly line rocket. This may be seen on display at Lands End, U.K. Here is another 3 inch rocket in it`s launch rack. Thanks to Brixham Museum.

A SELECTION OF LINE ROCKETS: fired from a tripod launcher, thanks to Brixham Museum; a 3 inch rocket with brass venturi, a style used by the military with a grapnel fixed to the end, thanks to Science Museum.

4.5 INCH AIRCRAFT RECONNAISSANCE PARACHUTE FLARE: sectioned and whole.Schermuly would have made the pyrotechnic component of these devices in 1940`s.

2 INCH ILLUMINATING FLARE ROCKET: sectioned and whole.Dated 1945, these would have been used to illuminate targets and aid search and rescue operations. They were in service with the R.N. until the mid 1970`s. Again in times not so far past, Schermuly would have made the pyrotechnic component.

4.7 INCH PARA ILLUMINATING SHELL recovered by the authorities and made available for public display. Note the components, parachute, inert expulsion charge, fuze, flare candle, end plate and paper card cup, parachute canister in two halves, large brass propelling cartridge. This item is dated 1943 and was found under about 30 feet of water immersed in mud. I am told that when it was made safe in a controlled explosion, the whole thing worked as it should, the flare candle popping out of the base fully burning!!! I bet they do`nt make them like this anymore...possibly Schermuly had a hand in this...!

MODERN SMOKE FLOATS "MAN OVER BOARD": used to mark by orange smoke and twin electric bulbs, the position of lifebelts....which are attached to it by a line. It is activated by removing it from it`s mount and throwing into the sea along with the lifebelt.

A SELECTION OF 38mm SCHERMULY ROCKETS, showing parachute, flare candle and rocket unit. They span almost 40 years from right to left. The oldest at right was called an "ICARUS" and subtle variations of design can be seen, the white rocket at left is an illuminating rocket for search and rescue from the late 1960`s, the others being red star parachute distress signals. The initial design must have been good to last so long. Again in this view small design differences can be seen, the larger dark sleeve at the top is a 50mm illuminating rocket fired from a special mounted projector in a search and rescue role.

A COLLECTION OF SCHERMULY MARINE PYROTECHNIC SIGNALS: these span about 30 years and represent hand flares, hand smoke and buoyant smoke.

NON-SCHERMULY SHOWCASE - a virtual museum

TWO BROCK`S SIGNAL ROCKETS: the one on the left is a red star rocket from the 1950's, the black one on the right..bought empty in an Exeter antique stall for 8!!! is from the 1930's, and boasts as it`s maker a trade name of Brock`s "Crystal Palace Fireworks." The little wooden plug is a striker that would have hand a friction coating on it. These rockets would also have had a large wooden stabilising stick fitted in the sleeve. Of interest is the wooden base plug in the Brock rocket. This was screwed into the base as a safety measure. If there was an accidental fire affecting the rocket store, this plug would cause the rockets to rupture and burst in half due to the internal pressure of the burning propellant. This was considered safer than the rocket flying off at any odd angle as a dangerous missile.

JOSEPH WELLS & SONS HAND FLARE AND WESSEX "HANDSTAR" and "PINPOINT Mk.IV" SIGNAL FLARE: note the beautifully turned wooden handle. These cover an age from 1880 (Wells) to 1960's

VERY SMALL "PAINS-WESSEX" SIGNAL ROCKET WITH TWO RED STARS: this is a very small rocket about 5 inches long. It would need a small stick to be attached. The wooden plug on the left is a striker to fire the rocket. Rather a fiddle firing this in a sinking boat, especially as an instruction on the wrapper tells you to keep it dry!

VARIED SELECTION OF OLDER "PAINS-WESSEX" MARINE PYROTECHNICS: the red tin is a waterproof container for hand flares, the other items are smokes and hand flares.

WESSEX "LIFERAFT PARACHUTE DISTRESS SIGNAL" : the ancestor perhaps of what we have today. The shocking pink item next to it is the Pains -Wessex descendent of it in the 1970`s. This item is from the early 1960`s. In this view it is compared side by side with a modern Schermuly rocket, and the rocket itself is displayed as well as the delay ignition system. Most rockets today fire instantaneously. In this view it is compared to a modern product and a flagship Pains-Wessex product of the 1970`s...a "Lifechute" parachute distress rocket and it`s rocket projectile.

JAMES PAIN PARACHUTE ROCKET: this large rocket would need a stick for stability. This demonstration item is undated, but could be up to 100 years old. The red paper conceals a wooden striker as in the other stick-type rockets.

PAINS LIFEBOAT/LIFERAFT DISTRESS SIGNAL ROCKET: late 1950`s. Quite an unusual device when compared to today. Firing must have been tricky as you had to open the tube, remove the striker, then strike the matched end of some quickmatch, after first having removed it`s seal.

PAINS LIFEBOAT DISTRESS ROCKET: 1950`s, looking a little like a Russian Vostok rocket. Ignition would be similar to above. The guide "fins" are wooden.

THE TWO COMPARED SIDE BY SIDE: the metal container is scallop grooved to make it easier to hold.

OLD EXPLOSIVE SIGNS FROM A FACTORY: probably familiar to Schermuly.