The Wyllies, whilst living in their house on the beach in Wimereux, Northern France, were often involved in saving lives of the crews of stranded boats. One particular instance grabbed the attention of some important bystanders.
It was September 1869 when, during a treacherous storm, William looked out through the sand splattered window and could just make out the shape of a schooner, obviously in trouble. William, together with his brother Charles and stepbrother Lionel, had to rush out through the kitchen door as the storm was so fierce that they would have trouble exiting through the front door. They followed the stricken vessel as it was drifting towards Griz Nez. As they reached the Ambleteuse River, the boat hit a sandbank about 200 meters from the shore. To their dismay they noticed the crew lowering a lifeboat. More often than not, lives had been lost by not staying with the main vessel.
The lifeboat, however, drifted off without anybody able to climb aboard. The Wyllies waded in and tried to get the lifeboat back to the already damaged vessel, but had to give up due to the storm pushing the small boat into the opposite direction, time and time again. The boys left the lifeboat and decided to swim to the wrecked schooner. Upon arrival they were thrown a cork fender and attached it to the log line. They proceeded to swim back to the shore and asked for help from the increasing numbers of onlookers. With the help of the spectators on the beach, the complete crew was saved one by one by following the log line and reaching dry land. The Wyllies did not wait until the completion of the exercise but went home instead to change into dry clothes and have some lunch.
Only a short while later, to their horror they noticed that there was yet another boat in trouble. It involved the brig “The Wheatsheaf” from Guernsey, who was heading straight for the shore. The storm had already caused both foresail and fore-topsail to be blown out of the bolt ropes. Without wasting time, the boys left home once again, but as soon as they got outside, the boat had disappeared out of sight. As the tide was now much higher than before, they had to climb the rocks to reach the sea and as they climbed to the top of the “Pointe de la Rochette”, they spotted the two sails of the troubled boat. They ran across the soft sand until they were ahead of the now stranded vessel. Everyone on board seemed calm and expected to have to wait until the tide turned, so they could disembark and walk across the beach to the shore.
There was nothing more that could be done and so the crowd who had witnessed the boys rescue mission earlier that day turned their attention to the brave Wyllie boys. Amongst the onlookers was Captain Campbell, who suggested that the boys should have a medal for their morning’s work and offered them some of his brandy. However, a voice near them exclaimed that they ‘should not take the captain’s brandy!’ When they turned around, they were faced with no other than Prince Jerome Napoleon, the great nephew of Emperor Louis Napoleon, who had turned up to see what the fuss was all about. The prince, who was accompanied by his yacht’s crew and the infamous socialite and mistress, Miss Cora Pearl, insisted that the Wyllie boys drank from his personal flask of brandy by telling them “C’est Meilleur” (this is better!). After the crew from the second wreck were also safely on the shore, the whole party were walked home, jubilantly singing along with the Crew of the Imperial Yacht’s rendition of “Les Pompiers de Nanterres”.
Later the track from the main road across the sand hills to the beach was named “Rue des Anglais”, after the boys to commemorate the many lives that were saved around the rocks of Griz Nez, commonly known as Les Crans des Oeufs, referring to the egg shape boulders that form the basin tag which the many ship wrecks occurred.
Prince Jerome Napoleon was Prince Napoléon Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte, Prince Français, Count de Meudon, Count di Moncalieri ad personam, 3rd Prince von Montfort (commonly known as Prince Jérôme Napoléon was born on 9 September 1822 – 17 March 1891) was the second son of Jérôme Bonaparte, king of Westphalia, by his wife Princess Catherine of Württemberg. He soon rendered himself popular by playing on his family ties to Napoleon I. After the French revolution of 1848 he was elected to the National Assembly of France as a representative of Corsica.