W L Wyllie’s parents spent many summers in their house on the beach in Wimereux, Northern France, where the air was cleaner and living was healthier compared to their London home. Young Bill and his younger brother Charles and older stepbrother Lionel would roam the beaches, looking for scenes to draw and paint, their most favourite pastime. As the area was renowned for its rough seas and treacherous rocky shores, it so happened that the boys 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, Bill looked out through the sand splattered windows of their home and could just make out the shape of a schooner, obviously in trouble. Together with Charles Lionel, they rushed out through the kitchen door to help, 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, a well known dangerous rock formation along the coast. As they reached the Ambleteuse River, the boat had hit a sandbank about 200 meters from the shore.
To their horror they saw the crew lowering a lifeboat. More often than not, lives had been lost by leaving 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. Instead, the boys decided to swim to the wrecked schooner. Upon arrival they were thrown a cork fender and attached it to the log line. They swam 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 to reach 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.
Later that same day, another boat appeared to be in trouble. “The Wheatsheaf”, a brig from Guernsey was heading straight for the shore. The storm had already blown both foresail and fore-topsail 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 reached the top of “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 it was clear that there just had to wait until the tide turned, so they could disembark and walk across the beach to the shore.
Bill, in order to pass the time, decided to make a sketch of the event, and later turned his study into an oil called “Wreck of The Wheatsheaf”, which received favourable comments in The Times of 26th October 1869.
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 nearby exclaimed they ‘should not take the captain’s brandy!’ When they turned around, they were faced with none 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, 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 Nantes.
Some time after the boys’ heroics, they were told by Captain Campbell that they were to go to the house of Lady Alexander in the Grande Rue at Boulogne. When they arrived, they were taken to the drawing room, where they were met by a gathering of British residents of Boulogne. After a nice speech by Lady Alexander, she presented the boys with two silver medals for their bravery during the rescue efforts.
Later, the track from the main road across the sand hills to the Wyllie residence on the beach was named “Rue des Anglais”, to commemorate the many lives that were saved by the Wyllie boys around the rocks of Griz Nez. Although much later the council at Wimereux were pressured to rename the road “Rue de Capitaine Faber”, this request was rejected and to date it still exists, in memory of the bravery of the Wyllie family.
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.