by Roger Meecham
Images Pete Mesley
During the summer of 1842 an incident occurred at Spithead that was to be the first and possibly the only recorded occasion when two friendly, but rival divers began fighting underwater. At Spithead that summer Major General Pasley had 24 men of the Royal Sappers and Miners and 10 men from the East India Company of Sappers, employed in the removal of the wreck of the King’s ship,
which was considered a hazard to navigation. Six years before this incident the now famous Augustus Siebe had perfected the standard divers dress, comprising a rubberised canvas suit, copper helmet and lead soled boots. The helmet was supplied with air by a strong force pump which was hand operated by two men on the surface.
The men under Major General Pasley were using the Siebe helmet and suit and working at a depth of 98 feet (29.8m). The Sappers working on the wreck were very keen and although there was no financial reward for bringing up more wreck than anyone else, there was a great sense of pride about being the best diver. This somewhat misplaced sense of pride led to much rivalry amongst the divers which, in time, became dangerous.
Men would push themselves to the limits of endurance and come to the surface absolutely exhausted in order to bring up just a little bit more wreckage than anyone else. They also risked getting the bends, but because no one knew what caused the bends in those far off days, ignorance it seems, was bliss. The most expert and successful of the divers was a certain Lance Corporal Peter Jones, who daily risked his life to burrow deep into the mud to recover tons of pig-iron ballast weights which were considered real treasure. Another of the top divers was Private Girvan who tried hard to beat Corporal Jones’s output of wreckage recovered from the wreck. A very unhealthy rivalry developed between the two top divers and in time their intense competition became more perilous than the diving.
One day both Corporal Jones and Private Girvan were on the wreck together and at the same moment grabbed opposite ends of the same beam. Both insisted on claiming the beam as their own and here was a certain amount of pulling and tugging until both divers came together and began to fight. It must have been the most ungainly of fights as the two heavily clad adversaries attempted to slog it out on the sea bed. Punches were ineffectual as most of the vulnerable parts of each diver’s body were covered in copper, brass or lead and the resistance of the water reduced the power of every punch.
They swirled around, becoming entangled in each other’s lines and stirring up the mud. In the confusion, Private Girvan fell onto the sea floor and Corporal Jones couldn’t stop himself from aiming a kick, with his lead-soled boot, at Girvan’s helmet, cracking the face glass. Water began to squirt into the unfortunate diver’s helmet, which quickly brought both divers to their senses and made them realise what a dangerous game they were playing. Their air hoses and breast ropes were hopelessly entangled so Jones did the only thing that he could think of; he gave the signal on both breast ropes to haul both divers to the surface. Girvan was brought to the surface nearly drowned and the story of their underwater fight came out.
There were both hauled before Major General Pasley who was furious at their stupidity and berated them mercilessly. It seems that number two diver, Girvan, took most of the blame and one version of the story tells how the Major General dismissed him from the company in disgrace. However, another version of the story tells how Jones and Girvan, after realising how stupid they had been, became life-long friends and thereafter dived together and assisted each other under the water.
Knowing what I know about divers I like to think the second version is the true one.