1860 – Another Whitstable Trade

This article, by John Hollingsworth, appeared in many books and journals in the 1860’s to 1870’s. Hollingsworth worked for while with Charles Dickens and might also be credited with the article, commonly associated with Dickens, about the Whitstable Oyster dredgers in 1850.


If it had not fallen to the lot of Whitstable to be celebrated for its oysters and its company of free dredgers, it might have claimed a word of notice for producing that rarest of all workmen, the sea diver. As the oyster exerts such an obvious influence upon Whitstable men and lives at the bottom of the sea it would almost seem as if this stationary shell fish were the father of this other Whitstable trade.

The Whitstable divers may be from thirty to fifty in number, strong stout healthy temperate men who look like able bodied sailors. Though not incorporated as a joint stock company and protected by a charter like their friends and neighbours the Free Dredgers, they form themselves by a kind of Whitstable instinct into a working brotherhood under the presidency and guidance of a captain, Mr Green. Mr Green is not a diver himself and has never been under water either in the helmet or the bell, but he directs the labour of those within his command, purchases their chances for a certain fixed payment before they dive and acts generally like that very useful but often times much abused capitalist without whom so few trades can be successfully carried on.

In stormy seasons when the wreck of some heavily laden homeward bound vessel is an everyday occurrence round our fatal coast, the rooms at the King’s Head Inn in Whitstable, the house of call for divers, are very thinly attended and the men with their boats and apparatus are hurried off in all directions to profitable work Mr Green is then in the hourly receipt of telegrams from Lloyd’s or from private owners requesting him to send four divers to Moelfre and four more to the Goodwin Sands. If a vessel tilts over as it did the other day in the Victoria Docks Mr Green is communicated with to furnish help and his divers are sometimes sent for from the West Indies and distant unknown seas.

These men go down to work in the diving dress until they are sixty or seventy years of age. The dress consists of a waterproof body suit to keep them dry and warm, very heavily weighted boots to keep them steady and on their legs and the well known helmet with the glass eye windows which is furnished with air pumped from the boat above down an elastic tube. So hideous does this dress appear to animals as well as to human beings that every kind of fish flies from it in dismay. In going down in the West Indian waters where sharks are painfully plentiful the Whitstable diver found his unsightly armour a sufficient protection and his large toothed enemies darting away from him without offering the slightest attack.

The depths that the Whitstable diver has most frequently to go to are ten to fifteen fathoms or sixty to ninety feet He sometimes ventures to eighteen fathoms, one hundred and eight feet, but seldom goes beyond as the weight of water above his head impedes his movements and the longer his air tube is paid out the more difficult it becomes to supply him with sufficient air. The sharp pain in the ears as if a couple of quills had been thrust into them is nearly always felt by the diver during the first three or four fathoms of his descent though it goes off some little time before he reaches the deck of the sunken ship. This pain is caused by the condensed air in the helmet and the sensation is precisely similar when the diving is performed in a bell.

When the vessel has settled down in a eandy bottom it is preserved for many months from breaking up and its position may be much the same as it would be when floating in calm water if it be not tilted over by any under current drifts. The light of course depends a good deal upon the depth and upon the nature of the bottom but where there is no chalk to give a milky thickness to the water the diver pursues his work in a kind of gloomy twilight. By the aid of this he can see and feel his way round the ship but when he ascends to the deck and winds down into the principal cabins he finds everything pitch dark and has nothing to guide him but his hands. This is the most difficult and yet the most frequent labour he has to encounter the danger being that in a large vessel where the cabin stairs are deep and the cabins are long and broad he may get his air tube twisted round some unfamiliar projection and so squeeze off his supply of life from above. In positions such as this he requires all his nerve and self possession all his power of feeling his way back in the exact road that he came.

He may have got the precious casket to which he has been directed in his arms but what of that if he die before he can find the stairs? The cold helpless masses that bump against his helmet as they float along the low roof over his head are the decomposed corpses of those who were huddled together in the cabin when the ship went down. A few of these may be on the floor under his feet but only when pinned down by an overturned table or a fallen chest. Their tendency is upward, ever upward, and the remorseless sea washes away the dead infant from its dead mother’s arms, the dead wife from her dead husband’s embrace. If the wreck be in the Channel the small crabs are already beginning to fatten on their prey.

The diver disentangles himself from this silent crowd and ascends the welcome stairs to the deck. The treasure he has rescued is hauled up into the attendant diving boat and he turns again to renew his work. He seldom meets with an accident under water, never perhaps with death, and the chief risk he runs is from getting some heavy piece of ship lumber overturned on his long train of air pipe. Even in this case he feels the sudden check and the want of air, gropes his way back to the obstruction, removes it signals to his companions to be raised and reaches the boat exhausted and alarmed but not so much so as to give up his place in the trade. His earnings mostly take the form of shares in what he recovers. If fortunate his gains may be large, if unfortunate they may be small, but no man can grudge him the highest prizes it is possible for him to win.

May Whitstable always have the honour of producing such bold and dexterous men as plentifully as she has hitherto done and may they have the wisdom to keep what they get.