Another Whitstable Trade

This is the title of an article that Charles Dickens penned in 1860. It begins, “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.”

Dickens, who had reputedly stayed at the King’s Head pub in Island Wall and conversed in depth with the divers, went on to describe the work they carried out, some of it in gruesome detail.

In subsequent research I was often referred to a local story about brothers Charles and John Deane visiting a farm in Seasalter when the barn, housing horses, caught alight. A fire engine arrived, but the firemen could not get through the smoke. Charles, wearing a fireman’s helmet on his head and with a pipe from the now empty water-pump feeding air into it, was able to get through the smoke and free the horses.

A tale from the past that might have some basis, but it is a fact that in 1823 Charles Deane patented a smoke helmet and air pump for firemen. He and his brother tried to sell this to the Insurance companies that owned most of the country’s fire engines, but with little success.

The Deane’s worked with locals who were involved in salvaging using a diving bell and became convinced that this helmet with a suit could be developed for use under water. They spent much of 1827 and 1828 on the suit until they had a successful prototype ready in 1829.

Gradually, together with help from local seamen, the Deane’s developed new salvaging techniques and made a name for themselves in successful salvage operations.

Their big break came in 1834. The Deane’s and their team discovered and salvaged the Enterprise, a slave ship that had foundered near Copeland Island off Ireland in 1803 with £200,000 of silver dollars, the proceeds from the sale of slaves in America. With their share of the £24,000 they recovered, John Deane bought his first boat, John Gann built Copeland Cottages, now Dollar Row, in Island Wall, Thomas Gann built Copeland House at the end of the row and William Wood built the Diver’s Arms in Herne Bay. Later John merged two of the cottages to form the King’s Head pub which became the diver’s meeting place. The stores for the divers equipment is the house now known as Stag Cottage, in Sea Wall.

In 1836, whilst salvaging the Royal George off Portsmouth, John Deane and his new partner William Edwards, heard of an unknown shipwreck close by. John investigated and discovered the Mary Rose, which had sunk in 1545. He salvaged many guns, an anchor, a 15-foot section of the main mast and some skulls during the time he continued with this operation, but as much of the ship was under the sea-bed it was eventually left to become lost once again.

By this time the Whitstable divers were renowned the world over and for the next 90 years whenever there was a shipwreck the Whitstable divers were called for, including by the Navy during the Crimean War.

Many of these facts were passed to me by Dr. John Bevan, the chairman of the Historic Diving Society, when I first met him at their display during Harbour Day 2004. At that time he was researching for his book about the history of the diving industry.

I met John Bevan again in November 2009 at Whitstable Museum when the 436 paged book was launched, now the definitive history of the industry. He had given it the only title he could; Another Whitstable Trade.