by Cormac F Lowth
From early in the nineteenth century until the present time, the image of a copper and brass diver’s helmet or hard-hat has been an easily recognisable icon which most people could associate with what has always been referred to as “deep-sea diving”. In the present era when most diving has become synonymous with neoprene-clad figures wearing fins, masks and air cylinders, the image of the helmeted diver still remains a strong evocation of a bygone era of underwater exploration and wondrous adventures beneath the waves in the days before the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus or SCUBA was invented. The reality was somewhat different. The life of the hard-hat diver was largely devoid of the romanticism which has now become associated with that part of man’s exploration of the deep.
The work of a hard-hat diver wearing what was known as Standard Dress, i.e. a copper helmet and a rubberised canvas suit with weighted boots and air pumped laboriously down from the surface through rubber tubes from a hand pump, was fraught with hardship and danger. Divers laboured in mostly murky waters at a variety of tasks that included salvaging sunken ships and recovering lost cargoes. Divers also worked at building piers, sponge fishing and pearl diving, and in the early days when the theory of decompression was not fully understood or tabulated, the risk of the dreaded bends was ever present. From the earliest days of its development, the diving helmet and apparatus quickly attained a form and usage which remained practically unchanged, and was being manufactured until quite recently by the same firm in Britain which had pioneered its development more than a century and a half earlier, Siebe Gorman & Co. It is a testament to the simplicity and effectiveness of the hard-hat equipment that it remained in use for so long. The author remembers seeing this sort of diving equipment in use in many parts of the world, the most recent being about 1969 in the London Docks when a huge bale of raw rubber fell out of a cargo sling and bounced into the water from whence it was recovered by a diver. The name and activities of the company persisted throughout many takeovers and mergers until it was finally dropped following absorption into an engineering conglomerate a few years ago. Siebe Gorman remained at the forefront of the manufacture and development of, not only standard diving equipment but also a huge array of ancillary diving and breathing apparatus throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is significant that practically all of the gas-masks worn by British forces and civilians during two World wars were manufactured by Siebe Gorman.
There were many interesting characters, some of whom had Irish connections, associated with the Company over the years. The founder of the firm, Augustus Siebe, was born in Saxony 1788. He was serving as an artillery officer in the Prussian army during the war against Napoleon’s armies when he was wounded at the Battle of Leipzig. Following the defeat of Napoleon, Siebe moved to Denmark where he worked as a watchmaker and later as an engineer before he emigrated to England in 1816. By 1830, when he first began his connection with diving equipment, he had a thriving engineering business of his own in London with a string of successful inventions and patents to his credit. For many years it had popularly been assumed that Augustus Siebe had invented and patented the diving helmet and dress, however, derailed research by John Bevan or the Historical Diving Society has revealed that the Deane Brothers, John and Charles, first asked Siebe to manufacture a copper diving helmet and pump. This helmet was of the open variety, i.e. water entered the helmet but was kept below the wearer’s head by the air pressure. Despite its limitations, this was used with great success by the Deanes, who accomplished great feats in salvaging and underwater demolition. (John Bevan has written a definitive account of the Deanes and their diving in his book The Infernal Diver). The patent for the Deane’s helmet and pump had been sold to Edward Barnard, a shipbuilder from Deptford, and Siebe continued to produce the helmets under license. An engineer of Lowestoft Harbour, George Edwards, had purchased one of the sets of diving equipment in 1839 and, realising its limitations, he devised water-tight seals between the helmet and the suit and on the limbs. He eventually gave the idea to Siebe who soon began to produce his own version, thereby setting in motion a product that was to gain world-wide recognition.
Prior to these developments the ability of man to go below the surface and work underwater was severely limited to a number of cumbersome “diving machines” and diving bells. Early diving bells were merely weighted and inverted bucket-shaped objects which, when lowered down, trapped air and allowed the man inside to breathe while reaching out or occasionally venturing outside to attach ropes to sunken objects. Notwithstanding the limitations of such devices, there were some fantastic feats of salvage performed, notably me recovery by Albrecht Von Treileben in 1665 of most of the guns, fifty-three of sixty-four, from me Swedish ship VASA which sank in Stockholm Harbour in 1660. This was an extraordinary achievement considering the depth, the temperature and the muddy conditions in Stockholm Harbour. Various “engines” or barrel-shaped contraptions, into which the divers were bolted with their arms protruding, were used, with a moderate degree of success, for recovering of guns and sunken treasure. While there were undoubtedly other helmet systems used underwater throughout history, the Siebe closed-dress system caused an unprecedented expansion of underwater work on a world-wide basis when it was successfully marketed.
The Deane brothers had been diving since August 1832 on the wreck of the Royal Navy warship ROYAL GEORGE, which sank at her anchorage at Spithead in Portsmouth in 1782. The warship was huge and was causing a severe obstruction to the naval anchorage. The Deanes had undertaken to disperse the wreck and progress was painfully slow, even with their new diving equipment. It was during this operation, while attempting to clear nets from another obstruction for some fishermen, that the wreck of the MARY ROSE was first discovered. Many artefacts, including guns, were recovered, which were illustrated in a coloured brochure and offered for sale as antiquities. A ready market for anything which had been associated with King Henry VIII was found among the gentry and nobility of the day. While the Deanes continued to use their Open-Dress, work on the dispersal of the ROYAL GEORGE was not proceeding quickly enough to satisfy the Admiralty and the job was finished by army personnel under Colonel Charles Pasley who, having tried out most available equipment, favoured the Siebe dress above all others. It was eventually adopted by the Royal Navy and other Navies around the world but quickly found favour with civilian divers for salvage and underwater construction.
Augustus Siebe applied for, and was granted, British citizenship after forty-six years and with a hugely successful manufacturing business expanding year by year; he retired due to ill health in 1868. Two of his sons, William and Frederick, had by now died and he transferred the business jointly to his surviving son Henry, and his son-in-law, who was to lend his name to the business, William Augustus Gorman, Siebe’s other son, Daniel, died in 1874. Gorman was born in Limerick in 1834 and was the son of a sailing ship captain. He was originally O’Gorman but at some stage had dropped the ‘0’. He had married Siebe’s daughter, Mary, and had shown great flair for administration when he joined the firm, which now became known as Siebe and Gorman. New premises were acquired at Lamberth and Augustus Siebe continued to live in the house at Denmark Street which had also housed the original factory workshops. He died on April 15th 1872 at age 84. He was buried in West Norwood cemetery and his grave was marked by a fine inscribed marble memorial topped with an ornamental urn. This unfortunately was swept away and destroyed by the cemetery authorities during a landscaping programme and no trace of the original remains. However, the Historical Diving Society has recently made a collection of subscriptions and a new memorial has been erected.
According to the 1871 census, William Gorman lived at 2 King Henry’s Road and is listed as a ‘Submarine Engineer’. His wife, Mary, died in August 1875 and he married Jane, the widow of his brother-inlaw, Daniel Siebe. In 1882, an eleven-yearold boy, Robert Henry Davis, was taken into employment as a factory boy. Eightytwo years later, in June 1964, as Sir Robert, he came into work for the last time and then retired, having become manager, managing director, and finally, owner and life president of the Company. William Gorman had taken a liking to young Robert when he had returned from an errand on his behalf and had shown unusual initiative and literacy in obtaining a suitable substitute for the material required. He was the eldest of ten children whose father was, variously an ostler, in the Royal Navy, and a police constable. His mother was Ellen Bohannon, (1848- 1936) from Dublin. Robert was taken into the office initially and later was a laboratory assistant to Henry Fleuss who developed the Oxygen rebreather for the Company. Henry Siebe died in 1887 and William Gorman assumed full control of the business. Gorman clearly recognised the ability of Robert Davis and very quickly gave him managerial status. He became General Manager at age 24. Williams second wife died in 1886 and he did not re-marry. There are many stories of his being a man-about-town who enjoyed the good life.
In 1900, Robert Davis married an Irishwoman, Margeret Tyrrell of Grangeclare, Counry Kildare and his first child, born in 1901, was christened Gorman Davis with William Gorman acting as godfather. William Gorman presented Robert and his bride with the keys of a house as a wedding present but it did not become their property fully until William died in 1904 when it was bequeathed to them in his will. Contrary to all expectations, Robert did not receive any legacy of shares in the Company when Gorman died and the executors sold the Company to Vickers, the giant armament firm who were embarking on a programme of submarine building, and who naturally regarded the acquisition of a firm of diving engineers as a useful adjunct. Robert Davis was, however, retained as managing director of the firm and as such he was to guide the fortunes of the company for many ensuing decades.
Davis shrewdly applied for patents in his own name for a great many of the products which were subsequently to be developed by Siebe Gorman and Co. In the years prior to the First World War, cooperation began with the Royal Navy who were beginning an intensive series of experiments in deep diving in which some of the great names of diving research were involved, such as Professor John Scott Haldane and Lieutenant Commander Guybon Damant. These researches resulted eventually in the publication of the Royal Navy decompression tables. The war brought a huge upsurge in production, particularly with that of gas masks. In the following years, between the wars, Davis ploughed all of the profits of the Company back into development and after gaining full control in 1924, moved the firm to a new factory in Surrey. He developed the Davis Submarine Escape Apparatus following several disasters involving submarines. One of the most important developments of this period was the Davis Submerged Decompression Chamber which allowed deep divers to decompress in air. An offshoot of this invention included a small lock-out bell which anticipated modern saturation diving by many years. A great deal of safety equipment for mining and tunnelling was produced throughout the years. In 1932 Robert Davis received a knighthood from King George V.
Siebe Gorman maintained a team of contract divers who were deployed to all corners of the world on underwater building and salvage projects. One of the most notable of these divers was William Walker who laboured in zero visibility for many years as he rebuilt the foundations of Winchester Cathedral. This had been constructed on a marsh and was literally falling down. The holes for the new foundations became immediately inundated upon excavation and Walker excavated through the peat down to the bedrock.
The Second World War brought another surge of creative production with the demand for oxygen breathing equipment for aircraft and midget submarines. There was again a period of close cooperation with the Royal Navy for experimentation with new equipment and practises. Unfortunately, the old works at Lambeth were destroyed by a German bomb during the blitz and most of the archives of the firm were lost. In the austere years following the war much of the innovative impetus of previous decades was lost possibly due to lack of investment but probably due, to some extent, to outmoded production management as Sir Robert stubbornly maintained his grip on the Company despite various takeovers . Technological advances were not capitalised on, one typical example being the dropping of early remote underwater television experiments which delayed the development of ROVs by many years. Most remarkably, Siebe Gorman passed up the chance to gain sole manufacturing right to the CousteauGagnan Aqualung. The future leisure market potential for the apparatus was not recognised although it was eventually manufactured by them under license several years later in competition with many other firms worldwide.
Robert Davis continued working until May, 1964, just before his 94th birthday, when he decided one morning not to go in to the office. His 82 years with the firm must represent some sort of record. He had seen a great many technological changes throughout his long life and had been responsible for some of them. Robert Davis died on March 29th 1965 at his home in Epsom. Fortunately Davis was a prolific author who published details of virtually every aspect of Siebe Gorman’s production. His book Deep Diving and Submarine Operations was published in many editions, the most recent being a facsimile limited edition of 1500 in two volumes, published by Siebe Gorman and Company Ltd. in 1995 as a boxed set. This marvellous work is a veritable bible of diving from earliest times. There are accounts of every conceivable type of diving apparatus throughout history, including all of the products of Siebe Gorman with some wonderful illustrations, and there is a fund of stories about salvage operations and underwater exploration.
Hard-hat diving equipment is now much sought after by collectors and is greatly cared for and cherished. What diver today would not like a Siebe Gorman diver’s knife in its brass scabbard? Prices have increased enormously in recent years with, typically, one helmet fetching over eight thousand pounds at an auction. A small band of diving enthusiasts still maintain and use such equipment whenever possible at rallies held by the Historical Diving Society, who publish the excellent Historical Diving Times and are always looking for new members. There is an excellent web-site at www.thehds.com and the e-mail address is email@example.com
- The Infernal Diver, Dr John Bevan.
- Deep Diving and Submarine Operations, Robert H. Davis.
- Man Explores the Sea, James Dugan.
- Historical Diving Times, H.D.S.
- The Conquest Of The Sea, Henry Siebe.