Vintage diving helmets including copper & fibreglass helmets and associated equipment.

Leut Frederick Lowrie RAN

This year (2017) marks the 75th anniversary of RAN (navy) diving at HMAS Penguin. HMAS Penguin (II) (Balmoral) was commissioned on 14 July 1942. This post is about the first officer in charge of diving at HMAS Penguin.

Leut Lowrie

Leut Frederick Lowrie had served in the RN before emigrating to Australia and enlisting in the RAN. Lowrie’s first association with diving is in his report of 22/8/1932 – 19/6/1934 when he was denoted as Officer in charge of diving at HMAS Penguin (Garden Island). Prior to that he was fulfilling general officers duties and earlier, gunners duties. There is no record of him ever being trained as a diver but he did have a prior record of “training boys” and was highly regarded for his training abilities. Garden Island was then the site for diver training.
He remained in this position till an appointment briefly to HMAS Adelaide on 1st September 1939 and then to HMAS Kanimbla 30th October 1939.

German Ship Hohenfels

On 25th August 1941 HMAS Kanimbla attacked the Port of Bandar Shapur and seized the port and shipping. The crew of the German ship Hohenfels scuttled her by opening her sea cocks.
PO Humphries RAN was awarded the George Medal for ‘skill and courage of the highest degree’ during twelve extremely hazardous dives to enter the flooded engine room of the German prize ship Hohenfels to shut the bilge suction valves. He was without communications or a standby diver, and his descent included three long and two short ladders.
In September 1941, the Commanding Officer of HMS Kanimbla, Capt W. Adams, RN; wrote a report containing the following paragraph:
“Mention must also be made of Mr Frederick George Lowrie, Commissioned Gunner, Royal Australian Navy (Emergency List), who was in charge of all diving operations. By chance, although “KANIMBLA” is not allowed any diving equipment, he, who has for many years been diving instructor at Garden Island, Sydney, Australia, is one of her company. At the age of 59 years, this Officer was in charge of all diving operations in connection with “HOHENFELS” and his continued energy and cheerfulness in conditions of great responsibility, and long and irregular hours, was much appreciated by me in the temperatures prevailing. He is strongly recommended for promotion to Lieutenant.”

Attack by Japanese Midget Submarine

Harry Brutnall trained under Leut Lowrie at Garden Island. Harry was billeted on the HMAS Kuttabul when she was sunk by a Japanese midget submarine on the night of 31st May – 1st June 1942. Fortunately for Harry he stayed ashore that night. The next day he was diving on the Kuttabul to recover bodies and equipment under the supervision of Leut Lowrie.
In his unpublished manuscript, A Knockabout Sort of a Fellow, Mervin Lynam, says he was transferred to the diving boat as “pumping party”. The exact date is not specified but it is 1939 or later. He says the diving officer was an old dug out English Leutenant and they had 4 divers. The work was laying the boom net across Sydney.
Lynam claims diver Buggs a WWI veteran was sent down on the sub at Chowder Bay (Taylor’s Bay is on the same side of the harbour as Chowder Bay but a couple of bays further in). While Leut Lowrie is not mentioned by name it would appear that he was involved in this tragic but historic event.

Leut Lowrie Appointed to HMAS Penguin

In April 1943 he was appointed to HMAS Penguin in charge of diver training and as Port Officer (in charge of the Port of Sydney).

End of Career

Leut Lowrie was posted to HMAS Rushcutter on 11th Nov 1946 and demobilised 18th December 1946. He was promoted Lt Commander after his retirement on 1st January 1957.
He passed away on 8th November 1968.

The Oil Drum Diver

by Des Williams HDS Aus-Pac

During the 1930s, many young men were inspired by the deep sea exploring exploits hero of the time, William Beebe, who astounded the world with his descents in his bathysphere, to depths never reached by man until that time. Many home-made diving helmets were reported in the Australian press, a trend which actually extended around the world at the time, such was the excitement generated by William Beebe and his colleague Otis Barton.

The most vital safety fitting to include in any diving helmet, is an air non-return valve, which will prevent serious facial squeeze should the air supply line be compromised. I often wonder how many of the home-made helmets were fitted with such a safety feature. Just how many accidents occurred using such primitive equipment is unknown, as only the successful divers seem to have received any publicity.

HDS Aus-Pac member, Peter Taylor, has an interesting family relative, who joined that home-made diving helmet trend. Peter’s great-uncle Merv (aka “Bill”) worked for the Public Works Department and on at least three occasions he made news in the press with his diving escapades.

The idea of constructing a diving helmet came to Bill during bridge construction work on the Murray River, where valuable tools were often accidently dropped into the river and lost. The following press report from March 1934, details Bill’s first helmet constructed from a large confectionery tin!

“Mr Taylor, now engaged on repairing the Cobram Bridge, gave a practical demonstration of a simple diving helmet, which he made himself. It consists of a large “Mintie” (confectionery) tin which envelopes the head, cut to fit neatly on top of his shoulders; two lead weights, each weighing 20lbs, are suspended one in front and the other at the back of the helmet. These keep the helmet tight on his shoulders and also convey him to the bottom. A glass window is affixed in front and two valves from a motor tube are soldered in. To one is affixed a long length of tube, to which is attached a motor tyre pump and the other lets out the excess air and injurious gases. 

He casually walked into the river in ordinary clothes with a rope around his waist and explored the riverbed. He was underwater for eight minutes and said he could have stayed for an hour, but the water was too cold for a longer demonstration and he thought the fellows working the motor air pump might get tired.” 

During the next decade, Bill Taylor became the resident keeper of the Gellibrand Pile Light, a short distance offshore from Williamstown, in the port of Melbourne. This very large wooden pile light house, was a famous landmark until it burnt down in the 1970s. Bill lived on the lighthouse during the 1940s with his wife and two children, who commuted to school each day by boat. During his time on the light house, Bill constructed a more robust diving helmet and was back to his old tricks in the clear waters of Port Phillip, below the pilings of the light house.

The “Mintie” tin version of his helmet had been replaced by a small oil-drum version, with the same lead weight system back and front and a large rectangular window in front. Only a couple of poor quality images survive and are presented with this report. Bill’s diving attire consisted of a dark pair of dungarees, a dark woollen pull-over and the oil drum helmet. About 20M of air piping, fed by a small motor pump gave him a wide range. During each dive, Bill attached a thin rope around his waist, which allowed his wife to tender for him and read his signals from below. The rope also allowed him to pull himself up, off the bottom.

A reporter from the ‘Port of Melbourne Quarterly’ magazine described Bill’s underwater escapades in 1948 thus: “… in the helmet, he goes down 25 and 30ft (7-9M) below the surface of the Gellibrand Pile Light. He walks along the bottom as you or I would walk along the city streets. Sometimes he stays down for half an hour, or forty minutes.”

Using a small spear, Bill usually managed to get a feed of fish under the lighthouse and was able to return home to enjoy a fresh fish meal in his residence above.

Deane Diving Image

Helmet Diving in Australia – The Earliest Record

by Des Williams – HDS Aus-Pac

When was helmet diving first employed in Australia? This is a question we often get asked at the Historical Diving Society and one which we are now able to answer with some certainty, following our detailed historical research.

Dr. John Bevan, Chairman of HDS UK, has conducted thorough research into the development of helmet diving around the world, which began in the UK in the late 1820s. Brothers Charles and John Deane are credited with having developed the diving helmet, after adapting Charles’s fire-fighting smoke helmet, for underwater use. Initially, the helmet was used in an “open helmet” format with a canvas jacket attached to the helmet allowing air to bubble out around the hem of the jacket, at the diver’s chest level. It was not unlike diving in an inverted bucket! Several years passed before the “closed dress”, a one-piece waterproof canvas suit, was developed and secured to the lower edge of the helmet (corselet) to keep the diver totally dry.

Deane used his diving kit to complete some remarkable feats of salvage and contemporary Australian newspapers of the 1800s often reported on his successes overseas, especially during the 1830s. British newspapers syndicated their news to early Australian papers, so colonial Australian’s were well aware of Deane’s achievements and derring-do overseas.

In 1836, Charles Deane presented his “Submarine Exhibition” in London, featuring his diving apparatus and a display of some of the valuable relics he had recovered from wrecks around the British coast, mostly under contract to the Royal Navy. He also produced a small pamphlet for distribution at the exhibition, detailing his Patented diving apparatus, with the intention of generating world-wide sales of his equipment. It was a very successful exhibition.

In 2009, Dr. John Bevan attempted to put together a Timeline for the spread of the Deane apparatus around the world and in it Australia was listed as the 13th country to adopt the system. John is the first to admit that his Timeline stands open for correction and improvement as researchers around the world find documented proof of Deane’s apparatus being used and he enthusiastically welcomes correspondence from researchers in this regard.

So, it was with some surprise and much delight that this author came across a very nice reference to Mr. Deane’s helmet gear being imported to Sydney in 1837! Yes, this fact effectively moves Australia up to share 3rd position, along with the USA on John Bevan’s Deane Timeline.

It seems that Captain Fotheringham, a Sydney sea captain and business man, may have been one of the colonials to pay a visit to Deane’s 1836 London exhibition and place an order for the apparatus to compliment his growing dockyard and slipway facility in Cockle Bay Sydney. The following two contemporary newspaper references should give a clear picture of what was going on in bustling colonial Sydney Town at in the 1830s.

From The Sydney Herald (1831-1842) 27th May 1833 page 3

“Captain Fotheringhame’s (sic) patent slip in Cockle Bay is now completed, and it is said that at eleven o’clock this morning, the barque Tamar will be hauled upon it, to show its efficacy. On which occasion, His Excellency has intimated his intention of being present to witness the experiment.”

And from The Sydney Morning Herald Monday 31st July 1837 page 2

“Captain Fotheringham has imported by the Achilles a diving apparatus of the same description as that in which the Patentee (Mr Dean) remained under water for five hours and forty minutes and recovered from the wrecks of the Royal George the Mary Rose (the latter sunk in 1544) and other vessels, property to a considerable amount.”

And just one month later, in August 1837, we find this fascinating article which provides the earliest documented confirmation so far, of the use of a helmet diving system in Australia.

From The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW 1803-1842) on Saturday 19 August 1837:

”On Thursday afternoon we went on board the Giraffe to see Capt. Fotheringham’s diving apparatus, and Capt. Barneys diver, named Gilchrist, descend in eight fathom water to search for the box containing five hundred pounds in silver, which had accidentally been dropped overboard a few days since, The apparatus consists of a large tin helmet which completely covers the head, and is secured to the diver by a canvas jacket tied round the waist. There are three bull’s eyes for the admission of light; to the back of the helmet is affixed a long tube of about twenty fathoms length, which is connected with the air pump. The air pump is worked by two men in the ship’s long boat moored directly over the spot where the treasure was presumed to be. The diver having clothed himself in flannel stockings, drawers and jacket, jumped into an india rubber dress made for the occasion, which is water-tight and having tied two 5lbs. weights to his body for the purpose of sinking him, descended to the bottom by means of a ladder, the men all the time keeping the pump going which supplied him with the “breath of life” sufficient for his purpose. He remained underwater just twenty-five minutes, without being able to find the treasure. When he came up from below he said he did not feel exhausted, but was shivering with cold. He expressed a wish to be lowered down on the other side of the vessel, which was accordingly done, he being secured and after a laborious search of upwards of half an hour he succeeded in finding the box, a rope was fastened to it and it was hauled up to the great satisfaction of all parties concerned. The diver, we hope, will not be forgotten.”

This is almost certainly the earliest reference to helmet diving in Australia, until further research reveals otherwise. It was just eight years after the Deane’s had first tested their new diving apparatus in England, so even back in the 1830s, news travelled fast enough for progressive businessmen like Captain Fotheringham to avail themselves of the very latest technology.

And John Bevan ……. he is delighted with the news and the opportunity to update his Deane Timeline. HDS UK and HDS Aus-Pac have always had a strong co-operative link and friendship.

Image: Charles Deane diving in the early 1830s. Note the waistcoated ‘open helmet’ attachment. Image from “Submarine Researches” by C. A Deane 1836 – from the facsimile copy produced by HDS UK.

 

Diver in Robison helmet Portland Rally 2017

NAUI Standard Dress Course & Rally 10 – 12 June 2017

The 2017 NAUI Standard Dress Course and Rally sets record number of participants

Sixteen students took the course with almost all of them successfully completing it.  Due to a couple of problems one student will return next year to finish the course.

Meanwhile the rally was attended by approximately 30 divers.  That’s a record number and with the large student contingent the number of attendees was the largest ever.

A big thank you to Frank Zeigler of Professional Diving Services (PDS) for hosting us again.  Thanks to all his staff that helped, especially Leslie Zelenc who was in charge of all the pre event organisation.  A big thanks to Steve Taylor who ran the class work again and some of the diving training.   Of course we couldn’t do it without our safety divers who spend a long time in the cold water (it’s the middle of winter in Australia for those overseas).

A highlight of the weekend was getting 2 Robison helmets back in the water.  The Robison is the only mass produced, Australian made helmet.  They were only made during World War II and the numbers were fairly small.  Leon Lyons was told only 75 were made.  HDS Aus-Pac’s highest recorded number is in the high 40’s.  Based on the Heinke Pearler they were not popular with the navy and other government organisations who ordered some of them.  While it’s not known how long since one of them was dived it would be a significant time and great to see 2 in the water.

Picture: Diver in Robison helmet exiting the water after a successful dive.

Helmet Diving Video

Max Gleeson, author of several excellent books on NSW shipwrecks, and the Yongala, and cinematographer, has kindly made available online a video of the NAUI Helmet Diving Course held in Portland, Victoria. 

Diver Adverts

As mentioned in previous issues of our magazine, we are running free classified ads for members in “Classic Diver” magazine.

If you would like to advertise your interests, equipment you are looking for, books you have for sale or exchange, gear you have for sale – anything related to diving history please email a short description directly to our Editor, Jeff Maynard at jkmaynard@bigpond.com

Make sure you include your name and email (along with address or phone number if you want).