With a rich maritime history, the Solent is synonymous with the evolution of deep sea diving.
Portsmouth and the surrounding area has been home to many firsts in the development of both sport and commercial diving.
As such, it seems only fitting the UK’s first museum dedicated to the endeavour should take up residence in the area.
The Diving Museum, at Number Two Battery, Stokes Bay Road, in Gosport, was established nine years ago and is run by a band of 20 dedicated volunteers.
It is home to more than 7,000 items spanning the entire history of the sport – from the first free divers searching for corals and crustaceans, to the most recent sophisticated equipment used in commercial diving.
Museum curatorAnn Bevan says: ‘The world’s first ever diving helmet, invented by John Dean, was used in 1829 to dive on a wreck off the Isle of Wight to remove copper.
‘Over the next two years John and his brother Charles carried out commercial dives on the wreck of HMS Royal George at Spithead. They removed artefacts, including the cannon which is now on display at Southsea Castle.’
Charged with the task of clearing Portsmouth Harbour of its shipwreck graveyard, John moved to Mumby Road in Gosport.
Museum director Kevin Casey, himself a commercial diver during 40 years in the oil industry, adds: ‘HMS Boyne was causing a hazardous blockage in the Solent and John was sent down to blow it up. In 1836 he discovered the Mary Rose and carried out the first dive on the wreck where he salvaged timbers, guns, longbows and cannons – some of which are now on display in the Mary Rose Museum.’
After the success of John’s dives, Portsmouth was chosen as the location for the first naval diving school which was established in 1844 on HMS Excellent.
The city remained at the forefront of pushing the barriers of diving and developing the science to enable divers to plunge deeper than ever before.
While some of the dives were carried out in the ocean, many took place in the Portsmouth-based Royal Navy Physiological Laboratory. Compression chambers replicated the conditions of parts of the ocean never previously reached. This led to the development of mixed gas diving, including the development of the world’s first helium unscrambler.
In 1970 Ann’s husband, John Bevan, was involved in one of these dives to a then-record breaking depth of 1,500 feet. Currently in poor health, it was John who first came up with the idea of a diving museum.
‘Over the years John realised that a lot of significant diving equipment was simply going to the scrapyard and he wanted to do something about it,’ recalls Ann.
‘He was a member of the Historical Diving Society and initially we were allocated a small section at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum.
‘However, after new management took over they decided they no longer wanted the diving artefacts as part of the museum.’
It was then that John met Kevin and plans were put in place to establish a new museum dedicated to diving.
Ann says: ‘We have one of the stone weights used by early Greek divers who would collect coral and dye-producing snails, all the way through to modern atmosphere dive suits which are used to dive the deepest parts of the ocean.’
One of the most eye-catching exhibits is the Lethbridge Barrel – billed as the world’s first diving machine. Invented in 1715 by wool merchant John Lethbridge, he claimed it allowed him to dive to depths of 22 metres.
‘He would use 500 pounds of lead to get to the bottom where he would then use his arms to crawl along the sea bed to salvage any goods of value. He would return to the surface every 30 minutes where plugs would be removed to release the foul air and allow fresh air in,’ explains Kevin.
Other items on display include underwater camera equipment, artefacts from local wrecks, experimental diving contact lenses and breathing apparatus including re-breathers which were used in military reconnaissance as they don’t release bubbles which can allow detection.
The museum incorporates a number of thematic displays, including the history of women in diving and the military role of divers during D-Day.
‘We have some of the world’s oldest diving suits, including helmets and boots, which visitors can try on,’ explains Ann.
Kevin adds: ‘Outside we also have decompression chambers, underwater vehicles and one of the diving bells which used to transport me down to 185 metres.’
The museum has diversified to include a ghost hunt, talks, quiz and an annual dive-themed production.
Volunteer Margaret Marks says: ‘There is fantastic diving in the Solent, particularly the wreck dives which includes many artefacts from D-Day. There’s still lots of marine life to explore including conger eels, lobsters, shoals of fish and dead men’s fingers.’
There has been a lot made about it being half a century since man landed on the moon, yet in may ways we know as much about the lunar landscape as the deepest parts of the oceans which make up 71 per cent of the earth’s surface.
Whether a diver or someone who prefers to keep their feet dry, the Diving Museum offers a tantalising glimpse into exploring one of our final frontiers.
The museum is open every weekend from April until October. Tickets are £4 adults and £12 for families.
What does the future hold for The Diving Museum?
Volunteers aim to make the museum the national museum for diving – but they need £1.8m to do it.
‘We’ve applied to the National Lottery and National Heritage who have pledged to support us with £450,000. We have also had a financial commitment from commercial diving companies,’ explains Kevin Casey. There would be sections dedicated to different aspects of diving including military, wreck, sports and commercial. Improving the interactivity of the visitor experience, particularly for children, is also important.
The Daily Telegraph placed the museum in the top six, out of 200 museums nationally, for being a child-friendly museum.
There will also be a section on the history of the building which was used as a nuclear bunker during the Cold War.