Swildon’s Hole in1934. L-R: Jack Sheppard, “Jumbo” Baker, Graham Balcombe, Charles “Digger” Harris, B. Offer, P. Brown, Bill Tucknott. Photo: Frank Frost.
Cave diving in the United Kingdom did not originate or develop in isolation from caving. Cavers learnt to dive; cave divers did not become cavers. It was regarded simply as another technique to further cave exploration. Just as a ladder or rope is used to overcome a vertical drop, so diving equipment was used to overcome a flooded passage.
Being underground and underwater doubled the skills to be mastered by the pioneers, so with the additional problem of equipment that was in its infancy, the dangers confronting the first cave divers were incalculable. No manuals were available to educate the uninitiated and no organised cave rescue teams existed at the time should anything go wrong. Those participating were on their own.
The early history of cave diving reveals the independent outlook needed by those involved. By modern standards their progress was slow but sure. In the 1930s and 1940s it took many years merely to explore and pass the sump between Chambers 3 and 9 in Wookey Hole, now a regular training dive. The equipment was in its infancy and the fears and mental obstacles that existed were far different from what they are today. Any step forward in those days measured up to any advance achieved today. In France, the Fontaine de Vaucluse was reconnoitred by a diver on an air line to –23m in 1878, in 1893 a Swiss diver with equipment made a 15m penetration in a cave, and in 1894 a diver with equipment valiantly tried to assist in the rescue of a trapped caver also in Switzerland. Norbert Casteret made his now celebrated free-dive through a sump in Montespan in 1922. But the moment cave diving was really conceived came when cavers carried a respirator underground and succeeded in breathing underwater to explore a virgin sump.
Swildon’s Hole, a cave in the Mendip Hills of Somerset, England is one of the world’s cradles for cave diving as well as the Birthing Pool of the Cave Diving Group. Its exploration, which began in the early years of the 20th century, terminated at a pool of water, variously termed a Syphon, Trap or Sump. Cavers in many countries have tried to pass these barriers in a variety of ways; using the simple “free dive” with a lungful of air or by utilising the available diving technology of the day. Two Post Office engineers, F.G. Balcombe and J.A. Sheppard who were among the leading climbers and cavers of their era, combined their energies into solving the problem of passing the Swildon’s sump. Their pioneering dive on the 17th February, 1934 used a home-made respirator, designed by F.G.B, that incorporated part of a ladies bicycle frame. The attempt was unsuccessful but the foundation of Cave Diving in the U.K. had been laid.
The team returned to Swildon’s Hole on the 4th October, 1936 with Jack Sheppard’s newly designed apparatus (nicknamed “Jimmy”. It was base fed by a football inflation pump that was coupled to a home-made dry-suit that incorporated lighting and a telephone. This was used by J.A.S. to pass sump l. Later that year the bicycle respirator became self-contained with the addition of an oxygen cylinder. In turn F.G.B.dived solo through sump 1 and found the air chambers of Sump 2. These pioneers established the pattern of U.K. cave diving; the systematic exploration of a cave system in its phreas by diving both the resurgence and its tributaries.
Penelope “Mossy” Powell & Graham Balcombe at Wookey Hole in 1935.
After the Swildon’s dive in 1934, Balcombe approached the long established diving company Seibe Gorman for assistance. This firm was in the forefront of designing and building respirators for use in mines with bad air, in flooded tunnels and at sea for submariners in particular. Sir Robert Henry Davis, who started work for Seibe Gorman in 1882 and had been its managing director since 1904, responded favourably. Jack Sheppard visited him and, grateful for any equipment to further cave diving, accepted Sir Robert’s generous offer of standard helmets and diving dress fed by air lines from hand pumps. Sir Robert also agreed to provide an experienced diver to train those wanting to learn, and the pools at Priddy Mineries were chosen as “base camp”.
The sheer bulk of all the helmet diving gear forced the pioneers to focus attention on the roomy and easily accessible Wookey Hole Caves throughout 1935. It was an accident that resulted in a success story. The excitement and rewards of that summer are best gleaned from The Log of the Wookey Hole Expedition, 1935, by The Divers. This now classic book of cave diving history was written and produced largely by Graham Balcombe during the following months. From a diving base in the Third Chamber his team progressed beyond the already known Fourth Chamber and entered new Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Chambers. Being restrained by base-fed air lines and weighted for bottom walking, they were restricted and unable to travel more than 61m. But the way on was tantalisingly wide open; cave diving had a promising future.
Wookey Hole Caves are thus regarded as the birthplace of cave diving. In the years following the Second World War, the River Axe became the cradle of the Cave Diving Group. The 1935 expedition and the nature of Wookey Hole’s commodious sumps set the standards for years to come – safe-water training, kit testing, meticulous log keeping, good lighting, line laying, navigating, surveying, and the accurate recording of every dive became rules. Porters (or sherpas), dressers, photographers and a controller were needed. Bottom walking ruled, for the need to swim, let alone the opportunity, had simply not arisen.
Another aspect of the early days at Wookey Hole that considerably influenced later cave diving was the need to fit in with the owner’s requirements since the cave was, after all, a major tourist attraction. In fair return, the cave owner expected full media coverage of any discoveries. Some cave divers learned to perfect the art of publicity themselves and it is fundamental to the larger expeditions of today. But the preferred outlook that still appeals to many cave explorers is the unsung pushing of a streamway in the independent manner shown by Balcombe and Sheppard down Swildon’s Hole.
One of the divers was Penelope “Mossy” Powell who wrote in the expedition log: “The first trip up the bed of the river Axe is a revelation of the beauties of this underwater world. It is almost impossible to describe the feeling as leaving the surface and the dazzling glare of the powerful lights, and slipping dow from the enveloping brown atmosphere, we suddenly entered an utterly different world, a world of green, where the waster was as clear as crystal. Imagine a green jelly, where even the shadows cast by the pale green boulders are green but of deeper hue; as we advanced, light green mud rose knee high and then fell softly and gently into the profound greenness behind. So still, so silent, unmarked by the foot of man since the rive came into being, awe-inspiring, though not terrifying, it was like being in some mighty and invisible presence, whose only indication was the saturating greenness”.
The 1935 explorations at Wookey Hole were curtailed by an access issue and then World War Two kept cave explorers from making further gains.