Tuesday, July 29, 2014

John Braithwaite the Elder, Engineer and Salvage Expert

by Lauren Gilbert

I live in Florida where diving is a popular sport. My attention was caught by a mention of an incident in Weymouth in 1806 when Mrs. Bennett of Cadbury accompanied “Mr. Braithwayte” in his diving machine where they stayed under water for forty minutes. Mrs. Bennett gained a certain level of fame as the “Diving Belle.” What intrigued me were Mr. Braithwaite and his diving machine. Who was he and what was he doing off the coast of Weymouth?

John Braithwaite was born probably in 1760. At any rate, it is known that he was baptized on July 20, 1760 at St. Alban’s Abbey, Hertfordshire. He was one of five children born to William and Mary Braithwaite. William was a whitesmith (a tinsmith) and engine-maker whose family had had a forge and engine shop in St. Alban’s since 1695 until he moved his business and family to Soho in 1770. (Soho was the center of London’s metal-working trade.) They worked with well sinking and pumps and engines for brewing and other trades. Diving bells having been in existence since the 16th century. John is credited with developing a significantly-improved diving machine, although the details were kept secret.

The first recorded use of this machine was 1783 when he went down into the wreck of the Royal George which had sunk off of Spithead in August of 1782. John recovered the sheet anchor, the ship’s bell, and many guns. John and his brother William bought a 40-ton sloop and went on to salvage guns from sunken vessels, Spanish and French, off the coast of Gibraltar. John worked with his older brother William raising wrecks, developing a prosperous business which resulted in John and his brother being at sea most of the time during the period 1783-1792.

In the period 1787-1792, John brought up salvage from the Hartwell which had been wrecked in 1787 off Boavista (one of the Cape Verde Islands). During this salvage, the Braithwaites encountered difficulties with American privateers who also wanted the salvaged material. John ended up with 38,000 pounds in Spanish dollars, 7000 pigs of lead, and 360 boxes of tin. During his time in the Cape Verde Islands, John met Elizabeth (or Eliza) Doyle (or Doile), a planter’s daughter. Upon their return to England, John and Elizabeth were married June 3, 1794 at St. Pancras Church. John ultimately had seven sons. The family built terrace homes and workshops in the New Road in London.

The wreck of the Earl of Abergavenny, one of the largest of the East India Company’s merchant ships, was John’s next, and possibly most famous, endeavour. This ship was captained by John Wordsworth, the brother of William Wordsworth the poet, and was loaded with a general cargo valued at 270,000 pounds. On February 5, 1805, it ran aground off Portland and was badly damaged. It sank within sight of Weymouth. The cargo included copper, tin, and other metals, Wedgwood china, and 67,000 pounds in silver dollars, among other valuables. Over 200 people drowned, included Captain John Wordsworth.

The ‘Earl of Abergavenny’, East Indiaman, Off Southsea, 1801

John was employed as a salvage expert to recover as much cargo as possible from the wreck of the Earl of Abergavenny. In order to successfully complete his task, he improved the diving equipment and developed machinery for sawing timbers under water. He brought up 75,000 pounds in dollars, tin, and other cargo worth 30,000 pounds. He then blew up the wreck with gunpowder, one of the first known underwater use of gunpowder charges. (It seems likely that this is the period when Mrs. Bennett, the “Diving Belle,” accompanied John for 40 minutes under water.)

After this successful venture, John retired and used part of the proceeds from the Earl of Abergavenny venture to purchase the Manor House, Westbourne Green, near Paddington and convenient to the business. All of his sons were in engineering-related occupations, and two of them, John (the younger) and Francis, continued the family business. I couldn’t find any references to his life after retirement. I do like to think that he was pleased with his success in this special career he carved out, the fortune he had earned, the home he provided for his family and, most of all, his sons carrying on in the family business and related fields. John died in 1818. According to a couple of sources, the cause was a stroke of paralysis. However, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and A Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland both indicate that he was attacked by a highway man and shot in the spine. He died three days later on February 2, 1818, leaving an estate of 30,000 pounds for his family and his business to his sons John and Francis. John Braithwaite was buried at St. Pancras Church.

Sources include:
Dorst & the Sea Smuggling & Shipwreck’s site The Earl of Abergavenny.”

Google Books. Skempton, Alec W., ed. A Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland: Volume 1 1500-1830.> 2002: Thomas Telford. PP. 69-70.

Google Books. Stephen, Leslie, ed. Dictionary of National Biography Vol VI. Bottomley-Brownell. 1886: New York, MacMillan and Co.; London, Smith, Elder & Co. P. 201.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography on line. Braithwaite, William Ronald. “Braithwaite,John, the elder (bap. 1760, d. 1818).” Online ed., edited by Lawrence Goldman.

Image from Wikimedia:

The ‘Earl of Abergavenny’, East Indiaman, Off Southsea


Lauren Gilbert is the author of Heyerwood: A Novel, and lives in Florida with her husband. She earned an advanced open water certification, and they spent part of their honeymoon diving off Mexico. Find out more about Lauren and Heyerwood on her website .

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