The inaugural meeting of the British Sub Aqua Club was held in London at the Waldorf Hotel on October 15th 1953. There were about 50 people present and the meeting had been arranged by Oscar Gugen and Peter Small. They had both attended a course run at Dartmouth by the retired RAF Captain Trevor Hampton AFC, who had bought some equipment made by Seibe Gorman, and had possibly made the first aqualung dive in English waters.

Gugen and Small decided that the club would be non profit making, the subscription would be 30 shillings a year, and the lower age limit would be 16. The first AGM was held in December 1953, and by then there were 100 members and three more branches, Bristol, Blackpool and Manchester.

Torbay Branch was formed in early 1954, as number 8. There was already a local group calling themselves The Blue Dolphins, among them were Dennis Damerell, Brian Hesketh, Paul Truscott, and Tony Prowse. They apparently amalgamated with the newly formed Torbay Branch, whose founder members included George Wakefield, Bill Bennett, and Charles Thomsett. The fledgling club initially met at Bill Bennett’s house, but soon started to hold meetings at the Royal Torbay Yacht Club. “Number 10 store” was obtained at Torbay harbour, and remained as the club compressor room until the harbour development in recent years.

The branch grew rapidly and by 1956 was actively training divers, and providing help for visiting inland branches. The first “Diving Rally” was held at Torquay, and was attended by 40 members from 10 branches. At a Committee meeting in the spring of 1961, it was thought that something more than looking for new sites for “Flatty bashing” should be done for the new diving season and it was decided that a survey of all wrecks, both charted and uncharted, within the 20 fathom line along the South Devon coast, should be attempted. The idea was to explore, photograph, research and record to establish a record that could ultimately be published. Armed with helpful information from the Admiralty Hydrographic dept, local information, and a new echo sounder that had been bought with money earned by the club from salvage exploits in the Salcombe estuary, the project started. It was decided to operate from Salcombe, and the 30ft fishing boat “Princess” owned by fisherman Mike Dornan was chartered on a regular basis. This led to the discovery of the Maine and subsequent salvage of the bronze propeller, the story of which is well documented elsewhere.

At a committee meeting in January 1963, it was unanimously agreed that some form of constitution should be instituted in view of the fact that none had existed to date. This was duly done, and was very similar to that in existence today. In November of that year, an important decision was made, to form a company to oversee the commercial side of the club’s activities, such as the sale of air, salvage activities etc. ( Besides owning the Maine, the club was to finalise the purchase of the collier, the Riversdale, in December 1963). This was a 2805 ton vessel built in 1906 and sunk by enemy action in December 1917. The new company was “Torbay Divers Ltd”, and would remain in existence until wound up in the mid 1990’s.

In 1966 Torbay branch member Derek Cockbill was elected National Diving Officer, (later to become National Chairman), and he was instrumental in proposing and establishing the Club Instructor grade. The first course was held in Torquay in October that year. Derek also set up a permanent National sub committee to look at accidents and incidents to see if lessons could be learnt.

Also during this year at the Brighton Conference and Film Festival, the Branch won the Amateur film category with the film ”When you know how”. This had been made with money obtained from the sale of the propeller off the Maine, and was produced by club member Dennis Day (later to be elected Secretary of the National Diving Committee).

In 1967, the branch, along with Belfast branch were commended by Dr David Bellamy who had organised a research project studying kelp. He thanked them for “particularly detailed work on tons of kelp”.

1968 saw Torbay branch hosting the national AGM at Barton Hall, an event that included a Civic reception, a Dinner & Dance, a sea dive, and a diver/ fisherman confrontation. Club member Roy Brimecombe became the South West regional coach.

1971 was an eventful year. Under the chairmanship of Tony Brown, and after 2 years of fund raising, the branch obtained a new 17ft Dell Quay dory, outboard motor, new compressor, three sets of equipment and three life jackets. They were supported by a 50% grant from the Sports council. The dory was replaced after years of hard use by an open boat with a single cylinder Lister engine, and then by a Colvic which had the luxury of a cabin. By 1990 the club had a 25’ cabin cruiser with a Perkins engine, which gave good service until the present 27’ Aquabell was bought in the Channel Islands. In 1994 under the chairmanship of Pete Densham, the Foundation for Sport and the Arts were approached and a grant for £12950 was obtained for a 5.5metre RIB, two engines, and ancilliary equipment. This and a smaller replacement have over the years been sadly under used. A further grant of £5000 was obtained from the Lottery fund to pay for the refurbishment of the new compressor room which the club acquired at the time of the redevelopment of the Harbour car park, new slipway and subsequent Town Dock construction.

On perusing old minutes of club meetings, it would seem that there have been times when considerable enthusiasm has resulted for instance in the setting up of specific sub groups/committees, the Scientific section, for instance. There have been attempts to produce a club newsletter – “Bubbles”. From 1990, foreign holidays became affordable and popular, and members have dived regularly along the length of the Red Sea, more often than not, on increasingly sophisticated Liveaboard vessels. Underwater photography has become less frustrating and cheaper, with many club members now owning underwater cameras.

Enthusiasm for major projects was rekindled in the recovery of the second propeller from the Maine in 1983. This was, like the raising of the first propeller, a considerable feat, and was done under the leadership of Rob Pannell and Brendan Jaffa, and an enthusiastic team including Terry Blackmore, Phil Jones, Frank Hainsworth and Tony Aylmer. The prop fortunately was “loose” on the deck, and was lifted with bags, and towed into Salcombe and craned out. It was treated with preservative, and later mounted as a centre piece in the Victoria shopping centre square, in Paignton, where it remained for several years. The final episode in the Maine saga was the presentation, on September 25th 1987, of the bell from the ship, which had been recovered by members of Bracknell BSAC. This was done with due ceremony at the Royal Torbay Yacht Club.

Over the years, the club has held meetings in a variety of shore venues, (having been asked to leave the Royal Torbay Yacht in the early 70’s when a club member assaulted the barman!!), including the Corinthian sailing club in it’s old site on Haldon pier, Paignton Operatic society, (a wooden hut!), Trade club in Lucius St, the Clarence Hotel, Corinthian Sailing club in St Marychurch, Torbay Hospital Social Club, Royal Torbay Yacht Club, and currently in the Rugby Club.

The above short summary hopefully gives an idea of the origins of and some highlights from the past history of Torbay branch of the British Sub Aqua club, and is by no means complete, (apologies for omissions) and should old or present members have information or anecdotes from the past, please contact the club so that they can be recorded for posterity!!

Pete Densham

Our Address

Torbay BSAC
Unit 0008
Beacon Quay
Torquay
Devon
TQ1 2BG