Book review. John Lethbridge: The most successful treasure diver of the eighteenth century

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Author(s): Manley-Tucker. John; Year published: 2010; Origin: DA Transactions; Pages: 429–430
Topic(s): history and maritime; Location(s): Newton Abbot

Michael Fardell, John Lethbridge: The most successful treasure diver of the eighteenth century (The Historical Diving Society, 2010), ix + 101 pages, illustrated. Hardback. ISBN 9780954383442. £24.

This is a work of interest not only to maritime historians but also those readers interested in the development of industry in the Westcountry in general and Devonshire in particular.

This book records the work of John Lethbridge, a member of well-known Devonshire family, a wool merchant who during the difficult times of the early 1700’s cast around for other means to support his family. It seems possible that the maritime activities of the Westcountry made him think about the number of losses of vessels containing valuable cargo (particularly gold silver and coinage) that had occurred in the local area and overseas. Various organisations were looking for a means of salvaging goods (in particular gold and silver). This stimulated him to invent a device which would allow a man to descend and retrieve some of this treasure. Initially he was financed by the interested parties and received a percentage of the value of recovered goods. Later he financed his own work.

The author has collated a considerable amount of information concerning the patenting, development and successful use of Lethbridge’s diving apparatus. Successful it was deemed to be as he retrieved upwards of £100,000 of treasure which was a very considerable sum in those days. The physical and practical problems of using such a device are discussed and related to modern practice where appropriate. Lethbridge’s work and connections with South Devon are recorded in The Parish Church of St. Mary’s in Wolborough. His family originally came from South Tawton and Jacobstowe.

The volume contains a comprehensive list of sources and research papers which should be a valuable source of information for all those interested in maritime and Westcountry matters. On the other hand, the text in places requires a degree of concentration in order to follow the flow of information and assign it to the correct person.

This book is commended to all those interested in the maritime affairs and expertise of our forebears.

John Manley-Tucker
(First published in Transactions 2010)