The Adventures of the Famine Diver William Campbell, Reviewed

In The Adventures of the Famine Diver William Campbell, we are transported back to mid-nineteenth-century Ireland to follow the career of one of the prolific underwater divers of his time.

It was a period that marked the transition from using heavy, cumbersome diving bells to the onset of hard hats and suits of rubber, an era that conjures up classic images of the Jules Verne and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea.

This is the fourth book written by well-known maritime historian, author and diver, Roy Stokes, who also co-authored the monumental Irish shipwreck database Irishwrecks.ie.

William Campbell features in one of Stokes’ earlier publications, Between the Tides: Shipwrecks of the Irish Coast (2015), but in this book the author devotes full attention to a biographical study of the celebrated diver.

It comprises eleven chapters with a prologue and epilogue. Some lovely illustrations are included, but disappointingly, most are of a small thumbnail size.

The opening chapters chronicle Campbell’s early life and career (1813–50). He was born in Scotland and began his career as a diver there before moving to Ireland. Early on we are given a stark illustration of the hazards of the diving profession in an account of a fatal accident that involved Campbell at Portpatrick on the west coast of Scotland.

At this stage of his career he was an assistant to the chief diver on the project. They were using a diving bell, “a square cast metal frame about 8 feet high and 22 feet in circumference and weighing upwards of 4 tons”. Campbell and a number of others were caught up in the accident when the bell and its crane support toppled into the water. Although he emerged unharmed, others were not so lucky.

Later in the book Campbell has another close brush with death when his hard hat becomes wedged underwater. The manner of his escape left this reader marvelling at his calmness and resolve in what was a perilous scenario.

By 1846, Campbell had become proficient as a “marine diver”. The author explains that this “meant that he had moved from not only working in, with, and out of a diving bell, but had become proficient with the new suit, helmet, and air-pumping apparatus, which could deliver limitless air from the surface to a mobile diver underwater”.

By then, Campbell was well established as a contractor for the Board of Works. He was also noted as a carpenter and seems to have been a jack-of-all-trades; a “one-stop operation”, according to the author, “capable of performing several tasks”.

His early experiences evidently set Campbell up for a career in Ireland, where a programme of pier construction and renovation was being rolled out. His early contract work led to a nomadic lifestyle, moving from project to project around the coast. Much sought after, Campbell worked primarily on these civil works and shipwreck salvage: at Ballycotton (County Cork), Kilkieran and Bunowen (County Galway), and Duncannon and Kilmore (County Wexford).

Through this phase of his career we are given some fascinating insights into the nature of projects undertaken by the Board of Works during this period, which coincided with the famine era. Campbell’s successful career at this time is juxtaposed by the author with the extreme poverty and deprivation that pervaded many of the localities in which he worked at this time.

Throughout the book the author also displays his deep knowledge of Irish shipwrecks and maritime lore, as we are given numerous accounts of wrecks that occurred near to locations where Campbell was working at a given time. In one instance he includes an eyewitness account of a minor tsunami that hit the east coast of Ireland.

Campbell reached the zenith of his career when he was appointed superintendent of works at Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire). However, what is perhaps more memorable throughout this phase of the book is the author’s depiction of Kingstown and its development as a port and suburban town. Descriptions of Campbell’s activities are sketchy, but the text is rounded out with stories of contemporary shipwrecks in and around Dublin Bay and notable occasions in the harbour.

Indeed, there is so much space devoted to depictions of life and times of Kingstown, its harbour and environs across two chapters that Campbell barely surfaces in the text. Chapter seven chronicles the activities of Confederate and Union vessels in Irish waters after the outbreak of the American civil war (1861–5). While these activities seem to bear little connection with Campbell’s career, other than that they occurred during his residency at Kingstown, it is, nevertheless, a very interesting account.

Campbell lived in Ireland until 1864, by which time his eldest son, James, had also become an accomplished diver. However, their departure from Ireland was sudden and controversial. Campbell absconded from his position at Kingstown, and from Ireland, in January 1864. Suspicion of embezzlement was raised though not proven.

Campbell’s son, James, had recently purchased a refurbished schooner, Lucy, and was then at Liverpool preparing for a declared commercial voyage to the Azores. Campbell journeyed to Liverpool, where he joined up with James, and with a hired crew and cargo of coal for ballast, they embarked on a remarkable nine-month voyage to Australia. En route, they took in Madeira, Trinidade (a deserted island in the south Atlantic), Cape Town, and Mauritius.

The voyage almost ended in tragedy when, on the final approach to Port Adelaide, the Lucy collided with a large steamboat and almost sank. The Campbells, however, survived the ordeal, and William went on to settle in South Australia with his family.

He founded Streaky Bay, a remote settlement in the harsh environment of the outback, 500 miles west of Adelaide – a total contrast to the lifestyle he and his wife Mary had become accustomed to in the bustling and cosmopolitan Kingstown. Nevertheless, they endured and prospered. Campbell remained there until his death in 1894.

The biggest challenge faced by the author in tackling this study of William Campbell is the fragmentary nature of the information relating to his life. There is a block of “missing years” (1838–46) about which nothing has emerged for Campbell’s activities. And although it is described as the second half of Campbell’s life, the 30 or so years of his time in Australia is documented in a brief final chapter.

There is also little biographical detail for Campbell’s wider family. Campbell seems to have been a practical individual, little given, perhaps, to writing. Few, if any, personal papers survive, with the result that most of the information about him is work-related.

This is a difficulty faced by many researchers whose subjects, while fascinating, may have been minor figures in their eras or in the arenas in which they lived and operated. And while the information that has emerged about Campbell is the result of stellar research by the author, he remains frustrated by the incomplete nature of the information he has diligently assembled.

This is addressed in the epilogue: “All these enquiries, at first, seem to have been adequate, but when examined in total, they reveal only snippets of Campbell’s life – a view from the outside looking in.” Therein lies both the fascination and frustration of historical research.

Nevertheless, the author succeeds in presenting a wonderful compendium of Campbell’s life in Ireland and the world in which he lived.

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