Category Archives: Historical tales

1774 The Summer that Changed the World

Summer 1774
Matthew Boulton mopped his brow, it was hot. He looked across the lake and shook his head, where there should be a wide expanse of water there was a long, thin, channel marking where the stream had once ran before the dam had been built. He turned to his millwright,
“I’m sorry sir, but there is only water for one wheel, and if there is no rain even that will stop in two weeks.”

Boulton nodded, he knew the problem well enough. If there was no water, the water wheels wouldn’t turn, and without the power generated by the wheels the factory would stop. He needed more water, but how?

View of the manufactory of Boulton & Fothergill in Birmingham by Francis Eginton 1773
The two men walked back towards the mill, in the office they poured over a map of the district. The millwright pointed.

“Here sir, there is water enough in the river here, if we could get it into the pond. But it must be thirty or forty feet below the level of the leat.”

Boulton looked at the map, his man was right. A tributary entered the river below the point the leat ran off the river towards his pond. This tributary was still full of water and, he knew, usually was. There was just the problem of raising thousands of gallons of water up thirty feet.

“You are right, and there is a way. A pumping engine.”

“A pumping engine, aren’t they just used in mines?”

“Most are, but I have seen some used to raise water into canals, and one is even used to pump drinking water into London.” He paused and pointed “If we were to place one about here it could take water from the river and up to the leat, and there would be no trouble from any landowners as it would all be on my land.”

“Do you know where you could get an engine?”

“No, but there is a meeting next week, I am sure someone there will know.”

The millwright smiled, he knew about the ‘society’, they called it the Lunar Society as they met on the nights of the full moon so they could find their way home afterwards. People called the men who met there ‘Lunatics’, but Matthew Boulton knew different, he knew that in the room were some of the most brilliant men on earth, at the meeting he posed his question and got the answer he wanted.

“Young Watt, he’s the man for you. James Watt, he has improved the pumping engines in the Scottish mines so they use half and much coal as they did. I heard that he wants to leave Scotland for a while, family matters. If you like I will write to him.”

Matthew Boulton did like and a few weeks later the Scots engineer was standing by the dry mill pond as he explained the problem.

“Aye, I could build you a pumping engine to keep your pond filled. But there I have an idea that would solve your problem in a much better way.”

 

And with that ‘But’ the world changed, children born after that ‘but’ grew up into a completely different world, no one, no place on earth was unaffected by the decision made that day.

 

Matthew Boulton was fascinated.

“Is it possible?” he asked, “and if so why haven’t you tried before?”

“Because I couldn’t get the materials, or the men skilled enough to build it. But I think there is a possibility now.”

Matthew Boulton looked at the plans, at the list of materials – and nodded.

“Yes, there is wrought iron strong enough, Henry Cort has made it down in Hampshire the Ironmaster can do the boring.” He grinned, and added “And as for the craftsmen, this is Birmingham – here we make anything and everything, the best craftsmen in the world are here.”

 

Over the following autumn and winter, the canals began to bring material to the workshop beside the Soho works. Wrought Iron from distant Hampshire, massive cylinders cast and bored by John Wilkinson the Ironmaster, coal from the mines of Yorkshire and timber from Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden, though even his wondrous imagination couldn’t have dreamed of what was being built on the outskirts of Birmingham. In secrecy the craftsmen laboured and slowly a machine grew, a machine unlike anything else on earth.

 

James Watt steam engine

By the spring it was ready, the men of the Lunar Society gathered to watch, the mill pond was full now but the millwright shut the sluices. The waterwheels stopped, the factory stopped, all of Matthew Boulton’s machines stood idle – then James Watt pulled on the leaver, steam hissed, the massive pivoted beam rose, and fell, as it did so the wheel turned. The engineer tightened the belts and power flowed into the factory, the machines started again powered by steam for the first time.

Everyone congratulated James Watt, but he was having none of it.

“No, it is good, but not perfect. If I were to build it again there are several improvements I would make.”

Erasmus Darwin, the mad grandfather of the brilliant Charles, asked.
“Are you going to build another?”

“Of course,” replied Matthew Boulton, “Another, and another, and another. We will give the world what it wants, even if it doesn’t know it yet”

“What is that?”

“Power, wherever and whenever it wants it. We will give the world power.”

 

Boulton and Watt’s steam engines changed the world. Developed first for Matthew Boulton’s factory at Soho near Birmingham, they were soon being built and exported around the world. No longer was power only to be obtained from wind or river, factories could be built anywhere, not just in places with a reliable water supply. The industrial revolution had properly begun.

 

I had been planning to retell this story for some time when my brother posted on his blog about a trip he had made to Arkwright’s mill in Derbyshire, and pondered on why it had been built in seemingly remote location. A location chosen only because of its proximity to a constant supply of moving water for power.

My tale tells of how the link between location and power was finally broken – and the world changed as a result of a hot summer in 1774!

Pictures from the internet

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Mrs Bennet – The First Female Diver

Part 7 The Diving Belle

 

Sunlight poured in through the portholes, then the Bell broke the surface and cool, fresh air poured in. Charlotte took a deep, thankful breath as they were swung across and settled on the raft, Captain Braithwaite climbed down first then helped her descend, two men climbed in and helped carry the unconscious man out.

As Charlotte stepped upright in the sunlight she heard the noise, the cheering. Susan came running over to wrap a shawl round her shoulders and hug her. Looking around she could see several crowded boats nearby, the men were waving their hats, the women their parasols and handkerchiefs and everyone was cheering.

“Oh dear, it that for me.” Said Charlotte weakly.

“Yes madam, you are famous.” Replied Susan happily.

“Help me to the cabin, I think I am going to faint.”

Susan helped her mistress up the ladder and swiftly across the deck, Charlotte had no idea where she was going until Susan lowered her onto a bench where she fainted.

 

Half an hour later she woke up, Susan was folding her wet bathing dress, she realised she was not only dry but dressed.

“Good madam, you are recovered, I will get the Captain.”

Before she could protest Susan had left the cabin and returned with him a few minutes later.

“Madam, I must apologise for the dangers you were subjected to.” He paused then continued, “And to thank you for what you did. I don’t know of anybody who could have done what you did.”

“I don’t know how I did what I did.” She replied weakly.

An hour later the boat rowed them away from the Endeavour, the Diving Bell still looked terrifying but she felt no fear of it now.

As they rowed alongside the quay there was a crowd waiting, as she stepped onto dry land she heard a shout then the crowd started cheering. Susan helped her into the chaise and they were swiftly driven back to the Circus. As they did so she turned to her maid.

“Susan, did you hear what they shouted, it sounded as if they were cheering the Diving Bell.”

“No madam, it is you they were cheering. They are calling you the Diving Belle now.”

“Oh dear, well it can hardly get worse.”

A few days later she discovered it could. Captain Braithwaite called to both tell her that the sailor was recovering well and to present her with a silver tray, it had been part of the cargo recovered from the Abergavenny but he had had it engraved as a memento of her descent to the wreck. As he left he said with a smile.

“If you should ever want to go down again I would be happy to take you. Everything should be perfectly safe now, anyway my crew are sure you can do anything in the water, they think you are a mermaid.”

“Not a mermaid as well.” She said to Susan, “I wasn’t frightened swimming around at the bottom of the sea, but I don’t think I can bear all this. At the end of the week we leave for Lyme to see my brother in law and give my nephew his telescope.”

 

So Mrs Charlotte Bennet left Weymouth, whether she returned or not I don’t know. Someone, perhaps one of the Endeavour’s crew retired from the sea and settled down as a publican on Portland, naming his public house The Mermaid. As for young Lieutenant Bennet, he rose to become Captain Bennet and one of the heroes of Lyme, but that is another story.

 

This tale was suggested by a press cutting of 1806;

DIVING BELL.—By means of this ingenious contrivance, a Mr Braithwaite has been so successful as to recover, in the months of June and July last, the whole specie from the Abergavenny Indiaman, which was lost off Portland in Feb. 1805. He was down frequently at the rate of six hours a-day. The specie was contained in 60 boxes of dollars, and amounted to £34,000. A great number of valuable articles have also been recovered. A Mrs Bennet of Colchester had the courage to descend in the machine on one occasion, and remained forty minutes. She was greeted on her ascent by the cheering plaudits of a very numerous concourse of people. Mrs Bennet is now generally known as the Diving Belle.

 

Other accounts say that Mrs Bennet came from Cornwall, so I have blended these accounts in the (completely fictitious) backstory I gave her. She was also described as a strong swimmer, an unusual talent for anybody, especially a woman at this time.

The Abergavenny Store where goods were kept was real, and it wasn’t far from Weymouth’s Assembly Rooms.

The Nothe peninsula is still a favourite place to go for a walk and look out to the sea, it was as I described in 1806.

Commander John Wordsworth’s Patriotic Fund sword was raised from the wreck and returned to his brother William the poet, it is now in the museum at Dove Cottage.

Captain Darcy was an engineer who repaired the Cobb, the ancient harbour at Lyme Regis.

There were no swimming costumes at the time, ladies wore Bathing Dresses but couldn’t swim in them.

The accident didn’t happen to Mrs Bennet, but similar things did happen to other early divers. John Braithwaite made a small fortune from diving on the shipwreck, which his son made into a larger one by becoming one of the first builders of marine steam engines.

As for Captain Bennet of Lyme Regis, he probably wasn’t related to our Mrs Bennet but I couldn’t help making the connection because of his name. Nearly twenty years after the date of this story, in 1825, he became one of the great heroes of Lyme – perhaps one day I will retell his story.

 

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Mrs Bennet – The First Female Diver

Part 6 The Gallant Lady

 

She stood up, and began to unfasten the front of her bathing dress.

“Then I will have to try, he may die if we cannot get him to a surgeon.”

 “No, you cannot, it is impossible!”

“Captain Braithwaite, you should have learned by now that there is no point in using those words to me.” She smiled and continued, “I grew up in Cornwall, and I was taught to swim as a child. I have swum across the cove by my father’s house underwater and that is more than twenty four feet across. Now can you help me get out of this dress?” She grimaced slightly, “One day someone will invent a costume for swimming in, but at the moment there is nothing, and that it what I will have to wear.”

Reluctantly he helped her as she dropped into the water and pulled the dress up over her head. She dipped her head under and vanished for a few moments, then she reappeared.

“You are right, there is a baulk of timber on the side of the Bell. It has two copper bolts sticking out if it which will make a good grip for the grapnel. Goodbye.” She took a deep breath and vanished.

Looking out of the porthole he had a glimpse of her pale shape as she kicked hard upwards. He then sat by the unconscious man and shook his head.

“Impossible, she is Impossible.”

A Regency lady swimming

Charlotte opened her eyes as she ducked her head underwater, it stung for a moment but she could see clearly. It was darker than the Cornish coves where she had learned to swim, and dive, as a child. But she felt no fear. The surface didn’t seem so far away and the ropes, leading from the Bell to the Endeavour, made an easy pathway to follow upwards. She kicked up and swum strongly towards the light. As she near the boat her chest hurt, it was as though the air inside her lungs was expanding, for a moment she was shocked, then breathed out a little and felt better. Bubbles trickling from her mouth she broke the surface a few yards from the raft. She took a deep breath, the air here was colder than that in the Bell, much less stuffy.

No one saw her rise, so she swum the few yards to the side of the ship and shouted. Faces appeared over the gunwale, including Susan.

“Madam – are you all right?” she shouted.

“Yes girl, now get the Young Captain.”

She didn’t need to as a few seconds later young John Braithwaite’s face appeared over the rail.

“What has happened, is my father all right?”

“Your father is well, the other sailor has been injured. The Bell has been trapped by a fallen timber, he needs a grapnel to free it. The signal line has also been lost. So get me a grapnel and line.”

“Why, you cannot take them down, no one can do that.”

“Your father told me I couldn’t swim up with a message. You Braithwaites need to learn that I am not to be spoken to like that. Now get me the line.”

He gasped, then turned to his crew and snapped a series of orders. The thin signal line was dropped to Mrs Bennet, who wrapped it round her wrist, then the grapnel was lowered over the side.

“If you drop it there, will that take it to the north side of the Bell?” She called.

“Should do Mam” Shouted the sailor. “We will let it down nice and gentle like.”

“No.” She called, “Count to three and let it down fast, I am going with it.”

“Oh Madam.” Screamed Susan, “Please don’t go.”

“On three then.” Called the young captain and began to count. “One – Two – Three.”

Charlotte Bennet had been breathing deeply, on two she grabbed hold of the line just above the grapnel, on three the hook was released, there was a pale flash as she twisted in the water, and vanished.

Susan stopped screaming and looked straight down.

“I hope your lady will be safe miss.” Said the sailor standing beside her, suddenly Susan felt calm, she knew her mistress was amazing, now she knew she could do anything.

“Oh yes, I remember before she was married she loved to swim in the coves near her father’s house, she could always swim well.” She paused, and started a legend. “My grandmother said that one of her ancestors had married a mermaid.”

The sailor nodded, soon the rumour had spread and the crew were confident, waiting for the order to hoist. If their captain was being rescued by a mermaid then all would be well.

A Dorset Mermaid

A Dorset Mermaid

Below them, Charlotte Bennet was less confident, she had felt her lungs expand as she had risen, now they were being squashed, it hurt, worse than anything she had ever felt. Her eyes were painful now, she knew that if it didn’t stop in the next few seconds she would faint. Her cousin was prone to faint, usually in a drawing room with a comfortable sofa to fall on, not at the bottom of the sea with a wrecked ship to lie in. She wondered, why was she was thinking like this? Her lungs were in agony now, but she could see the Bell, she released the grapnel and with her last strength dipped under the rim and up, into the stuffy, but wonderful, air.

Captain Braithwaite bent and grabbed her shoulders, he would have lifted her up onto the bench, but she shook him off, panting she handed him the signal line.

“In a moment I will go outside again and make sure the grapnel is on the timber, then I will return. Your first signal to hoist will be to lift the timber, then as soon as you think the Bell can be freed you are to give the second signal. And up we will go.”

He took the line and was about to say something, when she took a breath and dipped under the water again. She was surprised to find it was harder this time than it had been before, her chest hurt, her head hurt and flashing lights kept distracting her. She knew where to go and swum round the Bell to the timber that was trapping them. Thankfully the grapnel was almost in the right pace. It seemed heavier than it had before as she pulled it over to the timber, she didn’t think she could do it, she was about to return to the Bell when it suddenly slipped, a hook caught under the timber, just by the bolt. She didn’t even look back at as she swam gratefully back to the Bell. She hung onto the edge gasping for air, Captain Braithwaite bent and gently pulled her up, she smiled and grabbed her dress then slipped it over her shoulders.

“There I’m decent now, try the line.”

She sat back and suddenly felt very tired, she wanted to sleep but knew she shouldn’t. She watched as the Captain gave a gentle pull on the line to tighten it, then gave three sharp tugs. He held it firmly and then, with relief, felt the answering pulls.

 

Above, John Braithwaite felt relief at the tugs. He shouted to the men on the grapnel line.

“Haul away, gently now.”

The men pulled, the weight they felt on the end of the line indicating that they were pulling on the timber.

Below, the Bell tipped upright as the timber slid to one side. The Captain watched through the porthole until he saw it was clear, then gave another three tugs. Almost immediately they felt the Bell move, there was a terrible scraping noise on one side as the timber slid off the Bell, then there was silence, looking down Charlotte saw the wreck drift away. They were rising quickly now, back to the surface, air and safety.

 

To be continued

 

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Mrs Bennet – The First Female Diver

Part 5 The Endeavour and the Bell

 

They pulled alongside the Endeavour and she followed Captain Braithwaite up the short ladder, he watched approvingly as she climbed easily, then grinned as Susan had to be helped up by several friendly sailors. The Captain led her to his cabin and left them there so she could remove her pelisse and gown and put on a bathing cap. Suitably dressed she returned to the deck and walked over to the side above the raft where the Bell stood. Captain Braithwaite was already alongside the machine, he was now wearing breeches and a linen shirt, another young man similarly dressed stood beside him. Clearly he would be accompanying them down to the sea bed.

Yorkshire bathing machines 1813

A Bathing Dress of brown linen

As she climbed down onto the raft he looked up at her.

“Are you sure you want to do it?” He asked.

“You promised me.” She replied, looking a little nervously up at the massive black machine.

“Very well, follow me.”

He ducked under the bottom of the Bell, she handed her shawl to her maid and in her bathing dress of stiff brown linen she followed him into the Bell. Around the edge of the Bell was a broad wooden ledge with a low bench on it. Lying on the bench was a curious contraption made of leather and brass, this clearly was the helmet they used to leave the Bell and walk on the seabed. The young sailor took his place by one of the portholes, Captain Braithwaite knelt on the bench by another, the thin cord that was used to communicate with the Endeavour held in his hand. Charlotte sat down opposite him.

“Haul away,” he called and she had to hold tight as the sailors hoisted the Diving Bell into the air, looking down she saw the raft though the opening, then the Bell was swung round and she looked down on the waves. For a moment she watched the water sparkle, then the Bell hit the surface. She gave a little cry as the water splashed on her legs.

For a moment the Bell seemed to float there, then it began to descend, the light below looked greener than it had. Sunlight had been coming through the portholes, then it dimmed and a green light shone through them. They were under the waves!

 “Now if you feel at all unwell you must let me know and we will ascend.”

“Why, do you think all women will faint at the first opportunity?”

“No, I don’t know how women will react under the water. As far as I know you are the first woman ever to dive like this.”

“The first ever!” Now she felt a little faint.

She looked down though the central opening, the water seemed to be rising inside the Bell.

“It will rise a little as we descend. There is nothing to worry about.” The captain seemed to guess exactly what she was thinking.

As she peered into the green water she began to see shapes, the massive broken timbers of the wrecked East Indiaman. He pointed out where a large piece of the hull had been towed away.

“We pulled off the side of the hull, now we are able to get into the main hold and should be able to reach most of the cargo now. We will settle on the bottom just beside the hull, then I will show you how the helmet can be used to leave the Bell for a short while.”

She was watching the timbers below as they descended gently towards them. The young sailor, was looking out of a porthole when he suddenly shouted.

“Captain Stop!”

The Captain pulled hard on the signal cord, but it was too late. The Bell hit something, seemed to twist and tipped. The young sailor gave a cry as he slipped and fell across the opening, he tried to save himself and failed, his head hit the far side of the Bell with a horrible crack. Mrs Bennet grabbed the young man before he slipped into the water and held him. The Captain tried to catch the helmet but it fell through the hole into the water and vanished. The Bell had stopped, sloping sideways.  Captain Braithwaite came and helped Charlotte lift the injured sailor onto the bench. There was a jagged cut on his head, and he was unconscious. She tore a strip from his shirt to tie round the wound, he was unconscious and very pale.

Whilst she was tending to the man Captain Braithwaite scrambled round inside the Bell looking out of the portholes. He was looking out of the porthole on the lowest side of the Bell, and looking very worried. She looked up at him and asked.

“What has happened?”

“We are in trouble.” The Captain replied, “We should have settled upright on the sea bed, held by the weights. What has happened is that a timber must have moved, possibly it was loosened by the Bell yesterday when it was lowered, unmanned, to ensure everything was ready for today. We hit the timber as we were descending and it rolled onto us. It is now holding one side of the Bell down. We are trapped”

“Can the Endeavour pull us up again?”

“It should be able to, ideally I would have ordered a grapnel lowered, left the Bell wearing the helmet to fix the hook under the timber, then it could have been hoisted up and we would have risen normally. Unhappily the signal line snapped as we hit the sea bed and the helmet and tools are gone. All we can do it wait, if they aren’t told to raise the Bell early it will be about an hour before they bring us up.”

“We can wait but I am not sure he can.” She replied, pointing to the young sailor, who hadn’t moved and was only just breathing. “Is there no way of sending a message to the surface?”

“We have tried sending up little barrels in the past, but they didn’t really work, anyway normally there is the barrel chain bringing fresh air to the Bell, we can use that for sending messages. But that is being repaired, and as we were only going to be down for a little time it wasn’t needed.”

She looked out of the tiny porthole, the surface and the dark shapes of the boats hulls didn’t seem so far away.

“How deep are we?”

“About eight fathoms.”

“Twenty four feet, it would not be hard to swim that distance.”

“Holding your breath all the time, and I am afraid I cannot really swim, it would be impossible.”

She stood up, and began to unfasten the front of her bathing dress.

“Then I will have to try, he may die if we cannot get him to a surgeon.”

 

To be continued

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Mrs Bennet – The First Female Diver

Part 4 Persuading Captain Braithwaite

The Nothe, a few years after Mrs Bennet’s visit

A week after her visit to the Abergavenny Store Mrs Bennet left her lodgings in the Circus and made her usual promenade along the harbour side, over the bridge across the harbour and then up and along the Nothe. She was well known by now, and the sailors in the lookout had chairs waiting for both her and her maid. She sat and, taking her telescope, looked down on the familiar scene. The Endeavour had been moved slightly, so that the Bell could be lowered onto a different part of the wreck. Today, however, it didn’t look as if the Bell would be lowered at all, the men were working on different parts of the vessel. Captain Braithwaite was talking to two men beside the Bell when he suddenly turned and looked up at the Nothe, Mrs Bennet had the oddest feeling he was looking straight at her.

A few minutes later he could be seen being rowed back towards the shore, Charlotte watched the boat as it approached the harbour entrance then it disappeared beneath the slope of the Nothe. She waited and wasn’t surprised when Captain Braithwaite came striding up the slope. He walked straight to her and touched his hat.

“Mrs Bennet.”

Charlotte rose, “Captain Braithwaite.” She replied.

“A fine glass.” He said, looking down at her telescope, clearly wishing to avoid the subject he had come to talk about.

“It belonged to my husband.” She replied, “And I will be taking it to Lyme where my Brother in Law lives. His son has just been promoted lieutenant on the Swallow, I am going to give it to him. From one brave sailor to another.”

Telescope - 1814 v12 Ackermann's fashion plate 14 - Morning Dress

Captain Braithwaite took a deep breath.

“I don’t usually take people down in the Bell.” He said quickly.

She looked up at him.

“I heard you took down Captain Darcy last month.”

“He is a Royal Engineer, who was working on the Cobb at Lyme. He wanted to see what the Bell could do. It could be useful to him in repairing harbour works.”

“I see, he was a potential customer.” She paused, “So you would take down someone who was interested in using the Bell.” He nodded.

“But what about someone who wanted to invest in the Bell?”

“But no one wants to invest in the Bell.”

“My husband did.” She looked straight at him. “Tell me truthfully, if my husband had wanted to go down in the Bell, would you have taken him?”

“But that would be have been different.”

“Because I am a woman?” She looked angrily at him. “Let me tell you Captain Braithwaite I have sailed the Channel and North Sea with my father and husband. I can shoot the sun and set a course, I am as much a sailor as half the men on your boat.”

“I know that, but I have never …” He suddenly paused. “But you are right, why not?” He turned and looked straight at her.

“Mrs Bennet would you like to descend in the Diving Bell?”

“Of course.” She looked at him in surprise.

He turned to look at the Endeavour.

“As you will have seen, we have been moving the vessel so we can dive on another part of the wreck. We will need to spend tomorrow making certain we are in exactly the right place. So if it is convenient you can descend the day after tomorrow.”

She smiled up at him. Dropped a slight curtsey and replied.

“Thank you sir, that would be most convenient.”

DivingBellDrawing-640x544

The morning was bright and clear, Charlotte looked out of her window then stepped back in shock. There was a crowd on the pavement watching her house. Susan came in with the tea tray.

“Susan, did you say anything to anybody about what I am doing today?”

“I might have mentioned it to Mrs Smith or their man John.”

“Look outside.” She did so and gasped.

“Do you think that they are ..?’

“Waiting for me, yes.”

“I am so sorry Madam.”

It can’t be helped, now help me dress.”

She put on a bathing dress instead of a shift, then covered it with an old walking dress and a plain brown pelisse. She made certain that Susan had a complete change of clothes for her in her bag, then put on her bonnet and opened the front door. There was a cheer from the crowd, as she climbed into the chaise, she was glad now that she had ordered one, it would have been dreadful trying to walk to the quay through the mass of people all trying to look at her.

The crowd meant that it took several minutes to cover the short distance to the harbour side, here Captain Braithwaite was waiting, he handed her from the chaise and led her to the narrow gangway leading down to the small boat. She sat in the stern as the six rowers pulled hard, they rapidly ran down the harbour then out into the bay. It didn’t take long before they were approaching the Endeavour, as they moved in she saw the Diving Bell close for the first time. It was made of timber, painted thickly in tar to keep it watertight. Several tiny glass discs were fitted in the side, these were clearly glazed portholes for looking out. Seeing the machine she felt nervous for the first time, what was she doing?

 

To be continued

 

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Mrs Bennet – The First Female Diver

Part 3 Treasure from the Deep

 

As she was having breakfast Susan brought a letter to her.

“It has just been delivered, there is a boy waiting for a reply.”

The letter was brief, it began with condolences on the death of her husband then continued. ‘I can call on you at the hotel any time after six, but if you would like to see what has been raised from the shipwreck, I will be at the Abergavenny Store all day.

“Susan, tell the boy to let Captain Braithwaite know that we will be at the Store later this morning.” When Susan returned, she continued;

“I would like to see what he has brought up from the deep, have you heard anything about it.”

“Mostly cloth and clothes that were being taken out to India, there has also been some fine china that has been sold in one of the sales here. But one man told me that lately there have been some small, heavy boxes. He thinks treasure! But no one is ever allowed into the Store except on sales days, and even then the rooms at the back are always locked.”

Charlotte rose from the table, “Then let us see what he has got in this Store of his”

As they approached the building she realised that something was happening, yesterday there had just been a sleepy man by the door who took her note for Captain Braithwaite. Today several burley sailors stood guard and a heavy waggon waited outside. One fashionably dressed man was trying to persuade the men to let him in, but they refused despite all his threats. The sailors smiled when they saw Mrs Bennet, they recognised the ‘Gallant Captain’s Lady’, and pushed the man to one side to let her and Susan walk in.

At first glance it was an anti-climax. The building was like a large barn, lengths of cloth were hung from the rafters and various coats over lines along one wall.

“Greatcoats for use in hot countries.” Said a young man walking up to them with a smile. “They sell well here, I think we have started a fashion amongst the men of Dorset.”

He held out a hand, “Allow me to introduce myself, I am John Braithwaite, though as my father is also John I am usually just called the Young Captain. You are Mrs Bennet?” he posed it as a question. She nodded, he continued rapidly.

“I will take you to my father, he is with Mr Knight of the company at the moment.”

“The company?” Charlotte was catching his rapid way of talking.

“John Company, or the Honourable East India Company if you prefer. He is usually a miserable soul, convinced that we are trying to rob him, but whenever we offer to let him come down in the Bell to prove that we are not, he gets even crosser. But today he is in a very good mood, because of what we lifted.”

He opened the door at the back, this led into a smaller room, with a central table surrounded by shelves filled with various objects. By the table stood a tall man, an older version of the young man who had let them in, clearly Captain Braithwaite. At the table was a thin faced man who looked up crossly. Captain Braithwaite said something to him and he returned to his work, weighing a number of small cloth bags, then putting them back into a wooden chest.

“Mrs Bennet, I must apologise, I have to finish here. I trust you won’t mind waiting.”

The young captain helped her to a chair, he then walked over to the table and picked up one of the bags, this one had been opened. Mr Knight scowled at him as he tipped a handful of large silver coins into his hand.

“Silver dollars for trade with China. There was a fortune on board and yesterday we raised the last of the boxes of silver.”

“How many were there?” She asked, “And how much is it worth?”

“Sixty boxes, and all like this one.” He paused, “And worth just over thirty thousand pounds.”

Susan looked on in wide eyed amazement, there really was a fortune in sunken treasure there.

He handed the bag back to Mr Knight, who quickly counted the coins, then placed the bag with the others in the box, shut the lid and watched as it was nailed down. Then cord was tied tight round the box and he sealed the knot. He rose and turned to Captain Braithwaite.

“Thank you Captain, all is correct, we will remit your balance to your account here as requested.”

He left followed by two men carrying the box.

“Thank goodness that’s over.” The Captain smiled and turned to Charlotte.

“My apologies for that, but I am glad to be rid of that silver, it is safe in a bank and no longer my responsibility.”

“That is perfectly all right, I quite understand, indeed I now realise how you can easily repay the debt owed to my late husband.”

“Charles Bennet was a brave man, and I am very grateful to him. He believed in my machine and I am only sorry that I was never able to show it to him and what it could do.”

“Thank you sir, I am glad he was a good friend to you. I know I am a poor substitute, but would be very grateful, and very interested, if you could show me what it could do.”

“Of course madam.” He swept a hand round to show here the loaded shelves. “You saw the cloth and other items in the outer store, these are the more valuable objects raised.”

She looked at the mixed collection of china and metal work.

“What will happen to it?”

“It either goes back to the Company or is sold here.” He smiled, “And I get one eighth of everything for my trouble.”

“So for raising that silver?”

“I received nearly four thousand pounds.”

She gasped, he rose and went to a shelf, and lifted down a long object wrapped in cloth. As he unwrapped it she saw it was a naval officers sword, no it was more than that, it was a Patriotic Fund sword, given to officers who had distinguished themselves for their bravery.

“There are also some items that belong to people who were on board. This belonged to Captain Wordsworth, commander of the Abergavenny. His brother has asked us to look out for it as his family would like it back.”

Charlotte understood immediately.

“Of course, he must have been a very brave man to receive it.”

“I will be sending it north as soon as I can.” For a moment he looked at it in silence, then continued to describe the items he had found. After an hour he had finished. She followed him out of the store.

“Thank you Captain Braithwaite, my husband was clearly right to trust you with the money. And I will be happy for you to repay the loan early, there is just one more thing I would like to do.”

He looked puzzled.

“I would like to go out to the Endeavour to see the Bell.”

He looked at her sceptically, she was fashionably dressed, in clothes that were quite unsuitable for visiting a working vessel. She realised what he was thinking.

“I am a sailor’s daughter and a sailor’s widow, I have sailed on small vessels since I was a baby. I knew exactly what the Endeavour will be like.”

Reluctantly he nodded.

“Very well, I am sure that can be arranged.”

She smiled, then dropped her bombshell.

“And when I am there, I want to go down in the Bell.”

He looked at her in amazement.

“No, that is impossible, you cannot.”

“Then I will not allow you to repay the debt. Either I descend to the bottom of the sea, or you will pay all the interest owing when the debt is repaid next year.”

She turned her back on him, and the ‘Gallant Captain’s Lady’ left brave Captain Braithwaite standing in shock.

 

To be continued

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Mrs Bennet – The First Female Diver

Part 2 Captain Braithwaite’s wonderful machine

 

After breakfast Mrs Bennet made her way to the library, as she expected it was not just a place for reading books, but was also a shop selling newspapers, prints and souvenirs. The young man behind the counter was eager to give information, as the wreck of the East Indiaman Earl of Abergavenny and its subsequent salvage was one of the most exciting events to happen in the town since the King last visited. He brought out a large print showing the ship on the seabed, and a man walking around it inside a strange device.

“Though one of the sailors tells me that the actual machine is nothing like that, but he would say no more and I cannot find out what it really is like.”

“I suppose Captain Braithwaite needs to keep his machine secret, if it can do what you say it must be worth a lot of money?”

The young man nodded.

“Though you can see the machine from a distance, but you will need a telescope.” Then added eagerly, “we have several that can be hired if you would like one.”

He was disappointed that she refused, her late husband’s glass was in her hotel room, but cheered up when she bought two guide books to the town.

Weymouth Harbour

That afternoon she set off with her maid. Susan had discovered the address of the ‘Abergavenny Store’ where the goods raised from the ship were kept, before being sold or sent back to the East India Company in London. It was not far from the Assembly Rooms, down by the harbour. Here she left a letter for Captain Braithwaite, then they continued towards the grassy peninsula of the Nothe. Several of the men touched their hats to her as they walked by, Charlotte was surprised.

“It’s as though they know who I am.” She paused and looked at her maid. “Susan, have you been saying something?”

“Me Madam!”

“Yes, you. Tell me the truth.”

“Well,” She spoke nervously, “I was listening to some of the other servants in the hotel. They had realised that you were a rich widow, and were wondering how long before men came after you for your money. I knew that you wouldn’t want talk like that going around, so to stop it I told them that you were not long widowed and that your husband had died valiantly saving his ship from the French. So if ever you were to marry again it would be to a man just as gallant, and that you were only in Weymouth because of business that your husband had had with Captain Braithwaite.”

“But why are the sailors saluting me?”

“Because one of the servants called you the ‘Gallant Captain’s Lady’, and the name seems to have spread. I am very sorry madam”

Charlotte smiled to her maid.

“Don’t worry, I am glad you have done something to keep the fortune hunters off, I had forgotten that such men would be found here. And I rather like the sound of the ‘Gallant Captain’s Lady’, Charles was very brave.”

She was silent until they came to the end of the Nothe, the bare grassy peninsula that formed the southern side of the harbour. There they found a brick building manned by a few sailors who kept a watch over the bay, and a small crowd of holidaymakers. They were all looking at the same thing, a boat moored a little distance offshore. It had no sails, indeed no spars, set and was surrounded by several other boats, one of which seemed to be keeping some of the other vessels away from the moored craft.

The lieutenant stepped out of the lookout and saluted Mrs Bennet, clearly her identity had reached the sailors here.

“She’s keeping people away from the Endeavour, they have begun raising part of the cargo. Look.”

He pointed, several of the crowd had lifted small telescopes, just like the ones she had been shown in the library. Her maid took her husband’s telescope from her reticule and handed it to her. She expertly focussed it on the vessel, just in time to see a large bundle break the surface and be hoisted on board.

“What is it?” she asked the officer,

“Cloth I think, there was a large amount of it on board. I understand that it will be taken back to the store and washed.”

There was a sudden shout from the crowd.

“It’s coming up.”

She looked back at the ship, the water at the stern of the ship was bubbling, the sailors were straining at a windlass on the deck. Suddenly a shape broke the surface, a massive, black, truncated cone, as it rose above the surface ropes pulled it to one side and lowered it onto a raft moored by the Endeavour.  It settled on timber blocks, there was a moments calm then suddenly two men scrambled out from under the edge of the cone. Charlotte gasped, this was Captain Bennet’s wonderful machine. Those men had been to the bottom of the sea and returned!

“Oh Madam, that was amazing, who would have thought that you could go to the bottom of the sea like that. I was terrified, I wouldn’t like to do that would you?” Susan couldn’t stop talking about it.

Charlotte just smiled, “I don’t know about that, but you are right it is amazing.”

That evening Charlotte looked in more detail at the papers her lawyer had given her. If she understood the agreement between her late husband and Captain Braithwaite correctly, she was actually part owner of that wonderful machine!

 

To be continued

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