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.
4 responses to “Mrs Bennet – The First Female Diver”
That was a great story – I loved your feisty heroine!
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Gosh, this was enjoyable. It features the same device as Lucy Wood’s short story “Diving Belles” (2012), but her tale is folkoric and part fantasy. It is set in Cornwall. I knew that there must be historical bones to her flesh and thank you for sharing a more realistic account of a diving bell.
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Glad you enjoyed it, as you will have realised most of the characters in my tale were real. I also based my description of the Bell on contemporary descriptions of bells, though no one knows exactly what John Braithwaite’s was like as it was very efficient and he kept the details secret as salvaging vessels made him a fortune.
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Love how you weaved a story out of this event. Very clever, and very interesting.