URG: THE EARLY YEARS

Colin has handed over the URG History archive after many years of conservation and addition with an enthusiasm that will be hard to emulate. (Hence, Michael and I will share the role.) Especially for all newer members, but also for those of longer standing who may have missed it, we thought it only fitting that “The Earlier Years” written by Colin in 2014 be re published.

Janet.


UNDERWATER RESEARCH GROUP OF NEW SOUTH WALES

THE EARLY YEARS


The following short announcement appeared on page 6 in the July 1956 edition of Australian Skin Diving & Spearfishing Digest:


“It has been resolved by a general meeting of the U.R.G., that a request be made to the U.S.F.A. (Underwater Skindivers & Fishermen’s Association) of N.S.W., to allow the U.R.G. to function as a separate identity, with affiliation to the U.S.F.A. of N.S.W.


The reason being that we have also become affiliated with research groups all over the world, and the rules of such associations, is that no fish can be taken unless for scientific purposes; also, that some scientific personnel who are associated with the U.R.G. are not willing to join the U.S.F.A. because they have no interest in the sport of spearfishing.”


These 2 paragraphs are signed by Brian R. Weston, Hon Sec., U.R.G., and, noting the impeccable punctuation evident in Brian Weston’s short letter, it would seem that it was at this time the Underwater Research Group assumed it’s own identity. The U.S.F.A. itself came into being earlier, and in the June 1955 edition of the aforementioned ‘digest’ there is a piece entitled “Looking Backward”; it points to April 4th 1948 as being the day that the first meeting of “our club”, (at that time titled Underwater Spear Fisherman’s Association), took place. The change of wording to “Skindivers & Fishermen” in the club’s name happened in 1953.


Between these two events, in 1953 what ultimately became the URG was formed under the name of the Underwater Explorer’s Club, and it is worth quoting in full the text that appeared in the April 1953 Spearfishing News.


“THE UNDERWATER EXPLORERS’ CLUB


This club is being formed by the banding together of experienced spearfishermen, divers and underwater photographers, who are anxious to create a pool of equipment from which they can draw to undertake certain underwater projects of photography, salvage, exploration and marine observation. Because of the physical and technical hazards, it is essential that the club foundation membership be kept to small numbers, which can be expanded as self-contained breathing equipment becomes available and men are trained to act as leaders for underwater teams of not less than three and not more than five.


The procurement of this equipment will be effected by capital investment by members in stages (£5 application and four calls of £5), which share would be transferable subject to Club conditions. Before entry into the Club the prospective member would be given a medical examination and his underwater experience, etc., reviewed by a select committee. He would be given instructions on the use of equipment, underwater techniques and trained to take part in underwater teams, which would plan and carry out under water projects in a mature and carefully controlled manner.


If you are interested and wish to take part in these functions, please fill in the appended form, which will be placed on record and as the importation of the necessary equipment makes expansion possible, you will be invited to pay the £5 application fee, and then progressively as required over a period, the subsequent £5 calls making the total cost of membership of £25, which entitles you to share in the use of equipment valued at approximately £1,500, including breathing equipment (air line and self-contained), photographic flash and sound equipment, tape recorder, underwater instruments, such as depth meters, watches, compasses, two-way microphones and small craft for the surface escort of the underwater parties. It is planned to supplement Club funds by the organized salvage of wrecks and keels.

The Underwater Explorers’ Club will work in the closest co-operation with the U.S.F.A. and “Spearfishing News” will be available as its official organ.” Spearfishing News April 1953 p4


The organizers at that time were Don Linklater, Wally Gibbons, Dr Roscoe Fay, Dick Charles, Rod McNeill and Ron Ware, and such was their enthusiasm, they were prepared to commit to almost half the weekly basic wage at the time just to become a member, and further, be prepared to pay almost 2 weeks wages when required. - Australian Bureau of Statistics web site


Much of the activity of the Underwater Explorers’ Club is well documented in issues of the Skin Diving & Spearfishing Digest; in Tom Byron’s “History of Spearfishing and Scuba Diving in Australia, the first 80 years 1917-1997” and in Jeff Maynard’s “Divers in Time”.


The process of building equipment, trying it out, fine-tuning etc. as well as some salvage operations (of varying degrees of success) and research projects, was that clubs very raison d’être.

As previously mentioned, it was in 1956, with Karl Neubauer as President that the Underwater Research Group of New South Wales, as we know it today, came into existence, a complete break having being made with the spearfishing based U.S.F.A. - Skindiving for July, 1956 p 12.


I have seen references stating that both Brian Weston, and Karl Neubauer were the original Presidents of the URG at that time; given that the letter quoted above was signed by the former as “Hon Secretary” it would seem to indicate that Karl Neubauer did in fact hold the position of President.



The original URG logo, a decal which graced the back of the author's Mini in 1966


By the early 1960s as we know, diving gear was becoming more readily available in sporting-goods stores. This was not the case when the Underwater Explorers’ Club commenced operation in the previous decade, though I notice there is an advertisement in the October 1953 issue of Spearfishing News for the “Essjay” Aqualung (no price mentioned), and on the back of the December 1953 issue, Mick Simmons, a Sydney sporting goods store advertised “the sensational PORPISE diving Unit”; the price was £65/10/-. That would have been about 5 weeks wages, so it is little wonder that people were building their own gear! It is interesting to note that previously, the Mick Simmons ad always featured spearguns and gear that, it was stated somewhat optimistically I’d say, “Defies Winter Cold”. I’ll bet!

Thumbing through the old magazines, one reads accounts of the discovery of the Dunbar wreck off Dover Heights in Sydney, and of the Lord Ashley off Terrigal; of the car salvage at Cremorne Point, which almost ended in disaster when one of the supporting 44 gallon drums began to break loose while the still submerged car was under tow.


There are technical articles dealing with all aspects of regulator 1st and 2nd stages as well as social news. There is also in existence, an amusing one-minute newsreel clipping of the URG at Clovelly Pool in 1957, demonstrating the art of eating and drinking underwater.


The earliest URG Bulletin we have in our possession is from May 1962, at that time called “URG News”, (the name Bulletin was introduced in March 1965, which coincided with the Groups 101st Meeting). The September 1957 issue of Skin Diving & Spearfishing Digest is the last copy we have, so there is a gap of about 5 years in written documentation. Several years ago I taped lengthy interviews with Clarrie Lawler and Frank Davis, both of whom joined the URG around 1960-61 and they painted a vivid picture of what the URG was about in those days.



Clarrie Lawler using a Dawson Flowmatic in the 1960s. He said it was more 'flow' than 'matic'!


Certainly, there was an up-surge in research activities and members were involved with such organizations as the “Artificial Respiration Council of Australia” and the “Shark Research Society”. A long-standing association with the Australian Museum in Sydney was in its early days, and Elizabeth Pope from the Museum was an interested participant in the Group’s activities. A tremendous amount of fauna and flora was collected, and to this day, much of it remains in the Museum’s collection.


The club also took part in research and some ‘collecting’ activities for the University of New South Wales. Pre-dating “Clean up Australia Day” by several decades, the URG coordinated an annual “Good Deed Clean-up” in Manly Pool; this was the large swimming enclosure (destroyed in the 1974 storms) on the western side of the ferry wharf.


The club also ran weekly dives at such sites as Bare Island (including Congwong Bay), La Perouse, Thompsons Bay, Long Reef, Fairlight, Camp Cove and Glaisher Point. There were rare offshore dives from a hired trawler to Boat Harbour and Jibbon Reefs south of Sydney, and to the “Pinnacles” off Maroubra, but nearly all diving was shore based. The use of hired trawlers increased through the 60s and ultimately, the URG bought its own boat. This, plus other boats owned by members provided diving platforms to take club activities further afield.


Other projects included salvaging early 20C artillery shells at Bare Island in Botany Bay, and some members, according to the March 1963 Bulletin even “tried their hand at prospecting for gold in mountain streams”. In late 1962 trials of a “Sea Sledge” (sic) took place and the accompanying photo may well have been taken at La Perouse at the craft’s initial launch; towed behind a boat, it provided Wally Gibbons and Dave Landor with what must have been an interesting experience when they tested it out.



URG Sledge (sic) being launched; in the foreground is Dave Landor and opposite him is Barry Jentsch


The URG divers were asked to collect an assortment of ‘poisonous’ species from around Sydney for a Medical conference display, and in 1967 the club mounted an exhibition of underwater-related subjects at Bankstown Square, a large shopping centre in Sydney. A wonderful anecdote from that exhibition concerned a mother trying to lure her obviously interested small son away from Neville Coleman’s comprehensive collection of murex shells that were on display by using words like “come on, we have to go…you have all those at home anyway”. I wonder if he grew up to be a diver?


The monthly Bulletins contained articles dealing with diving physiology, over-seas technology and advancements in both submersible vehicles and underwater habitats, diving techniques, reviews of equipment plus other club-related subjects. There were also some brilliant articles focusing on Marine Biology, and the pieces written by Clarrie Lawler and Neville Coleman in particular, still make interesting reading 45 years later. The Bulletin was distributed as far afield as New Zealand and the UK, The research undertaken included what was called “Operation Sea Slab”; a 60kg structure some 75cm by 50cm on the seabed at Glaisher Point. The surface of the ‘slab’ was covered in areas of brass, copper, aluminium, glass and marine ply to determine which marine life was attracted to which surface. Studies of cleaner prawns (Stenopus hispidus) even made it into the Sunday Telegraph in 1964. There is an amusing account, in the February 1967 Bulletin from a diary, fastidiously kept, recording the activities of 2 such shrimps in a home aquarium.


The other area where the URG had an impact in Sydney was the diving school, and in the early 60s, Wally Gibbons and David Landor were the 2 senior “Diving School Officers”. I first became aware of the URG in 1965 when, having left school, I was keen to learn to dive. At that time, the VERY comprehensive training course was undertaken under the guidance of the senior members of the club, a system that had been in place since before they had broken away from the spearfishing community. The equipment was a mixture of the old (smaller 40 cu ft cylinders and some twin hose regs), and the new, (Porpoise, US Divers and Healthways regs and more modern 72 cu ft tanks). The schools were run regularly at such places as Manly Pool, Clovelly Bay and Clifton Gardens.


The major identities in the URG of 1965 when I joined were Howard Couch (President) and Clarrie Lawler (Secretary); others were Colin Trounce, Walt and Jean Deas, Neville Coleman, Dave Landor (Treasurer, who was my instructor in Feb 1966), Les and Fran Graham, Frank Davis, and Ken Mullard.


As a newly trained diver, I was always aware that the old hands were more than willing to keep an eye on us young blokes, and there was always a feeling of support, guidance and help. (I should say that this aspect of the URG has not changed to this day). Colin Trounce used to hire gear for a price even a student could afford, and he particularly was a source of much advice, dispensed with a cup of tea in the garage of his home at Miranda. This was conveniently close to Shiprock, a popular dive site in Port Hacking, where during many hours underwater, I learned much about diving.


In the driveway of Colin’s home, probably in 1967, I took a photograph of a 2-man chariot on a trailer, but unfortunately, I never saw this device in the water. In Kim Bonython’s autobiography “Ladies Legs and Lemonade” (Rigby 1979) on page 121, there is a picture, taken in 1960, of Bonython and Mac Lawrie in what looks very much like the same chariot. In the book Bonython describes buying the craft in Los Angeles in the late 1950s from Gustav Dalla Valle, an Italian who owned a business manufacturing and distributing underwater gear, with branches throughout America.



Two man chariot photographed in Colin Trounce's driveway in 1967 or 68. It is probably the same device that Kim Bonython imported from Italy late in the 1950s


The craft was manufactured at Livorno in Italy and delivered directly to Bonython in Adelaide. It is described as being 15 feet long, made of fiberglass and being powered by three 12v car batteries. I assume someone somewhere knows what might have become of this ‘toy’ as Bonython described it. It appeared in the TV series ‘Skippy” according to the book, but after that, who knows? In my recorded interview with Frank Davis in 1994, he said with no prompting from me, that he thought the craft that Colin Trounce owned, originally belonged to Kim Bonython.


The meetings in those days, held in the YMCA in Pitt Street Sydney on the 3rd Wednesday of every month were a combination of formality under the Chairmanship of Howard Couch, and interesting guest speakers. We were also lucky to see on many occasions some of Walt Deas’ superb underwater photos, taken with his 2¼ square format Rolleimarin camera. To us, they were astonishing, and far superior to the 35mm attempts we made with the French Calypso Camera (eventually bought out by Nikon to become the ubiquitous Nikonos). The President also used to bring various diving related 16mm films to show as well.


The first ‘research’ project I had anything to do with took place at Shiprock on November 6th 1966. It was a 12-hour survey of the site, with divers entering the water every hour, on the hour between 6AM and 6PM to take various readings and samples. This was probably the 1st time such an undertaking had been attempted in Sydney, and the results established a ‘base-line’ set of data for future reference. Apparently, according to the Bulletin, Howard Couch shot 500 feet of film of the event, but as far as I can ascertain, all trace of that has been lost.



Page from Frank Davis' log book detailing dives done at the Shiprock 12 hour survey. Note with interest that one C. Piper and his cousin R. Avery did 1 dive on the day!


Howard passed away at the end of the 60s, and in his memory, the URG placed a bronze plaque underwater at Shiprock, which can still be seen there today. Howard had stopped diving when I first encountered him, but had certainly been a driving force in the Club for many years.


The other object that was placed at Shiprock in 1969 was the “Portable Underwater Tent”, or PUT as it became known. Anyone who was in the club at that time recalls the device, securely anchored to the bottom, a metal frame about the size of a small kitchen table containing a plastic sheet, into which compressed air was pumped from extra cylinders, so on the bottom it became possible for 2 to 3 divers to poke their heads up and have a conversation underwater! Exactly WHY this was thought to be a worthy project is not recorded, but the story of its demise is well remembered. When full of air, the plastic gave way and the resulting air bubble raced for the surface at terrific speed, expanding rapidly as it went. Onlookers on the surface who witnessed this once in a lifetime sight spoke in terms of a depth charge going off, or a volcanic eruption!




Frank Davis described a small ‘tinny’ with a few fishermen on board making a hasty retreat! A full account of the PUT, and its modified replacement was re-printed in the December 2005 issue of the URG Bulletin which is available on the URG website.


By 1970, the Underwater Research Group was well established in Sydney and many of its members, over a period of 20 odd years, had been instrumental in bringing both “Diving” and “Underwater Research” before the eyes of a wider public. The older generation of diving pioneers who literally had to make their own gear, had given away to a younger generation who were able to take the club’s “Research” to a new level. The 1970s saw the emergence of clubs like The St George Scuba Club” and “Ryde Underwater Club”, as well as the first appearance of the dive shop affiliated clubs; that, plus the emergence of the training organizations such as FAUI, NAUI and PADI changed the dynamics of diving and dive instruction forever.



Clarrie Lawler at Shiprock in November 1966, coordinating the 12 hour survey dive. The logistics were challenging to say the least!


At the URG, we are in the process of putting all of the old “URG News” and URG Bulletins” on our web site www.urgdiveclub.org.au This is a lengthy process, but ultimately, will provide a useful research tool in the future. With a direct link back to the establishment of the USFA in1948, the Underwater Research Group of New South Wales can arguably claim to be the longest surviving ‘dive club’ in the Country.

Colin J Piper April 2014



Bill Lucas Lady Musgrave Island 1973


Bibliography

  • Spearfishing News

  • Australian Skin Diving & Spearfishing Digest

  • URG News and Bulletins

  • Bonython K. 1979. Ladies Legs and Lemonade

  • Byron T. 1999. History of Spearfishing and Scuba Diving in Australia, the first 80 years 1917-1997

  • Maynard J. 2002. Divers in Time

  • Recorded interviews with Clarrie Lawler 2003 and Frank Davis 2004

  • U.S.F.A website

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