The Mary Rose, flagship of Henry VIII’s fleet, was raised from its tomb in the Solent in 1982 by a group of scientists, archaeologists and Royal Engineer divers. Reporter Michelle Blade spoke to one of the divers involved in the project, Tom Bridges, who was born in Lancaster, brought up in Heysham and is publishing his fascinating story as a book
Tom Bridges, 57, who lives in Torrisholme, has been a long distance lorry driver for Riley’s of Heysham since 2009, but from humble beginnings he became involved in raising one of the most historic ships of all time during his time as a diver for the Royal Engineers.
Tom, who is married to Jacqueline, with a son and a daughter, Connor, and Terri, said: “I joined the military in September of 1978 and left in August of 2009 and I was extremely fortunate to be asked to assist in the recovery of the Mary Rose from the Solent in June/July of 1982.
“It was a particularly busy time for Britain’s Armed Forces as they were preparing to move down to the Falklands.
“Whilst I was actually sat on the wreck site preparing to dive I watched as the task force set off.
“I was a young sapper in the Royal Engineers serving in Northern Ireland at the time. Only eight-12 divers per regiment were needed.
“It was well above my paygrade. As a young sapper (private in the Royal Engineers) you volunteered for something if you were interested.
“I thought I was going for a driving course so I must have misheard them when they said diving.
“I went along with it. We went to Southampton and were given three days to see if we were fit enough mentally, physically and physiologically.
“On my course there were 32 guys and only seven passed the diving course including me. There were diving teams from all over the UK and Germany.
“A four man diving team was despatched to assist in the recovery of the famous wreck.
“The wreck of the Mary Rose was on the seabed and had to be brought to the surface, it was entombed in the sea bed and everything was encapsulated and preserved in it.
“The manual labour of raising the ship was our job.
“The whole project was to dig two deep trenches on the seabed which the ship was entombed in.
“It was at a depth of 16 metres and you had to be aware of the tidal flow which comes in and out four times.
“One hour before or after the tide came in or out was the ideal opportunity as you had to time your dives for that time. Instead of digging as you traditionally do we removed the muddy seabed by using huge ‘Airlifts’. An airlift is like a huge hoover and it sucks up the seabed and deposits it behind and out of the way of the working diver.
“As soon as the open end of the airlift is buried in the seabed by the diver the seabed is sucked up along the hose.
“The diver has to remain switched on as if the airlift hits an obstruction like a rock or something solid within the seabed the action caused reverses, and blows against the solid obstruction and this can result in the diver being blown up through the water towards the surface at a fast rate. This is very dangerous, a fast uncontrollable ascent by the diver can have serious consequences and he could end up severely injured.
“As soon as the diver feels resistance within the airlift he quickly switches off the air supply by rotating the tap and clears the object from the end of the airlift, turns the air back on and continues.
“I should have kept my hand on the air tap but I had relaxed a little and about 20 minutes into the dive I suddenly felt the huge pipe shudder and buck against my shoulder.
“I was thrown hard against the pipe and I felt myself being forced up and away from the murky seabed and even with the heavy boots which had lead insoles.
“I was travelling upward fast. I felt the pipe relax as the surface crew managed to turn the air off, there was a brief moment of clarity for me as my upward speed slowed and then stopped.
“I suddenly started to drop back down towards the seabed. I landed with a thud in the soft bottom of the seabed and everything was black with the disturbance of my impact.
“My ears were ringing from the drop and I hastily started to clear out the obstruction which had caused my mishap. The obstruction felt like a boulder and was stuck fast in the end of the airlift.
“As it turned out the next diver could not clear the obstruction either. The obstruction was a human skull from the Mary Rose. There was lots of rigging on the ship and a lot of the rigging had trapped the sailors on the seabed.
“The silt had preserved it massively and some of the things that were found you would not think should have survived.
“They brought up human flesh which had been preserved for 400 years.
“A lot of people died on the ship, there were 400 people on it, all preserved. Skeletons were recovered from the ship.
“The archers had really well-developed shoulders, one was a shipwright who had a spinal deformity. The officers didn’t have the wear and tear on their bones.
“ The fighters had lots of small injuries and there was lots of bone damage from the constant exertion.
“Scientists could identify what each of them did from where they were found and the state of the skeleton.
“Sinking was the last thing on their minds but it was over and done with before they left the harbour.”
Tom said: “There is a whole museum dedicated to the Mary Rose in Portsmouth at the dockyard, you can walk round it and see a Henry VIII era ship.
“The museum which houses the Mary Rose is a really good display. The raising of the Mary Rose was a really big effort on most parts, and it cost thousands.
“I feel honoured and privileged to have been part of it. It makes you appreciate what went on in those times.
“You can imagine how uncomfortable it must have been on a long voyage. It must have been horrific.”
He said: “I left the forces as a Captain Royal Marines/SBS in August 2009 and settled back into my home town area here in Torrisholme.
“Not bad for a council estate nobody from the rough end of the tracks.
“I do enjoy writing and recording. I think it is especially important as age dims the memory somewhat.”
*Tom’s book called ‘Just add Water’ is waiting to be published.
Extract from ‘Just add Water’ (JaW) written by Jack Tercon (pseudonym of Tom Bridges)
What was the Mary Rose?
The Mary Rose, was the mightiest ship in Henry VIII’s fleet and, in many ways, embodies the monarch’s rule over England.
A byword for excess in the 16th century, the Mary Rose weighed in around 700 tons and was armed with over 70 guns and could carry a combined crew of around 400.
After a career engaging with the French Fleet during the French Wars, and then a recent refit, the Mary Rose sailed out to meet the French Fleet in battle on the 19th July 1545, keeled over, and sank into the Solent, with some sources claiming it hadn’t even fired a shot.
What made the disaster even more poignant was that the king himself watched his great ship founder from the Spithead along with thousands of other spectators. Over 400 men died, a massive loss of life but in those days not many sailors could swim. All this happened within sight of the harbour.
Over the centuries many salvage attempts had been made to raise the infamous ship from its clay tomb, but in 1982 a group of scientists, archaeologists and Royal Engineer divers grouped together to finally raise the battleship. The mighty bones of the ship are now on permanent display in the Mary Rose Museum at Portsmouth’s ancient dockyard.