A History of York Sub-Aqua Club

By Denis Moor

Not a lot of people know that York was once the top branch in the BSAC and we also had a signed certificate presented to us by the Duke of Edinburgh. Read on and I will explain all about it later.

York BSAC was created in 1957, or rather it evolved from York Underwater Research Group. All the early meetings were conducted in pubs around York city centre. They were quite formal affairs, the committee members in best suits, briefcases under arms.

We were eventually offered a piece of land on Butcher Terrace; very close to the river, and it was there the members built their own club house from a wooden brewery office. The interior was re-designed to create a large clubroom with bar, a lecture room, office and ladies and gents toilets. Members supplied all materials at cost and worked month after month until it was completed. In addition a compressor house was constructed alongside the clubhouse. At the time Whitbread’s were the only brewery that would give us a licence and after a whip round a small group of members agreed the money as guarantors.

Various groups used our facilities, including International Club, Country and Western and Karate club; dancing groups and private parties were always welcome, and the Yorkshire Federation of divers met there on Sundays.

York Club entertained hundreds of divers from far and wide at our annual river race, relay and raft race. We would wine and dine them with much help from wives and girlfriends and off duty divers; and made a considerable amount of money. Other revenue was provided by our film shows donated by various European Embassies, and other “shows” which I won’t go into, but was eventually discouraged for fear of legal action.

We invited speakers to talk to our members such as the Royal Commission for Historical Monuments, Dr David Bellamy, Professor Alan Binns who was the East Coast Representative for the British Underwater Archaeological Society;- he it was who commanded the Viking Fleet in the film “The Vikings”; and was also captain of the “Winston Churchill” sailing ship.

We used the club house for many years providing a marvellous atmosphere, with hundreds of artefacts around the room, and we also had a large showcase, until it was accidentally give the chop by a Karate club member.


The very early divers in York Club were not exactly pioneers of the Diving World, but they had their moments. Two of the hardy lads used a lake near Elvington for their training. They donned their woolly jumpers and walked in with a bucket on their heads, weighted down by heavy ploughshares. Guess what? They took it in turns to pump air into the bucket with a war-time stirrup pump. They turned out to be early exponents of the emergency free ascent when the bucket tilted!!!

Diving suits have now come full circle from 1957. Early members used the old frogman suit, progressing to Dunlop “dry suits”! The elite went on to the French Tarzan wetsuit used by the Cousteau team of divers. A cheaper system was to purchase a made to measure kit, which was glued together with horrible black stuff. Taking a likely lad for his “snorkel oral” and questioning him regarding the most vulnerable part of the body to cold, eureka he had it “yer F*****g Kn****rs”. The proof proffered that on a club dive to High Force in April, one of the club members suits came unstuck between the legs; “he dint arf holler out”. Now of course the modern day dry suit is absolutely superb, allowing deeper and warmer diving, but it’s possible to glimpse one of these old wet suits lurking about the parked vehicles along Seahouses Harbour! Very occasionally.

The club began with a few 750 litre bottles converted from bomber aircraft oxygen cylinders. Often they were twinned up for actual diving. The first regulators were modified calor gas regulators very noisy on pool training. Eventually we progressed to Mistral, Heinke, Submarine Products and “Sealion” valves. No lifejackets then; but one had to be absolutely desperate to


ditch a weight belt. we were trained to perform a fresh water free ascent and a second-class 40-50 feet free ascent! They had a few air embolisms carrying out this training so the practice ceased! Incidentally our members conducted these ascents is Filey Bay.


Our training began in St Georges Baths, progressing to yearsley and Rowntrees open air pools. We also used the Bootham pool (9 feet deep), St Peter’s School, St John College and the Barbican High Diving pool (12 feet deep), to complete initial training. We even produced a training film. A team of divers had to go to Yearsley open-air pool at 6.00am week after week where they were filmed with an early underwater camera system belonging to one of our members. Other filming was completed at St Abbs and Flamborough Head. We genarally progressed to open water using snorkelling equipment and no one was allowed to dive in open water until they had completed aqualung training in the pool. Typically these dives were undertaken at sites such as the river Ouse, Grimsby docks, Sand Hutton Lake, the Stridd (near Bolton Abbey) , Appletreewick, Kearby Sands (Wetherby), The Derwent and Lake Gormire. Unlike today’s diving, members were “slightly” restricted with us only having a small hard boat with a 6hp engine. Member trained quite a few disabled people to dive. I recollect a one legged trainee who was very enthusiastic. In the days before we had any boats he would slide down the cliffs at Thornwick Bay on his arse to get to the water. Getting him back up to the top of the cliff after the dive was a bit of a struggle, particularly on a hot summers day. He also insisted on limping up to the Hardrow Force with crutches and his bottle on his back. It turned out to be only six feet deep when we dived it, but one member did find a Leica Camera. Whether he eventually got it working we don’t know.

“Now then” you should be really proud of York BSAC, as we were the first club to win the coveted Heinke Trophy in 1960. The trophy was awarded to the most progressive club in the fields of training and advanced diving. Four 1st class divers rose from our ranks, one a founder member, became “Diver of Distinction” in the old diver magazine. He had one leg; tall and aristocratic, he wore webbed gloves to aid his progress through the water. On a dive to determine the course of a fresh water spring and cave below Fast Castle, north of St Abbs, he demonstrated how to eat raw sea urchins. Another was an American Top Coastguard, who read about Lloyd Bridges who starred in the diving series “Sea Hunt”; and was a York BSAC honorary member. He wrote to our committee and we arranged for him to take his 1st Class in an American University. He passed with honours and eventually formed the BSAC of America. Another well-known member of the club and 1st class diver produced the first amateur underwater film ever “Neptune’s Needles”, featuring an area off the south coast. Today he is one of the world’s foremost authorities on Dolphins and author of over 20 books.

We received a certificate signed by the Duke of Edinburgh for our work on “Operation Kelp” Dr David Bellamy came down to our clubhouse to give us instruction. With the help of East York’s club, we dived in Selwicks Bay (pronounced Silex) off Flamborough gathering kelp samples from various depths. With the help of wives and girlfriends and off duty members, we measured everything found in metres square units, cooked them to ash and sent the results to Durham University check copper, lead and mercury content. Our area proved to be quite good. We also performed “operation starfish” at Filey Brigg and a pollution monitoring station.

Needless to say our members undertook a tremendous amount of work, there were no HSE regulations in those days. Net line clearance from boats props, repairs to Castle Mills , Naburn and Linton locks. Surveys on gates laying quick drying cement, helping fisheries clearing obstructions in Lakes, Rivers etc. No one really volunteered to work in the Foss, but inevitably it happened, especially around the incinerator outlet. The water was hot and filthy black; afterwards one had to shower nearly forever to get clean. If you cut yourself it was more than likely you would end up in hospital! You could liken it to a small river running parallel to the Suez canal in Egypt. We were instructed that if one fell in we could get a jab for every disease known to man.

A number of club divers responded to a call from the “Three Cups” pub in Stamford Bridge. This hostelry has the unusual feature of a wishing well incorporated into the bar. It turns out that this was the actual fresh water supply to the tavern prior to the mains water. On arrival at the pub layers of coins could clearly be seen through the clear water. The well itself was about four feet in diameter and about five metres deep to the surface of the water, a very restricted and claustrophobic diving location . The smallest available diver volunteered, was winched down to the water an called for his diving gear, as he could not touch bottom. In three metres of water , which turned inky black from sediment on the bottom, he cleared out the well and we even managed to winch him back to the bar. We were informed that almost three hundred pounds had been recovered and presented to the local Lions Club to aid local charities. Not a job for everyone and impossible with the current HSE rulings. We collected water specimens from the bottom of Ouse Wharf and the Derwent for a fresh water survey being carried out by Bootham, St Peters and Pocklington public schools. We undertook a river search for a crashed wartime aircraft, which we were able to locate. Members raised anchors from various sites on the Farne Islands and presented one to the Grace Darling Museum at Bamburgh. Various articles from an ongoing search of the site of the “Forfarshire” wreck were donated to the museum. An aircraft propeller was raised from near Beadnell and helped to decorate the old club house.

One member together with a boat owner from Beadnell bought the wreck of the “Somali” in Beadnell bay and the “Breda” off Oban in Scotland. Together with town professional divers they worked the wrecks for some time. I once saw our member’s lorry bringing a very large bronze prop into his scrap yard at Pocklington. I do believe it was “found” one foggy day on the Farnes. Another group bought the wreck of “SS Paris” off Boggle Hole and then asked the local authorities if they could remove the prop with explosives. They refused on the grounds that it would shake the houses down in Robin Hoods bay; so the group spend a considerable amount of time and effort trying to saw through the shaft. Someone went along one night and blew off the prop and the houses are still there!!

One enterprising member in 1961 bought a ticket to Eilat Israel, hired a bottle and sat in the shallows day after day filming fish with his old Eumig Cine camera. He later moved on to help Ted Falcon Barker survey an underwater Roman City near Dubrovnik and featured in the book “1600 years under the Sea”

We began our travels early, in the sixties and seventies , had club dives to the Oban area with other members going off to Elba, South of France, the Greek Islands, Sardinia and Malta. One member in the seventies designed an underwater transmitter/receiver to work with a Heinke full-face mask and another an airlift. Both were used to carry out survey work in the rivers Ouse and Derwent.

We regularly worked with Police divers and once provided nearly thirty divers to sweep search the Ouse through York for a missing child, a horrible job. Two of our members undertook Guest Speaker roles at York and Durham University’s, York Underwater Conservation Society and the Scottish Underwater film festival held at Dunblane Hydro. To this day one of the members still travels the world giving talks on Dolphin preservation.

We have had our characters and heroes:- one decided to swim from York to Selby one February and managed to talk two others into accompanying him on the marathon swim. Unfortunately they lacked the fortitude and stamina of the principle and gave up at Naburn. He on the other hand carried on completing 20 miles before climbing out in his wetsuit. During the swim members sustained him from our boat while he swam on his back, with chocolate, soup and as his wife says “Fags”. No one else has ever repeated the feat!!! I wonder why.

The club had more fresh water divers, mainly through lack of boats. Two favourites were Appletreewick and the “Stridd” near Bolton Abbey. There was a stone memorial at the bottom of Appletreewick to a girl member from Bradford Club. It was her special dive site and when she died the memorial was placed there by her friends. The Stridd narrows (Wharf) to about five feet wide and caverns out underwater. Quite a few people have been killed when trying to jump across the river. after falling in they have become trapped under the overhands and drowned. One older member (who still sits near the bar) was an expert at catching crayfish here, I am sure he would love to converse with you, regarding how large they were.

Two of our members in the sixties were finning back to shore on a dive a Saltwick Bay near Whitby when one of the divers noticed his buddy was unconscious in the water, his mask neatly drilled by a .22 bullet and full of blood. He quickly took h took him in tow with the bloody idiot on the cliff top, with telescopic sites, peppering them thinging they were seals. Realising his mistake he foolishly came down and luckily for him, some of our police divers managed to restrain our rescuer, a seventeen stone Blacksmith, or near murder would have ensued! Our hero was presented with a gold medal and a weekend in London for his efforts. We were reliably informed the head wound of our rescued diver healed remarkably well. Shortly afterwards he hired one of the donkeys at Coble Landing Filey to transport his diving gear to the end of the Brigg; we know he was on the mend then.

From that time on however, when diving off Flamborough, his fins would be the first things to break the surface at the end of a dive. He maintained this was his party piece; we often wondered!!!

A funny thing happened shortly afterwards; some bright spark bought fluorescent paint and members painted the hoods bright yellow. Unfortunately they disintegrated and there was a bit of bother; were these the first day glow hoods?

They were forgotten about until, at a later date, we misplaced two divers snorkelling with about fifty seals around the Crumstone Rock on the outer Farnes. We eventually found them and as a result made it mandatory to wear the new day glow hoods for many years.

Bloody Hell I could go on forever, but suffice it to say that due to super training, vigilance and a bit of luck, in York BSAC you have a club to be proud of.

I have deliberately kept this article impersonal as quite a few of the members mentioned have unfortunately passed on from the world. As they use to tell us in National Service:- “No names, no pack drill”!!!

Denis Moor