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Family delve for information on 100-year-old dive death mystery

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John Hambling, who worked in the former Royal Naval Dockyards, with other divers who built piers in South Shields in the UK. (Photograph supplied)

A British family has appealed for help to trace information about an ancestor who died in a diving accident in Bermuda more than a century ago.

Phillip Hambling added that relatives also hoped to solve the mystery of what happened to John Hambling’s diving helmet, which was attached to his gravestone at St James’ Church, Sandys, and was in place until at least the 1960s.

Mr Hambling said his great-great grandfather was believed to have died in a diving accident in 1903 and was buried in the churchyard at St James’.

He added: “We hoped that we might be able to find out more about his story, along with the helmet and where it might me.”

He emphasised: “It’s not something we would expect to take back with us, but I think it would be great in the national museum.

“It would be fitting to have it stay in Bermuda and maybe we can sort some background to help tell his story and that of the thousands like him who came to Bermuda to help make it the island that it is today.”

Mr Hambling said John was part of a commercial diving team in northeast England, where they built piers on then-thriving River Tyne in South Shields.

He later travelled to Bermuda to work on a project in the West End, but Mr Hambling said he was not sure if the contract was at the Royal Naval Dockyard or for the construction of one of the West End bridges.

Mr Hambling said the family had known that John had died in an industrial accident while diving, but nothing more.

He said a relative had visited the island with the Royal Navy in the 1960s and tracked down his gravesite in St James’ Church and the diving helmet was still on the grave.

Mr Hambling said the story had inspired him – along with his father, Douglas, uncle Alan and cousin Paul – to come to Bermuda last October to see if they could track down more details.

He added: “We see that his gravestone says he died in September 1903 and that the stone was paid for by his colleagues as a mark of respect – despite the grave itself being a pauper’s grave.

“We understand that the marble gravestone that marks his resting place would have come at considerable cost to his colleagues and we can only suggest that they held him in high regard and felt it inappropriate to let him be buried in an unmarked grave so far from home.”

Mr Hambling said the family had been unable to find out much more about the death while on the island.

He added: “The death certificate suggests he probably died of a stroke but it’s not clear exactly what happened.”

Mr Hambling said a diver from the Caribbean, John Ellis, had died of suffocation four months earlier while he worked in the Dockyard project and faulty equipment was blamed.

Mr Hambling said the death of Mr Ellis was recorded in The Royal Gazette, but he had been unable to find reports of John’s fatal accident.

He added: “Our leading theory of what might have happened is that his death may well have been caused by the same issues that caused the Caribbean man’s demise and that the timing of John’s death will have unhelpfully coincided with the ongoing inquest and perhaps the story may have been suppressed.

“This is of course speculation, but we would dearly love to find out more about what he was doing in Bermuda and indeed how he came to his end.

“He had one son in the UK, but he has a large number of descendants who wouldn’t be here without him and are keen to learn more of his story.”

Mr Hambling said the family had tried to find more information at St James’, Dockyard and the public records office.

Chris Gauntlett of Blue Water Divers, who met the Hambling family when they were on the island hoped someone would come forward with information.

Mr Gauntlett said: “Projects like the Royal Naval Dockyard and the Watford Bridge were key parts of our development at critical times in Bermuda’s history.

“Any link to that time – such as this helmet – might help to close a loop for relatives of someone who played an important part in the building of Dockyard.

“The fact that they have as much information as they do, such as the location of the grave and some records from that time, means the answer may be very close and that someone alive today might have a key piece of information to fill that gap.”

· Anyone with information about John Hambling or the diving helmet can e-mail Philip Hambling at philip.hambling@gmail.com.

Alan Hambling, Paul Hambling, Douglas Hambling and Philip Hambling at the grave of their ancestor, John Hambling, a commercial diver who died on the island in 1903 (Photograph supplied)

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Published February 07, 2022 at 11:17 am (Updated February 07, 2022 at 11:17 am)

Family delve for information on 100-year-old dive death mystery

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