SS Angola lost 1887: Historic dive salvage

From Wrecks of Liverpool Bay, Volume II, by Chris Michael (with permission):

Iron steamship 1045 tons gross, 260 ft long, 30 ft beam, 19 ft draught.
Built: Evans, Liverpool 1870.
Engines: compound steam engines, 120 hp, built Fawcett, Preston and Co, Liverpool.
Owners: T. W. Cookson, Liverpool, registered Liverpool.
Date of wreck: 5 March 1887
Location: 53° 31.809 N 3° 19.777 W.
Distance from New Brighton: 12 nautical miles.
Depth at low water: 20 m seabed, 16 m to top of wreck.

Historic dive salvage

In March 1887, the iron screw brig Angola, as her name suggests, was engaged trade to West Africa and her Liverpool owners were expecting her to arrive with a valuable cargo of palm oil, palm kernels, ivory, ebony, live animals, rubber and coffee from Gaboon in SW Africa and the Congo river. There was dense fog over much of England and this played havoc with shipping. Outward bound vessels stayed in port, accepting the delay as the price of safety. Captain Thompson of the Angola had found the way to the Liverpool Bar on Friday night and was at anchor two miles West of the Bar Light waiting for the fog to clear. At about 6am on Saturday 5 March 1887, when the fog was very thick, the incoming Waterford steamer Reginald hit the stern of the Angola which started to sink. The two vessels were locked together for several minutes and the crew and the few passengers carried by the Angola were able to clamber across to the Reginald. Two valuable chimpanzees and the mails carried by the Angola were also saved, before she sank only thirty minutes after being hit. The Irish steamer arrived at the Landing stage around noon and landed the shipwrecked men. The Reginald was taken to the docks for repairs. Note that the Reginald had collided with and sunk another ship, the sloop Marten, the previous year.

The Angola was on the bottom in the fairway so the Dock Board put a watch vessel, the Alarm, nearby to warn vessels to stay clear of the wreck. The masts of the wreck were sticking out of the water so she was easy to locate and salvage operations commenced. Initially this was easy - some of the casks of palm oil floated out straight away. Divers were then needed to recover the bulk of the remaining cargo. The cargo was not very politically correct: it included ivory, tropical hardwood (ebony etc.), parrots and monkeys. Of course the parrots were no longer worth recovering but much of the cargo was not damaged by a period under water.

Contemporary reports of the diving operations carried out are very interesting. Divers were regularly used to recover material from wrecks and the Liverpool Underwriters' Salvage Association maintained two steamships, Hyaena and Lionel George, equipped for diving. The Hyaena had earlier been a RN gunboat and saw service in China, before being converted to a salvage vessel. In the case of the Angola, on those days when the weather was favourable, these two diving support ships left Liverpool with 60 men aboard to arrive at the wreck site before low water. The Hyaena moored alongside the mainmast of the wreck while the Lionel George tied up alongside the foremast.

Two divers from each vessel then descended to the wreck following lines tied to the mouths of the holds. They wore standard diving dress consisting of a large brass helmet with air supplied from the surface pump by a flexible pipe. They had lead boots weighing 16 kg and lead weights on their chest and back adding another 30 kg; a fully kitted diver was said to weigh 165 kg. The four divers occupied one hold each and sent the valuable cargo up to be gathered by groups of four helpers in six small boats which were deployed. The two big support vessels used steam cranes to load the salvaged material aboard. The divers worked a two hour shift in the wreck before ascending with no decompression stops. The diving party then rested on site before undertaking another two hour dive at the next low water 12 hours later. One of the innovations used in these diving operations was that the support vessels carried electric arc lights and the divers used portable electric incandescent lights powered by cable. This enabled diving salvage to be undertaken at night so that two consecutive low water dives could be achieved. They all returned to Liverpool some 20 hours after setting out. The divers were paid 6 shillings (30p) a dive.

Diving was recognised as a dangerous profession and the contemporary report emphasized the dangers of greater depths - such as 40 metres - with divers collapsing on reaching the surface. Indeed one of the divers employed in the salvage had some ten years earlier been involved in salvage work on a wreck off Dover in 35 metres of water and, when he was pulled to the surface he was unconscious and paralysed, though he eventually recovered. The next day another man took his place as a diver and that man died ten minutes after surfacing. The opinion of the reporter in 1887 was that this was because the pressure was so great at that depth that the blood circulation was stopped. We now know that it was not the depth itself that caused injury from decompression sickness (the "bends") - but the combination of time and depth. The salvage of the Angola at low water meant that they were diving at only 10 to 15 metres depth, and the ascent after a dive of two hours duration is now known to be without great hazard, whereas two hours at 40 metres would need a very careful and long ascent to be safe. Even in the comparatively shallow water of the Angola, salvage diving still was potentially dangerous. One incident which illustrates this had happened during these salvage operations. A diver was moving further into the hold to reach some ivory when a piece of iron broke the side glass of his helmet. He had the presence of mind to force his head against the hole, despite getting cut from the broken glass, until he was hauled up to the surface.

The salvage operations were financially very profitable. A cask of rubber was valued at £200 in those days and it could be recovered by a diver in a few minutes. Ten tons of ivory valued at £800 a ton were recovered in all. After several weeks of salvage by divers, the valuable items of cargo were all removed. Explosives were then used by the MDHB to reduce the wreckage to 30 feet below spring low water (LAT) to cause less obstruction in the shipping lane.

A postscript to this account of salvage and diving is that the following year, on 27 March 1888, the salvage steamship Lionel George was herself in trouble. She was wooden hulled of 137 tons gross and 106 ft long. She caught fire, was abandoned and then drifted to Crosby beach where she burnt out.

For more details of diving the wreck today - see Wrecks of Liverpool Bay volume II.