Search the Collection
Advanced Search

Standard diving dress suit

Date: 1950s
Overall: 1765 x 732 x 55 mm, 8.3 kg
Medium: Canvas, leather, rubber
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Classification:Tools and equipment
Object Name: Diving suit
Object No: 00004209

User Terms

    This one-piece canvas suit was worn with boots, mittens and a helmet by hard-hat divers. Suits of this kind were widespread between the mid 19th and 20th centuries. Hard-hat diving suits were commonly used for naval, salvage and engineering diving, as well as commercial diving for pearl shell.

    Each pant leg has a series of ringlets, which were used to strap the canvas close to the legs. Weighted canvas boots were worn over the enclosed foot. The chest and and upper back has a rubber fitting with twelve holes to secure chest plate and helmet. Made from thick canvas, the suit is able to endure the tough surfaces of the ocean, including barnacles and rocks.
    SignificanceThis hard-hat suit is an example of the equipment used by pearl divers in Australian waters before the development of the wet-suit, mask, fins and self contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA).
    This particular diving suit was used by Australian Government divers on the Snowy River Hydro-Electric Scheme.
    HistoryThe European-Australian pearling industry began in the 1850s and by the early 20th century, Australia was supplying 75 per cent of the world's pearl shell, from north Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and the Torres Strait. Pearl shell was a valuable material before the days of plastic, and sold for £150 per ton in Sydney in the 1860s. The versatile and decorative material was used to make buttons, buckles, jewellery and cutlery, and was used as inlay in watches, ornaments and instruments. Before the cultivation of pearls, naturally occurring pearls were rarely found and were considered a bonus.

    For thousands of years, local coastal Aboriginal populations traded natural pearls with neighbouring islanders, and pearl shell - collected by combing the beach while the tide was out - with inland Aboriginal groups. With the foundation and rapid expansion of pearling stations in the 19th century, European pearlers unable or unwilling to undertake the difficult and dangerous task of diving employed cheap Japanese, Pacific and Torres Strait Islander, Philipino, Malay and Indigenous Australian labour.

    Originally shallow pearl shell beds were worked on by free-diving from small open boats. The desire to access shell beds located in deeper water saw the use of hard-hat diving suits and equipment which was developed in the 1830s by Augustus Siebe and became widespread on Australian pearl luggers in the 1880s.

    This hard-hat equipment consisted of a waterproof suit and airtight helmet, connected by a hose to an air pump on the pearl lugger's deck. The diver wore layers of woollen garments under the suit, along with mittens and boots weighing up to 7kg each. The heavy copper helmet with a glass face was screwed onto the corselet which was supported by the padded collar of the dress. Up to 50kg of weight was strapped onto the diver's back and chest. Attached to the diver's belt was a knife, scabbard and rope which was used to send signals to the crew before the application of radio communication equipment.

    Air was pumped to the diver manually by men turning two large wheels. The equipment and system was problematic, as divers could not regulate their air flow and were only permitted small quantities of air. The development of the high pressure compressor in the 1900s and the Ohgushi Peerless Respirator in 1918, allowed divers to manually adjust their air flow with a valve.

    In the early days of deep water pearl diving, it was difficult to equalise the pressure inside and outside the suit, and the little-known decompression sickness known as the 'bends' claimed the lives of hundreds of divers. The introduction of the wet-suit, mask, fins and self contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA) gave divers greater manoeuvrability and better air supply, and saw a decline in pearl diving fatalities. The transition to this new equipment was slow, but as diver's productivity increased the use of hard-hat equipment by Australian pearl divers ceased in the mid 1970s.

    Additional Titles

    Web title: Standard diving dress suit

    Assigned title: Standard diving dress suit.

    Discuss this Object


    Please log in to add a comment.