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The first men who dived on the Mary Rose

Who was the first person to see the Mary Rose on the sea bed?

We always talk about Alexander McKee being the person who discovered the wreck of the Mary Rose, but although it was because of his efforts that the ship was rediscovered in the 1970s, there are a few people who got up close to Henry VIII’s flagship while she was still on the seabed long before he first laid eyes on her timbers…

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Image by Joe Lillington

Jacques Francis – 1546

We’ll probably never know the name of the very first person to see the Mary Rose underwater after she sank in 1545, but they would have been an employee of Southampton-based Venetian salvage operators Petre de Andreas and Symone de Maryne, who were employed to recover the Mary Rose shortly after her loss. Obviously they didn’t succeed.

The earliest diver we do have a name for, though is Jacques Francis, a guinea-born diver working for Italian salvage operator Piero Paola Corsi. Francis would later go on to become the first person of colour to give evidence in an English court, defending his employer against accusations of theft.

Henry Abbinett – 1836

The 1836 salvage attempts were undertaken by John Deane, one of the Deane brothers who invented the first modern diving suit.

However, they weren’t the first ones on the site. In June 1836 fishermen began snagging their nets on something on the sea bed. Henry Abbinett, a Gosport-based diver, was hired to investigate, during his dives, he found the remains of a ship. Sadly for Abbinett, while he had applied for the salvage rights to the Mary Rose, so had John Deane, who would ultimately be awarded them.

Prior to this, Abbinet had worked often with Deane, and had assisted them with boat services, and though this had gained an interest in diving. He even bought one of their prototype diving helmets, making him one of the pioneers of helmet diving.

You can find out more about Abbinett, and see one of the original helmets used by John Deane at the Diving Museum in Gosport.

Percy Ackland – 1971

The 20th century search for the Mary Rose began in 1965, with diver and historian Alexander McKee creating Project Solent Ships with the aim of finding Henry VIII’s warship, believed destroyed by many after the Deane salvage operation.

It was on 1st May 1971 that Ackland, an early  member of the Mary Rose Project, was examining the seabed when he came across three exposed timbers protruding from the mud. The Mary Rose had been rediscovered.

While Francis and Abbinett may have seen the ship over a century or four prior to this, it was Ackland’s sighting that confirmed the sonar scans, and lead to the Mary Rose being excavated, raised and put on display.

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