John Lethbridge

John Lethbridge - 1675-1759

John Lethbridge, a local wool merchant, lived in Wolborough Street, Newton Abbot.

Little is known of his childhood, but as from the age of forty, John Lethbridge soon came to the notice of the London-based Shipping Companies: the English East India Company, Verenigde Oostindishche Companie (VOC) , the symbol for the Dutch United East India company, and the diving fraternity. He was to be known as the English man from Devon who invented a unique type of 'diving engine'.

Lethbridge’s improved engine differed greatly from the traditional diving bell and other diving apparatus. His invention offered greater under water mobility and better working conditions for the 'fisher' (diver) thus proving more successful when retrieving 'treasures' and lost cargo from the sunken ship wrecks on behalf of the various shipping companies
Over the next thirty years Lethbridge was to prosper. So successful, he rose from an unsuccessful wool merchant, struggling to support his family, to, eventually, a man of wealth, owning the estate of Odicknoll in Kingskerswell.


An engraving from a silver tankard, believed to be lost, showing John Lethbridge being lowered over the side of boat.

The John Lethbridge 250th Exhibition - was opened on the 10th March 2009 by International diver and Marine Archaeologist, Robert Stenuit and the Mayor of Newton Abbot, Councillor Corney-Walker.

Robert Stenuit (Director of the Groupe de Recherche Archeologique Sous-Marine post medieval of Brussels) kindly agreed to open the exhibition because of his great admiration for the skills and courage of John Lethbridge. Stenuit knows more than most how Lethbridge worked, as in 1977, he dived in a full-sized replica of Lethbridge's 'diving-engine' in a testing tank.

Stenuit followed in Lethbridge's footsteps, diving on the 'Slot ter Hooge' a shipwrecked East India man, and was filmed by the BBC. The artefacts left behind by Lethbridge during his salvage attempt in 1724 have been loaned to the museum by Stenuit for the exhibition.

The BBC filmed in the museum and Newton Abbot, to illustrate the amazing adventures of John Lethbridge who lived in Newton Abbot during the 1700s.

A fascinating account of the most succesful treasure diver of the eighteenth century, written by Robert Fardell and published by the Historical Diving Society is available from the museum shop.