Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


The history of submarine disasters reaches back more than two centuries-to 1774 when John Day, an English carpenter, first took a vessel to the depths and, sadly, stayed there. A clue to Day’s mentality emerges from the journal of Mr Peter Oliver (1713-1791), former Chief Justice of Massachusetts, who in 1776 retired (perhaps prudently) to England. He includes an anecdote, gathered during a visit to Derbyshire on 18 August of that year, referring to Day’s exploring the flooded Peak Cavern three years earlier;

” … after being gone for some Time and the By Standers supposing he was drowned, they heard a Voice, and then a plunging: upon which R. Daykin, our Guide, ventured as far as he dared … & … caught hold of Mr. Day’s arms, & a Man behind Daykin … saved the drowning Man [who] was speech-less for some Time: but no sooner had his Senses returned, but he said, he would lake another Plunge: but those present, finding him disorder’d, prevented him.

This Mr. Day was a Projector [inventor], & perhaps not of the soundest Mind; for, some Time after, he undertook to sink a Vessel at Plimouth, to sink himself with it & to live under Water for some Time; he made the Attempt; the Vessel was sunk with him, but neither however rose again.

Day’s submersible career commenced with converting a small market boat into a diving machine by adding a watertight chamber into which he shut himself on a Suffolk Broad. It was claimed that he went down to 30 feet and surfaced unharmed 24 hours later; but it is much more likely (in light of 13.5 pounds pressure at 30 feet on every square inch of a wooden hutch) that he simply allowed the tide to rise and fall over his beached contrivance.

Whatever; the experiment initiated a major money-making venture. English gentry had a passion for gambling under the Hanoverian kings; and Day was sure that huge wagers would be laid on the probability (or otherwise) of sending a full-size ship to the bottom-a depth of 100 yards was mentioned-and bringing it up again with the crewman still alive.

In November 1773 Day approached a Mr. Christopher Blake to fund the project:

I found out an affair by which many thousands may be won; it is a very paradoxical nature that can be performed with ease; therefore, sir, if you chuse to be informed of it, and give me one hundred pounds out of every thousand you shall win by it, I will very readily wait upon you and inform you of it. I am myself but a poor mechanic and not able to make anything by it without your assistance. Yours etc.,
J. Day”

Mr. Blake was hooked although, having viewed a model of the proposed diving vessel, he made discreet enquiries in London where he doubtless learned (unlike Day himself, it seems) about the huge force that would be exerted on a container 300 feet below the surface. He told Day “at any expense to fortify the chamber”, in which he was to subsist, “against the weight of such a body of water” and insisted that the depth should be no more than 20 fathoms (120 feet) while reducing the total time of immersion from 24 to 12 hours.

With finance assured Day purchased the sloop MARIA, “of 50 tons burthen”, for £340 (say $75,000 today). She had a 31 foot keel and a 16 foot beam.

A box-like wooden air chamber, 8 feet deep, 12 feet long and 9 feet broad “containing 75 hogsheads of air”, was built into the hold. It was reinforced by strong timbers on the inside and entered by a square opening at the top sealed by a thick bevelled hatch suspended from a hinged pole, like a sea-saw, with a counterweight at the other end so that lifting or lowering it was no great effort. A chain pulled the hatch down, from inside, to settle it into position, while the angled edges were coated with flannel so that sea pressure would effect a seal as the ship descended.

Three differently coloured signal buoys were fixed above the chamber with catches, releasable internally, to signify that the solitary occupant was “very well” (white) “indifferent” (red) or ‘ “very ill” (black) when they floated up to the surface.

MARIA was ballasted sufficiently for her to submerge when the hull was flooded by hauling on lines to pull out sluice plugs in the bilge. Twenty tons of boulders in nets were suspended beneath the keel: they were held by 4 iron rods, passing through supposedly watertight tubes into the air chamber, which Day could tum to release this external ballast (on which the MARIA would sit at the bottom) when he wanted to surface.

At 2 o’clock in the afternoon of 20 June 1774 MARIA was towed out from the Pool of Plymouth (Sutton Harbour) to a spot equidistant between the north foreshore of Drake’s Island and Firestone Bay, some 300 yards from either beach. Navigational cross-bearings were:

St Nicholas Sd due South;

Fire Stone Bay N 1 ° W.

The depth was later found to be 22 fathoms (132 feet) although this was, of course, charted at Mean Low Water Springs. Therefore pressure at the bottom would be at least 60 pounds p.s.i on the flat surfaces of the “pressure hull”.

The depth was later found to be 22 fathoms (132 feet) although this was, of course, charted at Mean Low Water Springs. Therefore pressure at the bottom would be at least 60 pounds p.s.i on the flat surfaces of the “pressure hull”.

Contemporary accounts tell of the intrepid adventurer appearing “more than ordinarily cheerful” and “confident that his enterprize would be crowned with success and universal acclamation”. He took with him “a hammock, a watch, a small wax taper, a bottle of water, and a couple of biscuits” and “watched the hour with the greatest impatience” while Mr. Blake observed proceedings from a barge nearby. The frigate HMS ORPHEUS, whose captain had been ordered to render assistance if required, was also anchored in the vicinity; and it just happened that Lord Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, was in Plymouth at the time. John Montague, 4th Earl of Sandwich ( 1728-1792) was an inveterate gambler: it was he who refused to leave the gaming table for a meal, ordering the waiter to bring some slivers of meat between two slices of bread. There is little doubt that he took more than a passing interest in the dive.

When all was ready Day walked to the forecastle and withdrew the bilge-plugs. Then, as the vessel appeared to be on the point of going under, he stripped off his coat and waistcoat, saying he believed he should “have a hot birth of it”. Bidding well-wishers goodbye he climbed down into the chamber “with the greatest composure” and shut the hatch: “presently the Maria sank gradually down with her stern somewhat foremost”.

A local newspaper informed readers that “His [Day’s] patron beheld the spot from whence he vanished with a pensiveness that seemed to forebode to his mind an evil omen, and a solemn silence seized all the witnesses of the extraordinary and aw[e]ful sight.”

A quarter of an hour after MARIA had vanished “the surface was suddenly agitated, as if boiling”. For sure the air chamber had collapsed under pressure. None of the three buoys came to the surface, and nor did John Day. But large sums of money were literally at stake and Lord Sandwich was every bit as anxious as Mr. Blake to find John Day still alive. Accordingly, the First Lord ordered Plymouth Dockyard experts to raise MARIA. Some 200 workers toiled non-stop with lighters and lifting cables for three days, but to no avail.

All hope was abandoned save by a Doctor N.D. Falck, MD of London who believed that the wreck could indeed be lifted and that Day could yet be resuscitated. There was, he wrote, “A philosophical probability of restoring !if e to a man whose death I presumed not to be real, but a mere cessation of the animal functions, and whose congealed mass of blood would remain a considerable time, in so cold a region, before a chance of putrefaction could take place; add to this that he was secure from becoming food for the fish, and having been fortunate enough to restore to life persons that had been drowned (the method of which I have fully stated in my Seaman’s Medical Instructor) I own that my sanguine expectations were flattered, not withstanding the length of time he had remained in this suspense, since we have had instances of some extraordinary recoveries, with circumstances less favourable than here.”

Dr. Falck was referred to Blake who wrote to him on 17 July 1774:

“SIR, In consequence of a letter you wrote … offering your service to get up the ship, I hereby inform you, that if you have a mind to try to effect it, and that it proves successful, you shall have her for your reward, after I have examined the work and the cause of the failure of the experiment.”

Dr. Falck then solicited further Admiralty assistance to salvage MARIA, but Lord Sandwich declined on 20 July;


I must beg to be excused from concerning myself in any shape about the vessel that was sunk at Plymouth; while there were any hopes of saving the life of the unfortunate man who sunk in her, I was ready to lend any assistance in my power, but as soon as that became desperate [despaired of?] my interference ended.”

Undeterred, Dr. Falck left the capital on the morning of 25 July and arrived at Plymouth on the afternoon of the 28th. He was introduced to naval and dockyard officials but, with an eye to the First Lord, they politely refused official help.

The doctor’s determination was undimmed: perhaps a wealthy punter was behind him. He established MARIA ‘s position on Saturday 30 July. and on Monday 1 August two 40 ton barges were moored over the wreck.

The plan for salvage was ingenious and sophisticated, involving barbed spikes to be remotely pile-driven into MARIA’s timbers, and heavy block-and-tackle lifting gear aided by buoyant casks attached to thick hawsers passed under her bow and stern.

Unfortunately, a gale intervened; but, when the storm abated, the hawsers were hove taut at low water so that the next rising tide would lift the wreck a few feet, allowing it to be towed into shallower water where the operation would be repeated as many times as necessary until MARIA emerged high and dry. On Thursday 11 August the wreck rose far enough with the tide for Dr. Falck to order mainsails to be hoisted on the barges: the wind, northerly and brisk, thereupon carried the wreck some 100 yards towards Drake’s Island. Nonetheless the Doctor ” … saw too many difficulties remaining to receive it [the first lift] as decisive.” He was right.

During the night one of the hawsers parted and MARIA slipped from the salvage team’s grasp. On the morning of Sunday 14 August an additional 50 men manned sheerlegs rigged on each barge and, briefly, the wreck was lifted off the bottom again-only for the main hawser to slide out from under the hull.

Several more attempts at salvage were made between periods of foul weather but all gear was becoming worn, costs were mounting alarmingly, and Dr Falck’s practice demanded his return to London. Regretfully, (for “I must have succeeded at last”) he left the scene in early October and “various circumstances” prevented his return.

There have been spasmodic but unsuccessful attempts in recent years to rediscover MARIA. Tidal streams in Plymouth Sound are strong and the remains are probably silted over; but searchers, who have painstakingly trawled the position of the dive, may not have realised that the little vessel had been shifted half a cable to the south.

In any event, poor John Day became the first of 65,000 submariners who still lie on the deep seabed: may they ever rest in peace.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League