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The Robert E. Davies Collection

- A note by Dave Irwin

This collection of over 500 photographs housed in a large photographic album was given to J. D. Hanwell in 1986 with the intention of it being donated to Wells Museum. It is an important testament to the work of the pioneer cave divers during the years 1945 - 1955 where their activities found them pushing the frontiers of British cave exploration including such cave systems as OFD, DYO, Swildon's Hole and Peak Cavern.

Though there is a good source of written material available through club publications, and also that of the Cave Diving Group, photographic images display an extra dimension that adds considerably to our knowledge of the work of the cave divers in the early years. It was a time when home-made equipment produced in the garage was the norm using modified ex-naval equipment available in the ex-WD surplus stores.  It worked to a degree and considerable progress in cave exploration was made using this equipment compared with that made to enable Sump I in Swildons Hole to be passed.  During the late 1940s and 1950s, diving equipment was crude by modern standards based upon re-breathing apparatus.  This was very distinct from the aqualung now in common usage - the pressure balanced regulator - equipment whose fundamental design features were developed from military fighter aircraft oxygen/air mix breathing sets in use from the late 1950s and the miniaturised breathing sets developed between 1958 and 1962.  The author himself was involved with the design of the Normalair tilt valve device marketed for aqua-lung divers in the early 1960s which was quickly superseded by the pressure balanced piston regulator designed by various American companies.

The photographic collection amassed by Bob Davies included work by Luke Devenish and Lewis Railton, no mean photographers, which collectively gives a unique record of these pioneering attempts to explore the limits of submerged cave passages known at that time.

The writer has selected a number of photographs from the collection hopefully to illustrate the equipment, individuals who were pushing the limits and general scenes of activity at the surface before, during and after the dives.  It is also to be hoped that the selection will ensure that cavers are aware of this collection to ensure its survival when placed in the museum. Space is the limiting factor and so those photographs illustrated here are only a superficial coverage of the whole.

In the event that this magnificent collection is lost, destroyed or otherwise damaged the writer has scanned each photograph and transferred it to an electronic storage medium - the CD-ROM - in fact two CD-ROMs having a total of 850Mb.  This has the advantage in that it can be copied and made widely available to speleo-researchers and historians.  It is hoped that the CDG can come to some arrangement with Jim Hanwell, or, when the collection is lodged in the museum, the Trustees of Wells Museum, to be able to make copies of the CD-ROMs available to all who are interested in the subject.

The photographs are scanned TIFF files at 300dpi and on some machines retrieval of the images may take some time.  Consequently most of the image files are between 1 and 5Mb.  All the associated pencilled annotations added by R. E. Davies have been included in the scans.

Any 486 computer will handle the files whether using Windows 3.1x or Windows 95 but the RAM needs to be fairly large for rapid downloading of the images.


Above left: Grandfather of all Aflos. Mk.1
Above right: OFD. Easter 1946, Jack Sheppard, Graham Balcombe, TW (?). Cyril Powell.

Below left: DYO, 3rd diving operation: Bob Davies, Ken Hurst, Les Hawes, Phil Price, Lewis Railton.  Photo: Les Hawes.
Below Right: DYO, 3rd diving operation: PHP, Ken Hurst, Bob Davies,


Above:  Wookey Hole, February 1948 – Graham Balcombe in kit.  Photo – Luke Devenish.

Above:  Wookey Hole, February 1948 - ½ Pint (John Dwyer) George Lucy and ‘Sett’

Above:  Bob Davies’ Aflo, 1949  


Above:  Wookey hole, April 1948 – Don Coase, John Ifold and G.W. Mack.  Photo: Luke Devenish

Above:  Wookey Hole, April 1949 – John Dwyer, ‘Digger’ Harris, Don Coase, Pat Ifold, Sybil Bowden-Lyle and ‘Sett’