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Graham Balcombe

Francis Graham Balcombe was born 8th March 1907 and died 19th March 2000.

Graham as he preferred to be called, was an engineer with the Post Office, and spent a lot of time installing aerial systems around the country.  He teamed up with a fellow engineer, Jack Sheppard, the CDG surviving President, and they formed a formidable climbing team.  They pioneered and improved many climbing routes in the Lake District and Wales.  Graham was credited with a number of unorthodox solo climbs, church steeples, office corridors etc., not always appreciated by officialdom.  As their prowess increased, their climbing activities were practised whenever they could; and when working at the Daventry site on the AS, in good weather they would climb a radio mast to eat their lunch on the top.  There is a story of a handstand being done on the flat top of a mast.  While climbing in the North, they met members of the Northern Cavern and Fell Club who were on Great Gable.  In discussion they were invited to try potholing (1932).  They liked it and now spent weekends down potholes instead of up mountains.

Eventually they were sent to work on radio stations in Somerset.  There they contacted the local caving expert, Herbert Balch who introduced them to the leading caver of the area, "Digger" Harris.  He was a respected solicitor in Wells, but he broke out at intervals to drive the town fire engine!  He introduced them to many local caves, including Swildons Hole which soon became important to them.  This had been explored as far as a sump by 1920.  This sump they tackled by conventional means, looking for a by-pass; but eventually they resorted to explosives.  This was not entirely appreciated by the locals as one charge had to be re-primed due to a misfire and went off a bit late on a Sunday morning during the service in the church - vertically above the sump, the congregation "felt the earth move" and the vicar was not amused.

By 1934 they had decided to try diving and Graham constructed a sort of snorkel part of which incorporated part of a ladies bicycle frame. It had non return valves and was connected to a piece of garden hose.  This was not successful firstly by reason of physics and secondly by the attachment of the hose coming undone underwater!!

On these first attempts they wore the caving gear of the time--old clothes!


Graham balcombe photographed recently in Bat products

Cold was a vital factor. Jack went on to produce a complete dry suit fed by a football inflator, and he used this to pass the sump. 1000ft further on he met a second sump but could go no further as he lacked a pump operator.  Spurred on by this Graham later attached a small oxygen cylinder to his device, and on a solo trip, passed both the 1st. sump and most of the 2nd sump.  He used synchronised breathing with opening the valve on the cylinder, and the gas ran out as he got back.  He nearly died of hypothermia on the way out.  The sherpa party found him shivering over a candle part way out of the cave.  In 1935 they were loaned and taught to use Siebe Gorman standard diving gear.  Due to its weight and bulk they explored Wookey Hole as far as they could drag their hoses.  During and after the war Graham built an oxygen re-breather and used it in various Yorkshire caves.  His transport was a tandem and trailer that his wife helped him to pedal push from Harrogate and other railheads.  By 1946 his diving equipment had been supplemented by some commercial sets and a number of enthusiasts met in S. Wales in an attempt to tackle a resurgence called Ffynnon Ddu. While there they decided to form a group.  The Cave Diving Group was born!  For several years Graham was Chief Diver, Trainer, Secretary and Treasurer--and he was what one would call a benevolent despot!  (Some were heard to refer to him as the Fuhrer behind his back)

Eventually the strain got too much and a more conventional committee took his place, and he was kicked upstairs as President, more or less his words.

I first met Graham as a comparatively raw recruit, and I was somewhat in awe of him, but found like a lot of rather abrupt people, his bark was worse than his bite!  He must have approved of me because we were diving partners on two dives before he handed in his gear and "retired".  On one of these we found an air filled chamber and a lot of passage underwater.  Although retired he was always pleased to see visitors and talk shop.  My wife was amazed by the wide range of his interests and his persistently enquiring mind.  I kept in irregular contact with him and took him to diving functions and AGMs etc. until his recent illness.  He will be sadly missed by his friends and leaves a large legacy of books, reports and articles that will take a lot of sorting and cataloguing.  He is survived by his stepson.

John Buxton