William Thompson- 100 years of underwater
by Victor Adam
Reproduced from in
focus 49 (Sep. 1993)
This year  celebrates 50 years of SCUBA
diving but is it really 100 years since the first underwater
photograph was taken? The French and others make much of the
photograph taken by Frenchman Louis Boutan of a hard hat diver taken
in 1893. However, the first underwater photograph known was actually
taken by an Englishman by the name of William Thompson in Dorset in
1856! True Thompson didn't actually dive to take his photograph, he
lowered his housed plate camera to the seabed in Weymouth Bay and
operated the shutter from a boat anchored over the site, but he was
the first to take an underwater photograph as Victor Adam's reporting
in the Dorset Countryside Vol. 2 No. 2 recalls:-
William Thompson was born at Lake House, Hamworthy,
on 22 June 1822, and grew up to be a man of many talents. Eldest son
of a wealthy father, he completed his education in France before
returning to live at Yarrells, Lychett Minster, the house that his
father had caused to be built which he named after the eminent
naturalist William Yarrell.
In 1847 William Thompson married Sarah Slade, a
member of a well-known Poole family of Newfoundland merchants. Soon
after the marriage, the couple set up house where at 11 Frederick
Place, Weymouth, Thompson practised as a solicitor.
Apart from his profession (to which his financial
circumstances being what they were devoted no great proportion of his
time) Thompson had many interests. He was the owner of a yawl of 104
tons, named the "Waif", and a 12 ton cutter named "Feather Star",
both of which were used for trawling and dredging in Weymouth Bay. He
was a member of the Royal Thames Yacht Club and later became a
founder member of the Dorset Yacht Club.
Soon after his arrival in Weymouth Thompson's
interest was attracted by the great wealth of marine life abounding
in the waters off the Dorset coast. The naturalist Philip Henry Gosse
wrote of having had many interesting meetings with him and set it on
record that Thompson was the discoverer of several new species of
anemones and seaweeds. Gosse also described one of Thompson's
experiments in the conservation of marine life, referring to the
seaweed known as Peacock's Tail, Gosse wrote that "my friend Mr
Thompson ... has endeavoured to propagate this pretty alga with every
success: collecting the fronds from their native site when fully
ripe, he scattered them in similar situations all along the shore, so
that now, under Sandsfoot Castle and on the ledges between this and
Byng Cliff and in the little bight of the rocks below the Northe
there are what I may call flourishing gardens of (them), fully
established and needing no further care for their perpetuity.
Gosse's book The Aquarium, an Unveiling of the
Wonders of the Deep Sea appeared in 1854, at a time when the setting
up of indoor marine aquaria was becoming immensely popular. In it he
described Thompson as being willing and well fitted to procuring and
supplying, on reasonable terms, specimens for either public or
In 1856 a heated discussion was raging as to
whether the Dorset County Museum and the Dorchester Reading Room,
which shared the same building, should part company. In a letter to
the Dorset County Chronicle Thompson came out strongly in favour of
their splitting up. "I am anxious", he wrote, "to present a series of
marine objects from the coast of the County, but am prevented by want
of room and of the proper cases, and both of these wants are caused
by the Reading Room. Gaps in the surviving acquisition books of the
Dorset County Museum make it impossible to say for certain whether
Thompson's offer was accepted but it is perhaps it is significant
that when, a few years later, he moved with his family to 3
Gloucester Row, he converted some stables at the back of the house
into his own private museum.
In 1860 Thompson contributed an account of the
fishing prospects at Weymouth to the Field and an article on shrimps
to the Dorset County Chronicle. He was also a contributor, from time
to time, to the periodical Land and Water.
Thompson's expert knowledge was widely recognised.
He supplied information to Gwyn Jeffreys for his book on the British
Mollusca, and J. C. Mansell-Pleydell acknowledged his assistance in
his Molluscs of Dorset.
As an associate member of the British
Archaeological Association, Thompson was invited to serve on the
local committee set up to organise the Annual Congress of that
body_held at Weymouth in August 1871.
Ornithology was another of Thompson's interests and
he made many notes and lists of Dorset birds, probably with the
intention of eventually writing a book on the subject.
COUNCILOR and ALDERMAN
Thompson was for eleven years a member of the
Weymouth Town council, serving during the latter part of that time as
an alderman. But his many other interests began to interfere with his
aldermanic duties and in 1876, after some plain speaking on the
matter by his colleagues, he tendered his resignation. As the local
newspaper later put it "For many years he was an alderman of the
borough, but paid more attention to natural history and sporting,
especially in matters relating to coursing, than he did to municipal
questions ..". A cup inscribed as being "The Lulworth Cup for Aged
Greyhounds" was won in 1868 by one of Thompson's dogs and is now in
the collection of one of his descendants.
Oddly enough, it was not Thompson's interest in
natural history that led him to take the world's first underwater
One stormy day Thompson and a friend named Kenyon
found themselves weather-bound for several hours at the Portland
Ferry Bridge House. They were seated in a room that looked out
towards the bridge itself, through whose arches they could see the
Fleet water running like a mill stream. Thompson began to consider
the effects the great force of the water must be having on the piers
of the bridge; he envisaged the possibility of extensive underwater
damage and the difficulties and expense that would be entailed in
sending a diver down to discover what repairs would be necessary. It
was then that the idea occurred to him that, in such an event, a
camera might be of considerable assistance.
With Thompson, to think was to act. He already
owned a camera which he was in the habit of using in conjunction with
his natural history studies. A carpenter now made him a wooden box
large enough to contain the camera. The front of the box was made of
plate glass and on the outside of the front there was a heavily
weighted shutter, hinged at the top, that could be raised by a long
string attached to it. Thumbscrews secured the back of the box so
that when the camera had been placed in it, it could be made
(Thompson hoped) reasonably watertight. The box was fitted on an iron
tripod and provided with a rope for lowering it into the sea and
pulling it up again.
So far, so good. The box was ready. The next
problem concerned the camera itself. Thompson's camera took a plate
measuring 5 inches by 4 inches, which he prepared using the collodion
process. This meant that the liquid chemical had to be poured on to
the plate, and be exposed and developed all within a matter of an
hour or so. Following the procedure usual at the time, Thompson set
up a small tent, on Weymouth beach, and inside it prepared a plate
and put it in his camera. He then, under cover of a black cloth,
placed the camera in the box, making sure that its lens was against
the plate glass, and screwed on the back.
The next step was to lower the box into the sea.
For the site of his experiment Thompson chose what he described as "a
nook in the bay of Weymouth which is bounded by a ridge of rocks
(where the area within is of sand and boulders and thickly clothed
with many species of seaweeds".
Thompson and his friend Kenyon, having rowed out a
sufficient distance from the beach, lowered the box into 18 feet of
water. When he was sure that the apparatus was standing upright on
the bottom, he pulled the string that raised the hinged shutter.
Thompson made two attempts that day. For the first he allowed an
exposure time of five minutes but found that the plate having been
developed registered nothing.
For his second attempt he doubled the exposure
time. Although by then the light had deteriorated, he obtained a
reasonable satisfactory negative, from which he made a print on which
it was possible faintly to discern the outlines of boulders and
seaweed. Water had leaked into the camera but this, Thompson was
pleased to see, had not seriously affected the quality of the
picture. He also noted with surprise that the image had not been
inverted, and came to the conclusion that the thick plate glass in
front of the lens must have acted as a reversing mirror.
Thompson later designed a better apparatus, but he
then lost interest and pursued the matter no further. His friend
William Penney of Poole, who was a chemist, and a naturalist of some
note, persuaded him to send an account of his experiment to be
printed in the Journal of the Society of Arts, otherwise there would
probably have been no record of it in existence today.
Although Thompson often used his camera to take
still life photographs of fishes and other marine subjects that he
had dredged from the bay, he thought of underwater photography only
as a useful aid in underwater engineering. It is clear that he never
imagined a time when future generations might be able to use a
similar process to take photographs of marine life in situ. Yet some
of the finest examples of underwater photographs have been taken in
recent years along the Dorset coast within a few miles of the spot
where, in 1856, Thompson lowered his camera into the water in a nook
in Weymouth Bay.
William Thompson died at 3 Gloucester Row on 15
April 1879, and was remembered by his family and fellow townsmen as
having been a kind, genial and affable son of Dorset. He lies with
his wife and father and other members of the family in a vault near
the entrance to the graveyard at Wyke Regis. From the hill above, one
can look out across the Bay that Thompson loved so well, and beneath
whose waters he took the world's first underwater photograph.
Lake House at Hamworthy was rebuilt long since, and
now serves as Officers Mess for the Royal Marines stationed
At Weymouth, no. 3 Gloucester Row has also been
rebuilt. No. 11 Frederick Place, a most attractive late Georgian
terrace house (it was in fact built in the reign of William IV),
appears outwardly much as it must have looked when Thompson, carrying
the results of his momentous experiment, climbed the steps leading to
its front door.
Thompson's name appears in the history of
photography together with the names of two other men of Dorset birth:
John Pouncy of Dorchester, the first man to discover a practical
method by which photographs could be reproduced in printing ink; and
William Henry Fox Talbot, the father of modern photography.
The Peacock's Tail sea-weed still flourishes in
Weymouth Bay and the pieces of it sometimes found washed up on
Weymouth beach may perhaps be regarded as constituting another of
William Thompson's memorials.
Reproduced from in focus 49.
See also www.thehds.com/