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Book Review: Goldfinder by Keith Jessop and Neil Hanson

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It was hailed as “The Salvage of the Century”. A British consortium, with an international team of divers, working on the fringe of deep diving technology, attempting to salvage close to £50 million in gold bars from a sunken British warship. It was an adventure like no other.

HMS Edinburgh was sunk in 1942 as she transported gold bullion from Russia in payment for armaments. Badly damaged, she lay on the seabed about 800 feet below the surface of the frigid and turbulent Barents Sea. It would take hours to descent to this depth in a pressurised chamber and after 38 days of saturation diving another seven days to return to the surface. Jessop recalls that “no one had ever dived to such depths, in such waters, for such length of time before” (p.354). He also describes the process of “working in virtually nil visibility, groping amongst the tangle of metal objects covered in heavy fuel oil” (p.367).

Few of us can visualise the physical and emotional pressures of not only diving but working under these conditions. Where “breathing the gas is like breathing soup” (p.359). Of cutting through inches of armour plate with oxy-arc cutting equipment not knowing if live ammunition and bombs were on the other side of the plate! Again, Jessop recalls: “If anything went wrong, a doctor, a rescue bell, or a rescue ship, were hours and even days away. We were on our own” (p.354).

Goldfinder is an autobiography that traces the life of Keith Jessop; from an illegitimate boy in Keighley, Yorkshire, working in the local mill, completing national service as a Royal Marine to becoming an eminent salvor. Throughout it recounts how he acquired an eclectic combination of skills and experiences that would keep him alive when undertaking dives to recover scrap metal from dangerous wrecks in even more dangerous waters. Looking back to these events, Jessop notes: “The more I understood about the physics of diving, the more horrified I was by some of the risks I had already taken” (p.123).

Goldfinder is more than an engaging story about deep water salvage – and it is an engaging story. It contrasts two very different parts of the character of Keith Jessop and maybe a fatal flaw. It documents his meticulous research to locate wrecks, the intricate planning required and the sheer physical effort in undertaking repeated deep dives. However, whilst shrewd in many aspects of salvage, the book reveals a naïve trust in others.

As Jessop pursued his dream of salvaging gold from HMS Edinburgh, he encountered accountants and lawyers, government representatives and businessmen and placed his trust in them. It is a trust that may have been misplaced. Indeed, towards the end of the salvage Jessop says, “I was sick of the sharks in pin-stripe suits” (p.411). Jessop certainly achieved his dream. You can decide if he was unrealistic in his expectations of those around him. Should he have been better prepared for the rivalries and self-serving practises of others? Should he have better anticipated the legal wrangling and financial manipulations surrounding the salvage? I invite you to judge.


Keith Jessop was a self-taught climber, diver and extraordinary salvage man who scoured the worlds’ oceans for treasures. Although the recovery of the gold from HMS Edinburgh remained his crowning achievement, his subsequent life was also highly adventurous. He found the silver-laden wreck of the USS John Barry and searched, unsuccessfully, for the lost treasure of the pirate Henry Morgan. Keith died in France 22 May 2010.

Neil Hanson is a full-time writer and author who has published 50 books. Amongst his acclaimed works of narrative history are: The Custom of the Sea, The Dreadful Judgement and The Confident Hope of a Miracle. For more information about Neil and his publications visit www.neilhanson.co.uk

  • Goldfinder (1998) New York: John Wiley & Sons. Inc.
    by Keith Jessop and Neil Hanson
  • ISBN 0 471 40733 X           (422 pages)

Find out more about Professor Fred Lockwood, who is also a published author, at www.fredlockwood.co.uk.

Dr Fred Lockwood is Emeritus Professor of Learning and Teaching, Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. He is also a PADI Master Scuba Diver and dived in the waters of Central America and Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia, Australasia and the Pacific Islands. Follow Fred at www.fredlockwood.co.uk.

Miscellaneous Blogs

The BiG Scuba Podcast… with Rosemary Lunn

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Ian and Gemma chat among themselves and are also are joined by well-known Dive Industry Professional Rosemary Lunn.

We talk about dive fitness and entering the CrossFit 2021 open games and being members of our local CrossFit Box. You can also listen to our new member of the team – Rosemary Lunn – answer some scuba diving questions.

Find out more about Rosemary at www.tumc.co.uk.


Find more podcast episodes and information at the new www.thebigscuba.com  website and on most social platforms @thebigscuba 

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Miscellaneous Blogs

Book Review: Erebus – The story of a ship (2019)

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In a title of six words, Erebus: The story of a ship, Michael Palin tells us precisely what his book is all about. Through a comprehensive analysis of the Ship’s Logs and crew reports, personal letters, private and naval journals, books, papers and newspaper articles he documents the life of the ship and its crews. He traces their histories from the launch of the ship at Pembroke dock in 1826, via unremarkable Mediterranean patrols, lengthy voyages to Australia to bone chilling Antarctic and Arctic expeditions. They culminate in the last crew abandoning the ship, trapped in Arctic pack ice, in 1848.

However, Erebus: The story of a ship is more than a mere chronology of dates, actions and events. Michael Palin tells us a complex story. It’s an evolving story of the interpersonal relationships of those men serving on the ship; relationships that blossom and those that deteriorate. It includes accounts of influential men and women who shaped the voyages and crew selection. It also notes the impact of sponsors and suppliers who may have contributed to the final tragedy. It’s a story illustrated by Victorian photographs, other colour photographs and paintings, sonar images, maps and sketches. They all serve to provide a picture of the life and death of those on board HMS Erebus.

In 1846, during the heroic but ill-fated Franklin Expedition, HMS Erebus, her companion ship HMS Terror, captained by Francis Crozier, and a total of 129 men, “vanished off the face of the earth whilst trying to find a way through the Northwest Passage” (ppxii – xiii). This was the prized northern route to China and India via Arctic waters. HMS Erebus wasn’t seen again until one hundred and sixty-nine years later under thirty-six feet of Arctic water. Divers found the wreck remarkably intact as their description and photographs reveal.

Palin describes how the search for Erebus and her crew extended over decades – often suggesting missed opportunities as well as shocking findings. His summary account of the last desperate months and weeks of their survival, as the expedition disintegrated, is poignant in the extreme.

It’s tempting to describe the book as a slow burn that builds into an inferno – but words like ‘burn’ and ‘inferno’ are at odds with Palin’s descriptive account of the mind numbing cold of Arctic winters and a ship entombed in pack ice for years. Certainly, the pace of the early chapters appear relatively slow when compared to the final crescendo – but they provide an invaluable background to an understanding of the unfolding drama.

You don’t have to be a historian or a marine archaeologist, a sailor or traveller to marvel at the story of HMS Erebus and her crews. You don’t have to be a sentimentalist to read: ‘The one comfort from the whole unmitigated disaster was the news that bodies had been discovered far enough south to prove that Crozier had led his doomed men to the last link in the chain of marine connections that made up to Northwest Passage’ (p. 261).


Erebus: The story of a ship (2019)

  • By Michael Palin
  • London: Arrow Books        
  • ISBN 9781 784 758578     
  • 334 pp

Michael Palin has written and starred in numerous TV programmes; perhaps Monty Python is one of the most famous. He has made several acclaimed travel documentaries to the North and South Pole as well as the Sahara desert and the Himalayas. His books include Hemingway’s Chair (1998) and The Truth (2013). Between 2009 and 2012 he was President of the Royal Geographical Society. Michael Palin was knighted in 2019 and lives in London.


Find out more about Professor Fred Lockwood, who is also a published author, at www.fredlockwood.co.uk.

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