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.