The bizarre tale of the death of the world’s first submarine in Plymouth Sound


Plymouth Sound has been the scene of epic moments in naval history and the starting point for many great voyages.

But it was also the scene of a tragicomic episode of madness that resulted in the first recorded underwater death.

Millwright John Day went to an aquatic grave in June 1774, lowered into a converted wooden sloop called The Maria.

He descended into a weighted inner tube in civilian clothes, carrying a candle, water, a watch, and some cookies. It may even be the result of a bet gone wrong.

Day, from East Anglia, aimed to stay on the seabed 120 feet below Firestone Bay for 24 hours. It is likely that he only survived a few moments before the ship crashed.

Neither he nor Maria were ever seen again – despite an incredible rescue attempt a month later that somehow hoped to find him alive.

It shows how little was known about submarines at the time and even about the human body.

The identity of the first successful submarine worthy of the name is still shrouded in controversy and secrecy today.

An impression of what The Maria might have looked like as it descended through Plymouth Sound

Much of the information on John Day and The Maria comes from a pamphlet the following year, Nikolai Detlef Falck’s catchy title “A philosophical thesis on the diving vessel projected by Mr. Day and sunk in Plymouth Sound “.

But the little-known story still arouses interest nearly 250 years later.

Local marine exploration and research group the ‘SHIPS Project’ (‘Shipwrecks and History in Plymouth Strait‘) even worked with experts at the University of Birmingham to create external and internal 3D video and computer generated images of The Maria.

Little is known about Day’s origins, but Falck, in the publication held in the collection of the National Maritime Museums in Greenwich, said Day managed to stay six hours underwater in an old ship in East Anglia.

It secured financial support from Charles Blake to purchase a 50 ton sloop called The Maria, and fitted it to include a 12 foot by 9 foot by 8 foot “inner tube” for its single passenger.

The inner tube has been reinforced against water pressure with “solid stanchions” on all sides. The external ballast, made up of “twenty rough stones, each weighing a ton”, was attached to the underside of the ship by a rope. Locks at the front of the ship allowed water to enter.

An illustration from the brochure by Maria de Falck
An illustration from the brochure by Maria de Falck

Day was supposed to have loose bolts that would detach the Maria from the ballast and allow it to float to the surface.

The sinking was supposed to be secret, but crowds gathered to watch and a Royal Navy frigate was waiting. But all the spectators saw were a few bubbles moments after the ship descended.

According to marine archaeologist and submarine expert Pete Holt of Project SHIPS, Day found Player Blake in something called the Sporting Kalendar.

He added: “He was a crook. He found his backer in a gambling rag. He found someone to place a bet. This person obviously had nothing to lose other than his money.

“He messed up the shape of the thing, it was basically a square box. They didn’t really understand the pressure then, they didn’t really understand human anatomy.

“Falck thought he could find Day alive a month later in some sort of suspended animation. The ship would have imploded. Day wouldn’t have known.

Peter Holt of the SHIPS project
Peter Holt of the SHIPS project

Even though the ship survived, Pete said Day did not have enough air to survive the stay at the bottom of the sea. His candle would also consume oxygen, which was not discovered until the same year. .

But Pete said Day was a pioneer in certain areas, like using dropped weights to lift a submarine.

He pointed out that there was no way to test the submarine without a human being inside as it was impossible to lift the ship to the surface.

And Pete added that there were no Department of Defense police to shut down his business – and in fact, a Royal Navy frigate was on hand to help with the business.

He said that unlike the pioneers of railways or airplanes, the first successful submarine voyages were shrouded in secrecy.

The Marines fought in an arms race throughout the 19th century, so their experiences were kept under wraps.

Peter said, “It depends who you ask, if you ask the British, they invented the submarine, if you ask the Americans, it was them and so on.

He added that several attempts had been made to recover The Maria without success.

Peter said, “We know where he is. It’s in a shipping channel, but we don’t want everyone to know about it. Divers have probably swam it as there is very little to see.

“You would have to be a very muddy diver to find it. “

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