September 25, 2023

Diver and archaeologist Christopher Dobbs retires

Christopher Dobbs

Christopher Dobbs retires as Chief Interpreter at the Mary Rose Museum

On October 11, 1982, Christopher Dobbs had a unique perspective on one of the most important events in maritime history: the founding of the Mary Rose.

As millions watched on TV, the marine archaeologist found himself below the Solent as Henry VIII’s flagship slowly moved past him through the murky waters on his way to the surface for the first time in 437 years.

He is now retiring as head of interpretation for the Mary Rose Museum, ending a 44-year association with the wreck.

The famous warship sank in 1545 while leading an attack on a French invasion fleet, with Henry VIII watching from nearby Southsea Castle.

It is thought that about 500 soldiers and sailors perished when the ship was wrecked.

Mr Dobbs was one of the first teams of divers to recover items from the wreck after it was discovered in 1971 at about 40 feet on the seabed.

“That was an amazing experience – on every dive we encountered objects that no one in the world had seen before,” he said.

Mr Dobbs accompanied the then Prince of Wales on several dives to the wreck while the future King championed the massive archaeological and engineering project that culminated in its lifting in 1982.

He recalled the “incredible buzz of excitement and anticipation” on the day as he worked underwater with the lifting bags designed to accommodate the fragile hull.

“I can’t really describe what it was like when it surfaced – I was safely in a cocoon underwater.

“It was nice and quiet but when I saw the TV pictures there were champagne corks popping and guns firing from Southsea Castle.

“It was great to see the Mary Rose lift off the seabed and go to the surface, but it was only done through the combination of so many different teams.

“It was touch and go, but the great thing was that we achieved it.”

The Prince of Wales dives to Mary Rose's location

The Prince of Wales made several dives to the wreck site

The wood was taken to an atmospherically controlled dry dock where it was sprayed with a mist of cold water and then water soluble wax before the air drying process began.

Telling the story of a “Tudor time capsule” with its artifacts, including weapons and crew personal effects, has been Mr. Dobb’s life’s work since its inception.

“It was a Portsmouth ship – it was built here and sailed from here in its lifetime. It was part of the Portsmouth culture.

“While it has international significance, it is also important as a Portsmouth story,” he said.

Now housed in a £39 million purpose-built museum in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, visitors can view it through floor-to-ceiling windows and walk past a balcony that enters through an airlock.

Dr. Alexzandra Hildred of the Mary Rose Trust paid tribute to Mr Dobbs’ knowledge of the artifacts and their treatment as “unparalleled”.

“All the volunteers – both in the museum and the 500 volunteer divers say it’s the way he treated and taught them, that he passed on his knowledge of the Mary Rose.

“His contribution to the exhibitions at the museum should be applauded. What he put into the design of the museum has made it more accessible and accessible.”

Not only did Dobbs do regular dives to check the condition of the wreck, but he also worked with Unesco and other international organizations that protect shipwrecks around the world.

One of the Mary Rose Museum’s latest innovations is a 4D simulation of diving at the wreck site, narrated by Mr. Dobbs.

“I’ve been so privileged — can you imagine a better job being both an archaeologist and a diver than working on a project like the Mary Rose and then sharing that with the rest of the world?” he said.

  • 1510 – The ship is commissioned by the newly crowned King Henry VIII and construction begins in Portsmouth. It is launched in 1511.

  • 1545 – On July 19, during the Battle of the Solent, the ship sinks while leading the attack on the French invasion fleet.

  • 1549 – 1836 – After expert Venetian salvagers make unsuccessful attempts to lift the wreck, the ship lies undisturbed for nearly 300 years.

  • 1836 – Early pioneering divers, John and Charles Deane, discover the wreck site and raise guns using explosives. They later lose the location.

  • 1965 – A new search for the wreck begins.

  • 1971 – Divers see the first exposed wood and the site is identified as the Mary Rose.

  • 1979 – 1982 – The ship’s contents are excavated by divers and more than 19,000 artifacts are brought to the surface.

  • 1982 – The wreckage of the hull is lifted. The event i
    s watched live on television by an estimated 60 million people worldwide.

  • 2013 – A £35 million Mary Rose Museum opens in Portsmouth.

  • 2016 – Museum visitors finally get a clear view of the wreck.

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