Scuba divers and red knit caps

Interesting Research Related to Maritime Maine
By Charles H. Lagerbom | Feb 11, 2021
Photo by: Charles H. Lagerbom The author wears his William Walker Comforter.

When I was a kid growing up in Kansas, I used to watch “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.” Seeing his adventures around the world aboard his research ship Calypso kindled within me an interest in the marine environment. What was also cool about Cousteau’s team of divers, was that when out of the water, they wore their signature red knit caps.

Jacques Cousteau was a childhood hero of mine with his marine awareness, cutting-edge technology, research vessel Calypso sailing the world, and his encounters with all kinds of marine life. I even wrote him when I was nine years old, submitting my hand-drawn idea (what I thought was a pretty detailed drawing) of a hovercraft, which I confidently suggested he should add to his fleet of ocean vessels. While they never acted upon my idea, the Cousteau Society did send some posters, a hand-written note and information about their organization. I was kind of hoping for a red knit hat too, still the posters went up on my bedroom wall.

For my birthday, during my sophomore year in high school, my folks got me scuba diving lessons through the YMCA. The course was run by my high school biology teacher. For six weeks, every Tuesday and Thursday evening, we drove to the nearest pool (about 45 minutes away) and spent three hours each night, where I learned the basics of scuba diving. Courses were a little more rigorous back then, but that is another column!

I always kind of figured I would gravitate to the sea; maybe being born under the sign of Aquarius factored into it as well. Graduate school for history and archaeology brought me to Maine, but the fact that the ocean was here too cinched the deal.

Just weeks after moving to Maine, a fellow student and I went to Tommy’s Dive Shop in Portland, rented tanks and explored Kettle Cove off Cape Elizabeth. I loved my first forays into New England waters, although the "briskness" of the water took a little getting used to! Now, I revel in it.

Diving in Maine, I quickly learned one needs to guard against getting chilled. Jackets, gloves and a hat all help ward off cold before and after dives. They definitely come in handy on multiple tank dives, when you are waiting between times to get back into the water.

This holds true especially in late fall and early spring, when winds and lower air temps, less sun, and cooler waters all combine to challenge your endurance and hardihood. It is the time of year when the dive buddy list tends to shrink as some, maybe most, local divers put away their gear for the season. Those of us who continued to go out, still needed protection from the cold.

I started wearing a cheap old red knit cap to keep my head and ears warm, but also in honor of Jacques Cousteau. But I had never thought more about the history of the diver’s red knit cap until one day, while surfing the net, I came across Laurie J. Wilson’s online article entitled “The Incredible Story Beneath Jacques Cousteau’s Famous Red Hat,” on Blue Ocean Network website.

There I learned that the iconic red cap was originally inspired by an English hard-hat diver named William Walker. In the early 20th century, he worked on saving Winchester Cathedral, spending six hours a day in 20 feet of black water, working blind to shore-up the foundations of the building. It was a herculean task. Walker worked on the project for five years, from 1906 to 1911. In between his dives, he wore a red knit cap, in the brim of which he kept a 1906 English penny for good luck.

Intrigued by this guy, I searched around some more and found his story, including lots of illustrations of him at Winchester Cathedral in full hard-hat diving gear and his red knit cap, now known as the William Walker Comforter.

The story next is picked up by an English commercial diver named Tony Ash. In the 1970s, he attended an auction of assorted classic diving memorabilia. One of the items to be auctioned, an old, beat-up red knit cap, caught his eye.

Tony Ash discovered the elderly gentleman who had donated it had dated a Walker girl back in his youth. During one of their walks, he had complained to her that he got cold while fishing. The next time he saw her, she produced a red knit cap that she said belonged to "Billy" when he worked at Winchester Cathedral. The donor wore it for years until he retired from fishing, then it hung on a nail in his garage for a few more decades. It was that hat he put up for auction.

Bidding started on the red knit cap and Tony Ash ended up being high bidder. He paid £80, which he said was quite a bit of money back in 1976! Incredibly, he found the hat still had a penny tucked in its brim.

Ash wore it for a time, but the cap started to disintegrate. He then had his grandmother knit him a similar one that he wore for the next three decades. In 2006, he approached a professional knitter on the Isle of Wight. She dismantled what was left of the original comforter and studied its makeup and construction.

Ash reported she was able to create an exact replica, including what yarn was used, stitch size and style, as well as color…which was Guards Tunic Red. He now commissions a few each year to be made and sold.

By this point I was totally hooked. The quest now centered on tracking down Tony Ash to order a hat. I searched all kinds of diving and maritime services in Great Britain until I finally found some contact information. I sent out a query and waited. And waited. Nothing happened for so long, I actually forgot about my search. Tony Ash eventually contacted me and, in a flurry of emails, I was able to put an order in for one William Walker Comforter. We arranged payment and Tony reported it might take a while, but to not lose heart.

Again, time went by and I got immersed in other things and projects. Imagine my surprise and enjoyment when a small package arrived one day from Great Britain. Inside was a note from Tony, a printed card with the provenance story of how the William Walker Comforter came about and the hat itself!

It was glorious! I felt like Ralphie in “The Christmas Story,” when he finally got his hands on the Red Ryder BB rifle. You know, the one with the compass in the stock!

The cap definitely keeps my head warm before and after diving. I like wearing it as an homage to Cousteau and to William Walker and to the history of diving. But by far the coolest thing of all is that Tony included along with my hat an old English penny to keep in the brim for good luck. Just like William Walker! How awesome is that?!

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP US History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He can be contacted at clagerbom@rsu71.org. He is author of "Whaling in Maine" available through Historypress.com.

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Judith Inman | Feb 12, 2021 08:02

Great story!  Thank you.



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