William Thompson – 100 years of underwater photography?

by Victor Adam

Reproduced from in focus 49 (Sep. 1993)

This year [1993] celebrates 50 years of SCUBA diving but is it really 100 years since the first underwater photograph was taken? The French and others make much of the photograph taken by Frenchman Louis Boutan of a hard hat diver taken in 1893. However, the first underwater photograph known was actually taken by an Englishman by the name of William Thompson in Dorset in 1856! True Thompson didn’t actually dive to take his photograph, he lowered his housed plate camera to the seabed in Weymouth Bay and operated the shutter from a boat anchored over the site, but he was the first to take an underwater photograph as Victor Adam’s reporting in the Dorset Countryside Vol. 2 No. 2 recalls:-

William Thompson was born at Lake House, Hamworthy, on 22 June 1822, and grew up to be a man of many talents. Eldest son of a wealthy father, he completed his education in France before returning to live at Yarrells, Lychett Minster, the house that his father had caused to be built which he named after the eminent naturalist William Yarrell.

In 1847 William Thompson married Sarah Slade, a member of a well-known Poole family of Newfoundland merchants. Soon after the marriage, the couple set up house where at 11 Frederick Place, Weymouth, Thompson practised as a solicitor.

Apart from his profession (to which his financial circumstances being what they were devoted no great proportion of his time) Thompson had many interests. He was the owner of a yawl of 104 tons, named the “Waif”, and a 12 ton cutter named “Feather Star”, both of which were used for trawling and dredging in Weymouth Bay. He was a member of the Royal Thames Yacht Club and later became a founder member of the Dorset Yacht Club.


Soon after his arrival in Weymouth Thompson’s interest was attracted by the great wealth of marine life abounding in the waters off the Dorset coast. The naturalist Philip Henry Gosse wrote of having had many interesting meetings with him and set it on record that Thompson was the discoverer of several new species of anemones and seaweeds. Gosse also described one of Thompson’s experiments in the conservation of marine life, referring to the seaweed known as Peacock’s Tail, Gosse wrote that “my friend Mr Thompson … has endeavoured to propagate this pretty alga with every success: collecting the fronds from their native site when fully ripe, he scattered them in similar situations all along the shore, so that now, under Sandsfoot Castle and on the ledges between this and Byng Cliff and in the little bight of the rocks below the Northe there are what I may call flourishing gardens of (them), fully established and needing no further care for their perpetuity.

Gosse’s book The Aquarium, an Unveiling of the Wonders of the Deep Sea appeared in 1854, at a time when the setting up of indoor marine aquaria was becoming immensely popular. In it he described Thompson as being willing and well fitted to procuring and supplying, on reasonable terms, specimens for either public or private collections.

In 1856 a heated discussion was raging as to whether the Dorset County Museum and the Dorchester Reading Room, which shared the same building, should part company. In a letter to the Dorset County Chronicle Thompson came out strongly in favour of their splitting up. “I am anxious”, he wrote, “to present a series of marine objects from the coast of the County, but am prevented by want of room and of the proper cases, and both of these wants are caused by the Reading Room. Gaps in the surviving acquisition books of the Dorset County Museum make it impossible to say for certain whether Thompson’s offer was accepted but it is perhaps it is significant that when, a few years later, he moved with his family to 3 Gloucester Row, he converted some stables at the back of the house into his own private museum.

In 1860 Thompson contributed an account of the fishing prospects at Weymouth to the Field and an article on shrimps to the Dorset County Chronicle. He was also a contributor, from time to time, to the periodical Land and Water.

Thompson’s expert knowledge was widely recognised. He supplied information to Gwyn Jeffreys for his book on the British Mollusca, and J. C. Mansell-Pleydell acknowledged his assistance in his Molluscs of Dorset.

As an associate member of the British Archaeological Association, Thompson was invited to serve on the local committee set up to organise the Annual Congress of that body_held at Weymouth in August 1871.

Ornithology was another of Thompson’s interests and he made many notes and lists of Dorset birds, probably with the intention of eventually writing a book on the subject.


Thompson was for eleven years a member of the Weymouth Town council, serving during the latter part of that time as an alderman. But his many other interests began to interfere with his aldermanic duties and in 1876, after some plain speaking on the matter by his colleagues, he tendered his resignation. As the local newspaper later put it “For many years he was an alderman of the borough, but paid more attention to natural history and sporting, especially in matters relating to coursing, than he did to municipal questions ..”. A cup inscribed as being “The Lulworth Cup for Aged Greyhounds” was won in 1868 by one of Thompson’s dogs and is now in the collection of one of his descendants.

Oddly enough, it was not Thompson’s interest in natural history that led him to take the world’s first underwater photograph.

One stormy day Thompson and a friend named Kenyon found themselves weather-bound for several hours at the Portland Ferry Bridge House. They were seated in a room that looked out towards the bridge itself, through whose arches they could see the Fleet water running like a mill stream. Thompson began to consider the effects the great force of the water must be having on the piers of the bridge; he envisaged the possibility of extensive underwater damage and the difficulties and expense that would be entailed in sending a diver down to discover what repairs would be necessary. It was then that the idea occurred to him that, in such an event, a camera might be of considerable assistance.


With Thompson, to think was to act. He already owned a camera which he was in the habit of using in conjunction with his natural history studies. A carpenter now made him a wooden box large enough to contain the camera. The front of the box was made of plate glass and on the outside of the front there was a heavily weighted shutter, hinged at the top, that could be raised by a long string attached to it. Thumbscrews secured the back of the box so that when the camera had been placed in it, it could be made (Thompson hoped) reasonably watertight. The box was fitted on an iron tripod and provided with a rope for lowering it into the sea and pulling it up again.

So far, so good. The box was ready. The next problem concerned the camera itself. Thompson’s camera took a plate measuring 5 inches by 4 inches, which he prepared using the collodion process. This meant that the liquid chemical had to be poured on to the plate, and be exposed and developed all within a matter of an hour or so. Following the procedure usual at the time, Thompson set up a small tent, on Weymouth beach, and inside it prepared a plate and put it in his camera. He then, under cover of a black cloth, placed the camera in the box, making sure that its lens was against the plate glass, and screwed on the back.

The next step was to lower the box into the sea. For the site of his experiment Thompson chose what he described as “a nook in the bay of Weymouth which is bounded by a ridge of rocks (where the area within is of sand and boulders and thickly clothed with many species of seaweeds”.

Thompson and his friend Kenyon, having rowed out a sufficient distance from the beach, lowered the box into 18 feet of water. When he was sure that the apparatus was standing upright on the bottom, he pulled the string that raised the hinged shutter. Thompson made two attempts that day. For the first he allowed an exposure time of five minutes but found that the plate having been developed registered nothing.

For his second attempt he doubled the exposure time. Although by then the light had deteriorated, he obtained a reasonable satisfactory negative, from which he made a print on which it was possible faintly to discern the outlines of boulders and seaweed. Water had leaked into the camera but this, Thompson was pleased to see, had not seriously affected the quality of the picture. He also noted with surprise that the image had not been inverted, and came to the conclusion that the thick plate glass in front of the lens must have acted as a reversing mirror.

Thompson later designed a better apparatus, but he then lost interest and pursued the matter no further. His friend William Penney of Poole, who was a chemist, and a naturalist of some note, persuaded him to send an account of his experiment to be printed in the Journal of the Society of Arts, otherwise there would probably have been no record of it in existence today.

Although Thompson often used his camera to take still life photographs of fishes and other marine subjects that he had dredged from the bay, he thought of underwater photography only as a useful aid in underwater engineering. It is clear that he never imagined a time when future generations might be able to use a similar process to take photographs of marine life in situ. Yet some of the finest examples of underwater photographs have been taken in recent years along the Dorset coast within a few miles of the spot where, in 1856, Thompson lowered his camera into the water in a nook in Weymouth Bay.

William Thompson died at 3 Gloucester Row on 15 April 1879, and was remembered by his family and fellow townsmen as having been a kind, genial and affable son of Dorset. He lies with his wife and father and other members of the family in a vault near the entrance to the graveyard at Wyke Regis. From the hill above, one can look out across the Bay that Thompson loved so well, and beneath whose waters he took the world’s first underwater photograph.

Lake House at Hamworthy was rebuilt long since, and now serves as Officers Mess for the Royal Marines stationed there.

At Weymouth, no. 3 Gloucester Row has also been rebuilt. No. 11 Frederick Place, a most attractive late Georgian terrace house (it was in fact built in the reign of William IV), appears outwardly much as it must have looked when Thompson, carrying the results of his momentous experiment, climbed the steps leading to its front door.

Thompson’s name appears in the history of photography together with the names of two other men of Dorset birth: John Pouncy of Dorchester, the first man to discover a practical method by which photographs could be reproduced in printing ink; and William Henry Fox Talbot, the father of modern photography.

The Peacock’s Tail sea-weed still flourishes in Weymouth Bay and the pieces of it sometimes found washed up on Weymouth beach may perhaps be regarded as constituting another of William Thompson’s memorials.

Reproduced from in focus 49. Sep. 93