ARTEFACTS: Diving-bell, Sir John Rogerson’s Quay

Published in Artefacts, Issue 5 (September/October 2018), Volume 26

The object that became a museum.

 

By Jim Kelleher

 

Above: The diving-bell in the Alexander Basin behind a concrete caisson, c. 1940s.

This 90-ton diving-bell, built in 1866 in Drogheda, was designed by Bindon Blood Stoney, who was a port engineer from 1856 to 1898. A diving-bell is open at the bottom and allows six workmen to descend down a funnel through an airlock to work on the river bed. The bell was lowered into the water from a bell float or barge, and air was pumped into it. The workmen were able to level the river bed to make way for large prefabricated concrete blocks, each weighing up to 350 tons.

Above: The diving-bell today, with a small museum underneath. (Dublin Port Company Archive)

This innovative approach to quay wall construction was a relatively cheap way for Dublin Port to expand and move eastwards away from the city centre. The North Wall extension and adjacent quays at Alexandra Basin, in total almost 5,000 square feet of deep-water berthage, were built using the diving-bell in the nineteenth century.

The working conditions in the bell were harsh, as it became unbearably hot, and the men could not work for more than 30 minutes at a time. In addition, when they finished work they had to spend at least five minutes in the airlock, otherwise they could bleed from the ears and nose or, even worse, develop ‘diver’s bends’.

The diving-bell was in constant use until 1958, as the port expanded to meet the requirements of more modern ships that needed deeper water. It was saved by staff members of the port and was placed on display in 2000 as part of a community project on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay. In 2014 Dublin Port decided to create a more permanent display, raising the diving-bell off the ground and building a small museum underneath. As Frank McNally described it at the time, ‘And now suddenly, it’s Dublin’s newest museum—a miniature one, to be sure, but packing more fascination per square metre than most others’.

 

Jim Kelleher is Head of Special Projects with Dublin Port Company, Port Heritage and Communications.

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