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Feather's Miscellany: Gold Diver

...In time he was contracted to bring up bullion from a ship, H.M.S Edinburgh, torpedoed during the war off the Russian coast. It was a new venture for him because his contractors were a consortium from Eastern Europe, newly released from the grip of Communism and flexing their capitalist muscles...

John Waddington-Feather’s intriguing story about a diver has a factual base.

I’ve known Ken Lightcliff all my life. He was born in a huddle of terrace-houses which ran off Garlic Lane. All the streets had birds’ names: Wren Street, Thrush Street, Partridge Street, Robin Street and Lark Street. They were known collectively in Keighworth as t’Bird Cage. On the north side of them was Albert Park and at the further end from Garlic Lane was Bradford Road. In between were more terraces and their corner shops, an engineering works and the playground of Eastwood School, where Ken and myself were educated.

The whole lot had been thrown up during the back-end of Victoria’s reign and by the middle of the 20th century they were looking the worse for wear. They had become run down and the people living in them were ‘rough’; decidedly under-crustian, at the bottom of Keighworth’s social pile.

From the start Ken had a raw deal. He was brought up in t’Bird Cage with no perks in life. His mother had to work to make ends meet and Ken never knew who his dad was, never went on holidays, never had new clothes (always casts-off) and never had any pocket money like most of the other lads; only what he earned delivering papers when he was old enough.

But he was bright; bright enough to win a scholarship to the local Grammar School, which he was not allowed to take up. His mother couldn’t afford the uniform and all the extras which went with it. Consequently Ken had to leave school at fourteen and go out to work. He was employed at Tommy Meadows’s metal yard at the bottom of Garlic Lane, sorting out different metals and costing them. Ultimately he did far better than if he’d gone to the Grammar School and finished up behind a bank counter the rest of his life.

As he grew up he forged ahead in the scrap-yard. In intelligence he was head and shoulders above his co-workers, and soon became a manager. By the time he was eighteen he was second only to the boss, Tommy Meadows. Tommy had come back from the First World War badly gassed and for years trailed round Keighworth with a handcart picking up scrap metal where he could, much of it from house sales and foundries. By the time Ken went there, Tommy had three lorries and employed ten men. World War Two had set him up. Business boomed then and he opened another scrap-yard higher up the lane in the railways sidings. Young Ken helped him manage both. Though no academic, Ken never stopped reading. He’d always had a yen for history, especially maritime history, and spent hours in Keighworth Library poring over history books about the Royal and merchant navies. At the same time he mastered the economics of the metal trade and developed a keen nose for business. When he was twenty one, when he left the scrap-yard to do his National Service he was a seasoned entrepreneur.

As I said, I’d known Ken from boyhood and we went into the forces together, he into the Royal Marines and myself as a paratrooper. Our berets marked us out from the black berets of the rest of the army. His was a green one, mine a red one. Both highly respected and bringing kudos whenever we drank in our local pub.

Of course, we talked about what we were doing and he told me he was training to be a diver, a deep-sea diver and a frogman. He passed his courses with flying colours and saw action at Suez with the Royal Navy before he finished his National Service in the late 1950s, and back in civvy street he returned to his old job at Tommy’s scrap-yard for a while. But not for long.

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood leads on to fortune.” And Ken who had worked in many watery tides as a diver took the one fate offered him and made his fortune. By the 1950s, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal which stretched across the Pennines past Keighworth had fallen into disrepair. It had become a dumping ground for all sorts of rubbish, including scrap metal. Then, suddenly marinas and holiday barges came into vogue. The canal needed clearing and Ken tendered for the job. He made his first million pulling out the scrap metal in it, and set up his own business, The Lighfoot Marine Salvage Co. He never looked back.

Those years of studying books and charts in the library began to pay off. He approached the owners of wrecks submerged off the coast and was commissioned to bring up safes and other valuables. That way, he made his second and third million, often at personal risk, for he’d never send his men down unless he went down first.

In time he was contracted to bring up bullion from a ship, H.M.S Edinburgh, torpedoed during the war off the Russian coast. It was a new venture for him because his contractors were a consortium from Eastern Europe, newly released from the grip of Communism and flexing their capitalist muscles.

The bullion had been payment for munitions sent to Russia during the war in the fight against Nazism. It had been torpedoed and lay in deep water. Only Ken’s company had the expertise and equipment to bring the bullion up. It took some time for it was dangerous work, but bit by bit Ken recovered the many bars of gold – all except one!

The contractors were puzzled. They knew exactly how many bars of gold there were and watched their coming to the surface closely, guardedly, but there was still one missing. Ken outfaced them saying he’d brought up all he could find. They were suspicious and searched him and his men thoroughly. Still no sign of the missing bar.

When they’d given him the all-clear, Ken returned with his men and equipment to Britain, and built himself a luxury bungalow on the outskirts of Keighworth. He never moved and had his fixed routine each week after work. He’d no ambition to move up the social ladder, no edge, nor anything of that sort. He still visited the same pubs and clubs, and it was in one of them I met him one evening playing a game of dominoes and learned the truth of the missing gold bar, which had been in all the papers.

I knew he’d never have stolen it. He was straight as a die, always had been, always had to be in his trade which attracted all sorts of rum customers. After a few games I asked him confidentially how he’d lifted the bar. He said nothing for some moments, apparently studying his hand of dominoes.

“The contractors caffled,” he said quietly at length. “They broke their deal and didn’t pay up. They owed me a lot of money.” There was another pause, then, “So I paid myself in kind, in gold. If they’d ha’ been straight wi’ me, Ah’d ha’ been straight wi’ them.”

“But how did you do it, Ken?” I asked playing my hand. “How did you get the gold out?”

For the first time he looked up and smiled quietly. “What do divers put in their boots to hold ‘em down?” he asked.

“Lead,” I replied.

“Not this diver,” he answered looking me straight in the eye, with that enigmatic smile lingering about his lips. Then he took his last domino, placed it firmly on the table and said, “Chips!”

John Waddington-Feather©

Caffled = West Yorkshire dialect, meaning ‘to go back on one’s word.’

Chips = the call the winner in a game of dominoes makes when he puts down his final domino.


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