49a["White Diver Dies", The Sunday Times (Perth, WA), Sunday 16 June 1912, page 12]


Paralysis the Cause

BROOME, Saturday.

William Webber, one of the white divers that arrived here some months ago from England under engagement to Messrs. Moss and Richardson, died on Friday, evening, the 7th, the result ot paralysis. Webber was one of the party of six divers who arrived here from the old country at the beginning of the year.

Deceased had been working in 19 fathoms of water below the Ninety Miles Beach, and collapsed after being hauled to the surface. The lugger promptly sailed for Broome, but soon after arrival here Webber passed away.

Deceased had as tender a white man brought out under engagement from England. Webber bad been considered in England one of the navy's crack divers, and had himself trained hundreds of men in the art of diving. He had followed the occupation of diver for over 20 years. He leaves a widow and two children of tender age to mourn their loss.

49b["The Pearling Industry", The West Australian, Monday 29 July 1912, page 4]

The Pearling Industry.

Its Political Aspect.

(By W. M.)


The irony of fate! At Carnarvon on June 7 the Minister for Works (Mr. W. D. Johnson), with the confident assertiveness begotten of utter lack of power to grip the complexity of the subject, let himself go on the pearling industry. He assured his audience that "white men were able to escape the dreaded paralysis and would prove more capable than colored divers. The difficulty facing white divers at present was that they were not being shown where and how to find shell. That would be soon overcome and the experiment would prove wholly successful." Throughout the same day, on board a lugger between La Perouse and Broome, the tide of life of William Webber, a white diver, was slowly ebbing away under the influence of the diver's dread disease--paralysis. What a terrible answer to the irresponsible vapourings of a mere mortal! Undaunted by the severe rebuke received by his leader, the member for Roebourne has, presumably with the sanction of the Government, forecasted an attack upon the present system of employment of Asiatic divers. Considering that the Commonwealth Government have appointed a Royal Commission into the pearling industry, the State Government might stay their hand in the expectation that the inquiries made and the facts elicited by the Commission might be of use in enabling them to deal sensibly with the question.

The poor white diver William Webber seems to have neglected largely the precautionary measures usually adopted as a safeguard against seizure by paralysis. The lengthy and gradual methods of reaching the surface were disregarded. He was apparently too impatient and his life was the penalty claimed and paid. I remember, upon his arrival in the State, his almost contemptuous summary of the dangers of deep diving--fast running tides, treacherous bottoms, etc. He had dived all over the world in all sorts of waters under every adverse condition possible; he was not afraid. Further, he had educated and trained divers in every clime and circumstance, was an admitted master hand, up to each point of the game, prepared to stake his reputation that under his tuition he and his companions would almost revolutionise the diving industry of the Nor'-West. Now, poor fellow, he is gone--the first victim to the white diver fetish.


49c[Bailey, John, 2001, The White Divers of Broome, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, pages 220-221]

13 Webber

According to the official accounts of that day's events,[2] Webber took only two minutes to come up to the surface after a dive of 45 minutes in 19 fathoms. If that account is correct, Webber was asking for trouble. Other, handwritten notes[3] (which although unsigned were undoubtedly written by Reid) say that Fred Gruenert then offered to take Webber to a place where he was sure there was shell. Webber agreed, and the Eurus sailed for twenty minutes. Webber took to the water in 19 fathoms and was immediately successful. After an hour he had collected thirteen pairs. In coming to the surface, Webber only took one stop at 4 fathoms, and then only for one minute. After he was pulled aboard he complained of a pain in his left shoulder. Reid then said to him, 'Bill, if you take my advice you won't go down no more.' Webber replied, 'I know my own business best, I ought to be underwater instead of on the deck.' He then entered the water again. Before he went down, Reid asked him what stages he was going to take. Webber said that he would please himself, and when Reid got the signals, he was to obey orders.

Webber was down an hour this time. On the way to the surface, Reid took him to 10 fathoms, but Webber signalled to be taken straight up. Reid moved him to 4 fathoms, but Webber refused to be held. By closing down the air escape valve on his suit, he floated to the surface.

Once on board, Webber, still in his canvas suit, clambered onto the cabin roof and lit a cigarette. He ordered the crew to move the boat into position to drift back along the same course. The crew had begun to work the sails when Webber, in a soft voice, said that he didn't know, he might finish for the day. He called for Reid to get him out of the suit. Then Webber grabbed his left leg and collapsed backwards onto the roof.

Reid and Gruenert undressed the stricken diver, took him into the cabin and placed him on the bunk. No amount of shaking would wake him. The two men discussed what to do. They were two days sailing time from Broome, and Webber was in a deep coma and barely breathing. They decided to make a dash for Broome where they could place Webber under the care of Dr Suzuki at the Japanese hospital.

After two hours Webber awoke, but his speech was thick and his focus of vision seemed to be in the far distance. Reid suggested he go down again in order to relieve the bends, but Webber refused, saying that he would blow himself to the surface. At about ten o'clock he started complaining about the cold in his arms and legs. He began shivering and he had lost movement in his right hand. His face was deathly white and he didn't seem to know where he was. Then he fell into a semiconscious state.

Reid wrote in his notes: 'He never spoke all night, left leg and arm went as cold as ice, remained quiet all night till morning. Asked for drink, gave him three spoons of tea, let him rest two or three hours, started to sink. About 3 pm that day turned livid. Asked: "Bill, think of me and get me out of this".'[4]

Reid also wrote that at 5.29 pm on 7 June 1912 he called Gruenert to the cabin. Gruenert knelt down and held his hand against Webber's mouth. There was no breath. The lugger was several nautical miles west of Latouche.

After another day's sailing the Eurus reached Broome at 12.30 pm on 8 June 1912.

This was the official version of the death of Webber. It was the version which allowed Huggins to write to Hunt that: 'It would appear from the evidence that the man himself was entirely to blame for the accident.'[5]


[2] Australian Archives, Canberra, file A1 1913/15429

[3] Papers of Mr. H. L. Richardson, Battye Library, Perth, cat. 1935 A/23, MN377.

[4] Richardson.

[5] Australian Archives, Canberra, file A1 1913/15429