Ron's Old Wet Suit
We recently rediscovered an old caving wetsuit in our cellar – one of those DIY ones with a yellow stripe along the seams. It belonged to Ron Bliss (1927-2007), long-time member of the RRCPC. He is well-remembered for his explorations in Ease Gill, especially his discovery of Ignorance is Bliss and Poetic Justice in 1950. He bequeathed his massive photographic collection to the Club and we had the pleasure of sorting & cataloguing his 5000+ transparency slides, now safely in the RRCPC collection. In addition his old wetsuit, caving light & well-used kneepads were packed away in our cellar for safe keeping.
Maybe one or two other members still have similar old wetsuits hidden away in their lofts? These days, such gear is never seen in action, except perhaps at veterans’ outings or historical reconstructions; the last time we spotted one of Red Rose’s senior members proudly sporting his old home-made wetsuit for a trip into Whitescar Cave in 2005. Ron’s old wetsuit has remained in surprisingly good condition, and it set us thinking about its history and triggered a search through the RRCPC archives and back issues of Descents for adverts and articles about the ‘caver’s wetsuit.’
Ron joined the RRCPC in 1949 and his early photographs always show him in an old boiler suit and boots, which was his regular caving gear until the mid-1960s. There are very few pictures of him wearing a wetsuit, though he probably had at least two during his caving career. Jim Newton sent me a photograph from around 1966, showing Ron sporting a new black two-piece wetsuit with neoprene boots. There are a couple of Ron’s slides which show him in a wetsuit; one, a colour slide from the early 1970s shows him in a one-piece suit with yellow-taped seams – this is the wetsuit in our possession. He would have bought the neoprene, cut-out pattern and cement, then use his upholster skills to stitch it together.
The RRCPC Library has an Aquaquipment catalogue and ‘instructions for making wet suits’ from 1965. Jim recalls that some of the RRCPC members would get together and assemble the wetsuits as group – what fun that must have been – if anyone has old photographs of these ‘glue parties’ or pics of old wetsuited cavers, please share them with us all!
The history of diving suits is complex, but if you want more information, you should have a look at the Historical Diving Society videos, Diving, Past & Future, now on DVD in the Club Library. Neoprene (‘synthetic rubber’) was first manufactured in 1930 and ‘Foamed Neoprene’ was found to have good insulation and buoyancy properties and led to the invention of the ‘sports’ wetsuit in the 1950s and soon became popular with surfers and scuba-divers in California. Wetsuits started to be worn by cavers around the mid-1960s - an early photograph of can be found in British Caver 36 (1967.) They increased in popularity during the 1970s-80s and were especially useful for wet trips, waterfall ladder pitches etc. An article in the SUSS Journal (1976) provided a good review of the types of wetsuit available at the time, however the introduction of SRT techniques during the 1980s triggered their decline and replacement by modern fleeces and oversuits.
From 1970 several water-sports and sub-aqua companies started to promote wetsuits for cavers. The early adverts offered DIY kits – for about £6 the caver could by either a pattern to cut-out or ready-cut neoprene, but the seams had to be glued and/or sown, and sealed with tape. Not surprisingly many just fell apart or were shredded on the first hard cave passage.
Ready-made suits with double skin and nylon lining were an improvement, but it was Warmbac who started to make wetsuits specifically for cavers in 1972. Their order form in Descent asked for precise measurements, so their made-to-measure ready-to-wear wetsuits fitted much better; there was a choice of thickness, type of lining; one-piece or separate jacket & trousers and a smooth or shagreen finish for better wear and the seams were water-tight! All this for £12-£17, but always black with yellow stripes!
By the mid-1980s most of the water-sport companies had ceased to advertise whereas Warmbac continued has continued to develop their caving wetsuits and cave diving wear to the present day.
The gloomy black neoprene attire was a challenge for the cave photographer but black & white photographs of wetsuited cavers appear in Descent from 1972 onwards, and the first colour pictures in 1984 (Descent 56, 57.) However the fashion was changing: SRT, fleeces, oversuits and keeping out of the water were the established technique; wetsuits were uncomfortably hot and limited movement on rope ascent and traverses. There was still a place for using a caving wetsuit in long wet crawls, deep pools etc., but the days of what Dave Elliot called ‘the ripped wetsuit mob’ had gone for ever.
Ron was a hard regular caver, yet his wetsuit is still in fairly good condition; my guess is that he didn’t wear it that much, but the question is: what should we do with this historic relic? Any suggestions?
Peter & Julie Mohr
Thanks to Sandra & Mel Wilkinson for their helpful comments and access to the RRCPC archives.
Also thanks to Jim Newton for his comments and photographs of Ron Bliss.
Back to:- Contents