“Professor Cockles” and other river-based activities
Professor Cockles - a amateur diver who entertained at Twickenham Embankment
"PROFESSOR COCKLES", also known as Twickenham's "Tin-can diver", was an underwater stunt diver. He was active entertaining crowds in Twickenham during the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s and also entertained further afield, by the river, at the seaside and on piers.
He was born George Wiltshire in 1915 and was brought up and lived in Twickenham. He attended the Archdeacon Cambridge Boys School, and during his time there he learnt to swim, gaining a certificate for swimming 30 yards, in 1926. According to later newspaper reports he first experimented with making homemade diving equipment during his early teens and this was to form his life-long passion. This equipment was almost always made from scrap material that contributed to its bizarre appearance. His first attempt, at age 14, was to make a diving helmet out of a garden cloche! His increasingly successful attempts led him to become a marine engineer and he was frequently called upon to rescue items from the river and indeed also saved many people from drowning.
From as early as 1932, when still only 17, he was featured, with his homemade equipment, in magazines and newspapers. Articles appeared in both local and national newspapers and the front page of a national newspaper, in 1934, reported that "a crowd gathers each week to watch him diving with the aid of his weird-looking apparatus". Most of these “exhibitions” were on The Embankment at Twickenham. He developed various spectacular routines including diving from bridges whilst set alight and strapping fireworks to his helmet for “underwater fireworks”. His regular Sunday afternoon displays became a feature on the riverside and his fame spread far and wide. He featured in numerous cinema newsreels as well as appearing on the radio and the early days of television. His stunts on seaside piers included jumping into the sea in a sack. Another madcap “invention”, in 1936, was an aerodynamic bicycle that could also be converted into a tent.
In 1972 the Middlesex Chronicle was still reporting his exploits (although on this occasion it was after several previous years away from his performances through illness). So for 40 years and more “Professor Cockles” entertained the riverside crowds at Twickenham and further afield. He died in 1981 and The Twickenham Museum now has his collection of cuttings, photos and memorabilia as well as some of his bizarre diving equipment.
The display here includes his scrapbook into which cuttings, photos and articles were pasted and his exploits chronicled. Unused notices with "Twickenham Embankment Sunday at p.m." and "Here" are also featured in this display. There is also a letter from the BBC, signed by the well known reporter Brian Johnston, with an invitation to appear on the "In Town Tonight" radio programme in 1950. The display also includes medallions and programmes relating to local regattas.
See also here for a re-enactment of Professor Cockles' dive in June 2005.