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John Edward Johnstone (1892–1976)

by Cameron Hazlehurst

This article was published:

John Edward Johnstone (1892-1976), deep-sea diver, was born on 25 September 1892 at Kirkdale, Liverpool, England, son of James Johnstone, a drysalter's warehouseman, and his wife Margaret Lee, née Rugbie (d.1910). Enthralled by his maternal grandfather's tales of deep-sea exploits, young John yearned to be a diver. His widowed mother initially insisted on office employment, but compromised and apprenticed him to shipwrights at Birkenhead.

In 1910 Johnstone signed on as a carpenter's mate aboard a cargo steamer destined for Australia. He completed his apprenticeship in a shipyard at Taree, New South Wales, returned to England and enlisted in the King's Liverpool Regiment in 1915. After volunteering for service in naval dockyards, he was attached to a diver's gang before being sent to Invergordon, Scotland, to train for work with the salvage section of the Royal Navy. In 1919 he sailed back to Australia with his wife Edith (née Gill) and their baby daughter. He had married Edith on 26 July 1917 at the parish church of St John the Evangelist, Walton-on-the-Hill, Lancashire. She died on 4 August 1922 following childbirth. At Newport, Melbourne, on 4 April 1925 Johnstone married with Methodist forms Edith Emily Smith, a 31-year-old teacher.

Dissuaded by wiser heads from seeking an illusory fortune as a pearl-diver in northern Australia, Johnstone had settled in Melbourne, at first as a shipwright. He established his reputation as a 'dress-suit' diver in 1922 in the recovery of 454 tons of blister copper from the Karitane, beached off Deal Island, Bass Strait. Among much routine surveying of jetties and repairing of dams, notable assignments over the next fifteen years included an unsuccessful attempt in 1934 to salvage the Joseph Sims, sunk off one of the Furneaux islands. The reconstruction of the Eildon Weir gave Johnstone an opportunity to use and advise on modifications to a new cutting torch developed by Commonwealth Industrial Gases Ltd. In 1938 French interests called on his expertise with oxyhydrogen underwater burners to remove the coral-encrusted wreck of the Joliette from Thio harbour, New Caledonia.

That year Johnstone had won fame by walking along the bed of Bass Strait for 27 miles (43 km) to find a fault in a telephone cable. This feat was overshadowed in 1941 by his role—as chief diver for United Salvage Pty Ltd—in bringing up 555 gold ingots valued at £2,379,000 from the Niagara, sunk in 438 feet (134 m) of water in the Hauraki Gulf, near Whangarei, New Zealand. Johnstone and his brother William, a shipwright warrant officer in the Royal Australian Navy on loan to the syndicate led by Captain (Sir) John Williams, directed the recovery of 94 per cent of the bullion from a specially constructed observation diving-bell. A world diving record was claimed.

Johnstone's own 'romantic story of sunken treasure retrieved from record ocean depths', Niagara Gold (Wellington, N.Z., 1942), was retold in a succession of collaboratively written memoirs that brought Johnno renown as a man prepared to go to 'Any Depth, Anywhere'. Appointed chief diver and shipwright surveyor to the Commonwealth Salvage Board, he was sent to the United States of America in 1942 to supervise the completion of salvage ships and tugs for Australia. While in the U.S.A. he tested the new artificial lung and qualified in submarine rescue techniques.

From 1943 Johnstone undertook a series of missions in Port Phillip Bay, Victoria, on the Great Barrier Reef and in Moreton Bay, Queensland, and in Papua and New Guinea at Milne Bay, Oro Bay, Finschhafen, Madang and Port Moresby. With Captain Williams, Johnstone went on loan to the Indian government in 1945 to try to raise the troop-ship, Santhia, overturned in mud in Calcutta harbour. He put to good use what he had learned from observing the innovative American effort to refloat the liner, Normandie, at the mouth of the Hudson River, but was invalided home with amoebic dysentery before the task was finished.

The highlight of an anti-climactic postwar career was the refloating of the Wanganella in Wellington harbour in 1947. Periodically announced 'retirements' were interspersed with negotiations to mount a search for the last of the Niagara gold. Scorning rumours that he had deliberately left a small hoard for subsequent retrieval, in 1953 he advised a British group which found thirty of the remaining thirty-five bars. His knowledge of Pacific wrecks was valuable to Japanese enterprises in the 1950s until the demand for scrap steel collapsed.

A wiry 5 ft 10 ins (178 cm) in his prime, Johnstone displayed extraordinary endurance and courage throughout a long diving life. Although he was acutely 'sensitive to praise, misunderstanding, or adverse criticism', he was a gifted self-publicist, if a nervous speaker and broadcaster. In 1968 he was appointed O.B.E. He died on 27 October 1976 in East Melbourne and was cremated. The son and two daughters of his first marriage survived him, as did the son of his second.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Dawlish, Johnno the Deep-Sea Diver (Lond, 1960)
  • J. Williams, So Ends This Day (Melb, 1981)
  • C. W. N. Ingram, New Zealand Shipwrecks 1795-1982 (Wellington, NZ, 1984).

Citation details

Cameron Hazlehurst, 'Johnstone, John Edward (1892–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 25 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


25 September, 1892
Liverpool, Merseyside, England


27 October, 1976 (aged 84)
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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