In 1912 a group of British men arrived in Broome skilled and ready to work as divers and tenders in the pearl shell industry. The plan, in what became known as the ‘white experiment’, was to reclaim the pearl shell industry for European workers.

British Diver aboard a Moss & Richardson lugger
British Diver aboard a Moss & Richardson lugger

Alarmed by a Japanese dominance in the pearl shell industry, the Commonwealth government proposed a ban on non-European divers and tenders to take effect from the end of 1912. In readiness for this change, twelve British men chose to try their luck in Broome.

Arriving in February 1912, the men were all ex-navy and experienced in deep-sea diving; nine were divers and three were tenders.

Why, speaking for myself, all I can say is that whatever the Jap can do I can. . . and I am sure all the other service divers can do it. Why, the diving area up in the Nor’-West only runs to about 20 fathoms, and I have just come off a 27 fathom job. This was in the North of Scotland. . .

British diver William Webber, The Evening Star, Boulder, 7 February 1912

British Diver William Webber
British Diver William Webber




Despite his confidence, William Webber, pictured here, found his new job challenging.

Along with the other men, his experience in Europe did not prepare him for the tropical waters and large tides in the north west.

The men also faced stiff competition from the Japanese divers who were more efficient at collecting shell.

British Diver William Webber
The Argus, 17 June 1912


William Webber was the first of three British divers to die of ‘paralysis’.

Within 18 months of the 12 men arriving, they had all left the industry and Broome.

Recognising that the ‘white experiment’ was over, the government once again eased restrictions on the use of Asian divers.

It would be a splendid thing if this industry could support more of our own race. But my conviction—whatever it may be worth—is that even those in Broome who have most to gain from the change of colour regard the experiment in white diving as an honest experiment resulting in a decided and very expensive failure.

F.W. Rolland, The Argus, 1 November 1913

Decompression chamber at the Broome Museum
Decompression chamber at the Broome Museum

This decompression tank arrived in Broome in 1914, too late to help the British and dozens of other divers who had died each year of decompression sickness.

Prior to this technology, the usual practice was lowering the stricken diver back into deep water in hopes the pressure would ease the extremely painful symptoms – no doubt a terrifying experience.