Did you know about William Gillies – Diver and Restorer of Underwater Artifacts?
By Horst Augustinovic
Billy Gillies was six years old when the Spanish luxury liner Cristobal Colon wrecked on a reef east of North Rock in 1936. On a clear day he could see the wreck, sitting upright on the horizon, yet not in his wildest dreams did he imagine that one day he would be diving on the remains of the Cristobal Colon.
Having been married for 10 years, his wife Gloria in 1965 said to him “You don’t do anything but go to work and come home and work around the house. Why don’t you do something for relaxation?” This challenge, and teaming up with Harry Cox on his boat Shearwater, led to a love affair with wreck diving. With Harry Cox scanning the ocean floor from his boat and Bill Gillies being towed in the water, they made a great team and found a number of good wrecks.
His third dive with Harry Cox on June 27th, 1965 changed Bill’s life forever. While diving above an unnamed Spanish wreck, he unearthed a small bell, about 5 inches tall, with the Latin inscription SIT NOMEN DOMINI BENEDICTUM. The wreck is now known as the ‘Bell Wreck’.
In 1968, while being towed behind Shearwater, Bill and Harry discovered gold. By the end of the day they had found an assortment of gold circlets, gold bars, a few gold coins, a chain and pendant and pieces of eight. The gold coins were Portuguese cruzados from the reigns of three kings – Sebastian (1557-1578) and Henry I (1578-1580). The wreck became known as the ‘Treasure Site’.
One of the more unusual items that Bill found in the North West reefs in 1978 was a flintlock pistol. Completely encrusted, only the shape of the trigger guard betrayed what it actually was. An x-ray revealed wood and brass, with the iron parts showing up as faint outlines. Preserving an item consisting of wood, brass and iron proved extremely difficult. Using dental tools, vibrating chisels and different chemical baths for extended periods, the process took some 18 years!
To learn more about wreck diving and the conservation and restoration of underwater artifacts, see ‘Reefs, Wrecks & Relics’ by William B. Gillies, available in Bermuda’s book stores island-wide.