The Curious Case of Mr Taff Rutt

A Culture volunteer working on the Poole History Centre First World War project has come across a remarkable tale of alleged deception and invention with a Poole connection in the Poole and East Dorset Herald newspapers of 1920 and 1921.

Our story begins with a report on the departure from Poole on 16 March 1920 of Taff Rutt and his team of divers to raise the ‘Princess Juliana’, a Dutch mail boat, which had been sunk by a mine off the East Anglian Coast in 1915. Rutt was reported to be the managing director of the Rutt-Nissen Salvage Company, Poole and in charge of the salvage operation. The company shortly afterwards changed its name and Kelly’s Directory for Poole of 1920 lists the Rutt Salvage Company as salvage contractors of Custom House, Poole. Taff Rutt was pictured at Poole with around twelve of his staff as they got ready to depart for Felixstowe.

Custom House, Poole Quay

Customs House, Poole Quay

In the newspaper article, Rutt said he had patented a means of raising sunken vessels and had been awarded the contract to raise the S.S. ‘Mechanician’ which had been mined off St Katharine’s Head, Isle of Wight, in 1917. The vessel was to be raised and then stationed off Bournemouth where visitors could explore the ship on payment of a donation to charity. The newspaper described the process in which several 500ft long water-filled steel cylinders would be attached to the sides of the vessel and then the water would be expelled by air causing the vessel to rise to the surface. A manned submarine, another one of Rutt’s inventions, was to be used to attach the steel cylinders instead of using a team of divers. He was hoping to recover several other vessels that had been lost between St Katharine’s Head and Anvil Point, Durlston using this method – assuming he could find enough harbour space in Poole to take them. He also hoped to use his system to raise the R.M.S. ‘Lusitania’.

The article went on to say that Rutt was an ‘inventive genius’ with around 50 patents of which around three-quarters were commercially successful. He claimed he had invented an aerial torpedo during the First World War which he had attempted to use against a Zeppelin when it attacked London but had to land in the face of anti-aircraft fire. He was arrested but later released. He was now using Poole as a base for his deep sea salvage work.

In July 1920, the Poole and East Dorset Herald again described Rutt’s ‘Deep Water Salvage System’, how trials had been successful, and that after working on the ‘Princess Juliana’ and ‘Mechanician’ he expected to enter into other contracts.

However, a few months later, he was before the Bournemouth Bankruptcy Court with liabilities of around £700 but with apparently assets in the form of shares of around £40,000. He repeated his claim he was inventor and that he had had manufactured 1000 of his aerial torpedoes but these were later scrapped. The case was adjourned.
The story now takes a rather unusual turn. On 17 March 1921, the Poole and East Dorset Herald reported on a story that had appeared in the Western Daily Press about a deep sea diver, Mr Taff Rutt, of the Custom House, Poole. Rutt said he had been employed on surveying the R.M.S. ‘Lusitania’ which had been sunk in the Atlantic by a German U-boat with heavy loss of life.

Rutt claimed he had surveyed the vessel using a ‘patented diving device of his own invention’. The newspaper report described how he had found the ship badly damaged, the funnel had disappeared but some bulkheads remained undamaged. He described being amongst great shoals of fish including conger eels. Working at 42 fathoms was only made possible because of his diving device and the Western Daily Press newspaper report showed him about to make his historic dive. The report went on to add that in 1911 he had been arrested in Berlin as a spy but released and during the war he had helped in the lifting of two ships in the Thames.

Several weeks later, Rutt was in a Bristol court for allegedly obtaining money under false pretences from Captain Gray of the Bristol Shipping Federation. Rutt had claimed he owned three salvage vessels based in Cardiff, Avonmouth and Southampton and was planning to take part in the raising of the ‘Lusitania’. However, he was not ‘satisfied with the Poole seamen’ and wanted to sign on men from Avonmouth. Captain Gray had believed Rutt solely on account of the Western Daily Press article of March 1921.

However, the court heard that the photograph of him allegedly diving near the ‘Lusitania’ was actually a photograph of a Felixstowe diver about to explore the wreck of the ‘Princess Juliana’ off the East Anglian coast in September 1920. The reporter who had written the original article about the ‘Lusitania’ said that Rutt had provided letters from several companies about his involvement in diving.

The next report is from 2 June 1921 where Taff Rutt, or perhaps Alfred Rutt, ‘a salvage engineer formerly of Poole’, was at the Bournemouth Bankruptcy Court. He had allegedly run up debts to help with a new salvage venture at Poole and Bristol. He claimed that they were company, not personal, debts and that the business owed him £4000. When he was asked what were his assets he replied they included work carried out in the Atlantic and ‘my brains’ to which the Official Receiver replied that he was not entitled to his brains – Rutt replied but ‘they are an asset’.

Rutt requested, and was allowed to make, a statement to the court in which he said he had invented numerous inventions that were to be made in Belgium. These included a device for creating musical sounds, a better gyroscope compass, and a method for overcoming resistance to motion to allow objects to move more freely. He also said he had invented a new type of steel which was considerably better than the existing and for which he had received £8000. However, the Government had never paid him for the aerial torpedo which he had invented. He claimed he had attended a meeting at the War Office about the torpedoes and had requested £250,000 for the designs of the controllers but the War Office had not been interested. The case was adjourned ‘sine die’.

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