The British-English phrase don’t forget the diver, now dated, was used with various meanings—sometimes with no particular meaning—opportunistically so to speak, depending on the context in which diving was a subject matter or was alluded to. (It is, in this respect, comparable to another British-English phrase, mind my bike.)
An early occurrence of the phrase exemplifies this usage: the Daily Mirror (London, England) of Thursday 8th January 1942 published under the title Don’t forget the diver! this photograph of a diver named Rodney Earley being offered a cup of tea by one Miss E. Watson, from a Y.M.C.A. tea car, and being helped off with his footwear by a friend:
Another example: the following drawing and caption are from an article about “the inspired zaniness of the early” inventors, published in The Illustrated London News (London, England) of Saturday 11th July 1970:
Don’t forget the diver . . . another life-saving idea for an age that constantly expected to be shipwrecked. This was not only a means of flotation but, as its inventor pointed out, a chamber that gave complete protection.
The phrase don’t forget the diver was popularised by It’s That Man Again (abbreviated to ITMA), a BBC radio comedy programme which ran from 1939 to 1949.
In the story of this radio programme, ITMA 1939—1948 (London: Vox Mundi Limited, 1948), Francis Worsley, its producer, explained the origin of the phrase, and how it came to be used in the summer of 1941 during a short run of six episodes broadcast from Bangor, in Wales:
The Diver also made the first of his lugubrious entrances and his even more doleful exits “Don’t forget the diver!” (again played by Horace Percival1). This character was a memory of the pier at New Brighton2 where Tommy3 used to go as a child. He recalled how he used to see a man in a bathing-suit, with a diver’s helmet near-by, dangling a butterfly net under the noses of people coming up the gangway from the ferryboat, while he whined “Don’t forget the diver, sir, don’t forget the diver. Every penny makes the water warmer!” although Tommy says he can’t remember ever seeing him dive, either with or without the helmet. We introduced him as what we call a “crossing” character, that is, he would just cross a scene for a fleeting moment, for no more particular reason than that Tommy was in the middle of some important conference or perhaps a flirtation with one of the two resident Beauty Queens. There would be a gurgling sound, a few bubbles, and up would bob the Diver. His few words very soon became part of the country’s vocabulary, as did so many of our phrases, and it was not long before “Don’t forget the Diver” was heard on all sides, in bars, in buses, on stations, even from disembodied voices in the black-out, and practically no lift descended without someone saying in those weary tones “I’m going down now, sir!”
1 the British comedian Horace Percival (1886-1961)
2 New Brighton: a seaside resort near Liverpool, in north-western England
3 the Liverpudlian comedian Thomas Reginald ‘Tommy’ Handley (1892-1949)
In an interview published in the Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Friday 17th April 1942, Tommy Handley confirmed the origin of the phrase:
“Don’t Forget The Diver”
Tommy Handley’s L’pool Memory
An army of people will listen, between 8.30 and 9 to-night, their radio sets on, for a familiar bubbling sound to be followed inevitably by the pathetic appeal, “Don’t Forget the Diver.”
This popular catch-phrase of the day is Liverpool’s latest gift to national, even Imperial, gaiety, for Tommy Handley, in whose programme it occurs, is a Liverpool man, and in answer to an Echo inquiry, this week, he said, “Yes, you are quite right. ‘Don’t Forget the Diver’ is a memory of the old New Brighton days.”
Thousands more will share Tommy Handley’s memory of the one-legged diver who used to function from New Brighton Pier and used this phrase when collecting from the crowds.
“I don’t think I ever remember him actually diving,” Mr. Handley added. “He always seemed to be collecting.” (Mr. Handley can be reassured; the diver did dive and dive well and often).
I have found an early occurrence of don’t forget the diver which indicates that the diver’s appeal had become a Liverpudlian phrase before ITMA popularised it nationwide; this early occurrence is from one of the unconnected paragraphs making up the football column Special Stud Marks, in The Liverpool Football Echo (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Saturday 24th November 1923:
A suitable motto for goalkeepers last week-end was: “Don’t forget the diver.”
I have discovered not only the diver’s name, which was Bernard Pykett, but also biographical information about him.
1: On Friday 24th January 1930, the Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) reported that Pykett’s diving exhibitions were to be banned:
“DON’T FORGET THE DIVER!”
PIER RECONSTRUCTION TO END PERFORMANCES.
“Don’t forget the diver!”
The familiar appeal for the one-legged diver at New Brighton Pier will no longer be heard by arriving trippers.
The re-conditioned Promenade Pier, which is now the property of the Wallasey Corporation, is to be reopened at Easter, and the responsible committee have notified Bernard Pykett, the well-known diver, that, subject to the approval of the Council, they have decided not to allow diving exhibitions in future.
The reason is stated to be that the exhibitions caused an obstruction on the landing-stage and bridges, where the passengers stood to watch the high-dive performances, for which they paid toll into a net held before them as they passed along.
There was usually a good response to the “Don’t forget the diver” appeal, and for the past ten years Pykett has been able to earn sufficient to enable him to live during the winter months.
RECOMMENDED FOR D.C.M.4
Pykett is naturally much upset by the decision of the committee, and he informs the “Echo” that he does not know where he will now turn for a living.
He served through the war with the 1st Sherwood Foresters, and was recommended for the D.C.M. for gallantry.
4 D.C.M.: Distinguished Conduct Medal, awarded for bravery
2: The next day, Saturday 25th January 1930, the Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) published this photograph of Bernard Pykett, under the title Don’t Forget The Diver, with the following caption:
Mr. Bernard Pykett, the one-legged diver at New Brighton, whose familiar figure will not be seen by visitors this summer, as diving exhibitions from the pier are to be discontinued.
3: The column Bee’s Notes On Sport, published in the Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Thursday 10th August 1933, explained that Bernard Pykett had, for two years, been giving high-diving exhibitions at Rhyl, a seaside resort in Wales:
“DON’T FORGET THE DIVER”
Bernard Pykett used to be a pro. footballer in our midst. He lost a leg in the war and then turned his attention to high-diving from New Brighton Pier. Nowadays, known as Dolpin, he is doing big things at Rhyl. This is his second year there and he has just recently done a 75 feet dive into 2 ft. 6 ins. of water! This reminds me of the good old days when The Follies used to tell the story of “Miss Vera-Skinnie who would now dive into three inches of water.”
Mr. Pykett is bringing a lad to swim in the Mersey mile, August 19. He is 16 years, swims the crawl all the mile, and his name is De Veigh—a French lad—and Pykett has trained him two years and says he is sure to be in the first half-dozen!
4: In an article titled One-Legged Man’s High-Diving Acts, The West Australian (Perth, Western Australia, Australia) of Monday 7th July 1952, reported that Bernard Pykett had just emigrated to Australia and published this photograph:
Mr. Bernard Pykett (right), the man who inspired the catch phrase, “don’t forget the diver,” in the late Tommy Handley’s radio show “Itma,” arrived at Fremantle yesterday.
He was among passengers in the migrant liner Cheshire.
Mr. Pykett, who is 58 years old and who is to live with his sister in Perth, lost his right leg in World War I.
A well-known Liverpool personality, he is a high-diving expert who has thrilled thousands of people with performances at the New Brighton ferry stage.
One of his feats has been to dive from a platform 75ft. high into about 6ft. of water in a 15ft.-diameter tank.
Mr. Pykett said yesterday, however, that he now prefers 9ft. of water.
Another act is the “fire spectacle.” Clad in a cottonwool suit soaked in petrol which is then ignited, he has dived into a tank of water also blazing with petrol.
Sometimes, he said, his face got burnt.
In Perth, Mr. Pykett hopes to get a job as a swimming and diving instructor.
5: Finally, the Sports Diary, published in The West Australian (Perth, Western Australia, Australia) of Wednesday 7th July 1954, reported that Bernard Pykett was about to go back to England:
Although he is aged 59, Bernard Pykett, an Englishman, is still a professional trouper. This may not seem unusual, but Pykett has only one leg and gives exhibitions in swimming and high diving.
For the last four months he has been teaching swimming at Crawley baths and thanks to his efforts 58 youngsters can now safely enter deep water.
On Sunday the one-legged veteran will board the Oronsay for England where he will return to his post with the Maplethorpe council.
He will give exhibitions and teach swimming and diving.
Pykett hopes to put the ship’s swimming pool to good use during the trip by giving instruction to the non-swimmers among the passengers.
Pykett said yesterday that he still gets a thrill from diving and is at home at any height from 10 to 75 feet.