Bill Gillies hard at work restoring a recovered artifact. *Photo by Kageaki Smith
Bill Gillies hard at work restoring a recovered artifact. *Photo by Kageaki Smith

A retired wreck diver has become the first islander to be given sole rights over his incredible collection of maritime artifacts.

Bill Gillies meticulously documented his finds over four decades of diving off Bermuda and provided Government with a complete breakdown of his collection in 2001.

The 83-year-old was the only one to document and outline his collection in this way when it was required by a change of legislation.

And now, over 10 years later, he has finally been rewarded for his honesty with Government giving up any possible future claim to the artifacts that include case bottles from the 1658 wreck of the Eagle, olive oil jars, ale jugs and pistols from the 17th century.

He is the first man in Bermuda to be granted the Abandonment of Crown Claim and likely to be the last.

Mr Gillies told the Bermuda Sun: “In 2001 wreck divers like myself were told that we had six months to inform Government what our collections comprised of and have them inspected by the Custodian of Wrecks.

“It just so happens that I was the only one to do this.

“There was a new law and I did not want to be prosecuted.

“However, for those six months there was not a Custodian of Wrecks so my collection was never officially recognized as being mine.

“I continued to press my claim with the help of the current custodian, Phillipe Rouja, and Harold Conyers because I felt it was important and I always felt there was a chance that my collection could be taken off me.

“Over the years I had almost lost hope of getting the official recognition that I was looking for.

“I had been told orally by Attorney Generals and other politicians that it was mine, but I wanted it in black and white.

“And now thanks to Phillipe and Harold I have been able to ensure that my collection remains mine and my family’s in perpetuity.”

Mr Gillies began diving in 1965 with the late Harry Cox and gradually built up a collection of thousands of maritime artifacts.

The collection consists of numerous olive oil and wine bottles, pottery, beads, pistols and cannon balls. Mr Gillies added: “I would like my collection to go to a museum eventually.

“The Aquarium would be nice, but they don’t have the space.

“So it should probably go to the Maritime Museum, but I would put it on loan.

“I have two of my most precious bottles up there at the wrecks exhibit at the moment.

“There is nothing of intrinsic value in my collection but historically speaking it is very valuable. As they say one man’s junk is another man’s treasure and the important thing is that this collection is mine to do what I want with.

“I don’t think they would have ever taken it from me, but the chance was always there. I would not have expired if they had, but I would not have liked it.”

Mr Rouja, Custodian of Historic Wrecks, told the Sun that Mr Gillies’ collection was a perfect example of the significant role played by divers in promoting and preserving Bermuda’s shipwreck history.

He said: “Shipwrecks around Bermuda are one of our iconic heritage resources and logging the activities and contribution of people like Mr Gillies is hugely important.

“Mr Gillies carefully documented his many years of diving around Bermuda and at a great personal investment conserved and in some cases rebuilt the finds and artifacts he found.

“He is in fact internationally recognized as an expert in the field of rebuilding fragile historic glass artifacts.

“He is the perfect example of an invested stakeholder, self-trained and self-motivated, bringing great benefit to the resource.

“Thanks to the Abandonment of Crown Claim the Bermuda Government now has a complete digital record of the collection he put together over many decades. Mr Gillies collection of artifacts comes from a broad range of areas around Bermuda, from the harbours to the reef platform. In some cases he has the only known artifacts from certain sites.

“In a sense because of Mr Gillies’ diligence and his willingness to share his collection with us we have been given the opportunity to glean invaluable information about certain specific shipwreck sites.

“What he has collected and conserved and the research and documentation that accompanies his finds will only grow in value. We are working to create mechanisms to provide other legacy divers like Mr Gillies and or their descendants the confidence to come forward and participate in the same way.”

Conservation Services is currently showing a video featuring Mr Gillies’ work on its website at n