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The Evolution of Underwater Hockey

by Alan Blake

I started diving in 1949 from scratch. There was NO equipment whatsoever on the market and no books on amateur diving or any divers I had seen or heard about. So, why go underwater? Crazy as it may seem, I found a 1930's book in the Public Library by Dr William Beebe- 'One-Mile Down', in his Bathysphere. The book itself did not give me any great desire to emulate the Doctor's exploit. Sitting inside an iron ball dangling in the sea on a mile of wire filled me with as much enthusiasm as travelling to the sun in an igloo.

However, there was a tinted illustration/photograph of the good Doctor walking about in 20 feet [6 meters] off Bermuda surrounded by brightly tinted fish. He was wearing a hardtop divers helmet strapped on; Greek sponge diver style, air hose and lead boots. Steadily my experiments and acquisition of equipment got me underwater, flippers, mask, snorkel, DSEA [Davis Submarine Escape Apparatus] adapted and bathing costume. Always diving in out of way places to avoid being ostentatious or an odd ball. So to '52, still no divers about. Personal column - zilch. Article for local newspaper - rejected as being absurd and having no local interest. Frustration.

End of '53, I hear of a strange new club called British 'Sub-Aqua' Club. After several meetings with the Founders Oscar Gugen and Peter Small, I agreed to become a branch! - with the promise of an Aqualung when 24 members. Resuscitated article alluding to US having an Aqualung - accepted by local paper. 24 members plus aqualung - Southsea Sub-Aqua Club Branch No 9 came into existence. A bit higher number than it could have been, but after all, I had negotiated the Aqualung.

Summer 1954. Southsea now numbered about 60 - 40 paid up - 20 pay laters. We were extremely active diving, expeditions by coach [Durdle Door etc.], ferry and train to Isle of Wight sites and chartered fishing boats plus 2 swimming pool nights 3 lungs by now. However by July/August I was getting concerned, a great First Summer, but what of the First Winter?

Five years getting a diving club off the ground, our only finances being the surplus from the swimming pool hire; [the BSAC collared the subscriptions]. The whole lot could disintegrate if the members were only able to plod up and down a swimming pool for six months. I had no experience to draw on as to the continued enthusiasm of my fellow members, not withstanding the successful summer. There were no suits then, we just shivered. I had to put something together to keep the branch up to strength for next summer. I came up with several ideas, but eliminated them as fast as I thought of them. Too rough or violent, too much equipment, uncontrollable, impractical, expensive, damage to the player or the swimming pool, too heavy or awkward to cart around on a bus or a cycle [ordinary folkz like us didn't have cars]. On top of all this, I had to be able to assure the Bath Superintendent that we were not going to break his damned tiles or make him responsible for 'drowning' ourselves. Believe me, when I first tried out wearing a thick pullover in the pool the Bath Attendant told me to take it off as it would drag me down. Ha ha, but it was a long-standing theory. Eventually with all contingencies sorted out, I had developed the parameters of what was necessary to create a competitive sport for our Winter.

Problem, I could not go further without help. Ideas were one thing, transforming it to reality another.

It was one evening after a pool session, about 9.30; six of us got off the bus. Jack and Ena Willis, Frank and Hazel Lilleker plus my wife Sylvia and I, [the wives were active members in the Club]. I put it to them that I had an idea for a winter sport that we could develop. They appreciated the thought and we all trouped round to Jack and Ena's place, as they had to relieve their babysitter. There we sat at the kitchen table with cups of tea as I set out my parameters. Eight players a team, a circular lead weight propelled to the opposite end of the pool with a bat curved to suit the lead disc. The name Octopus [for the eight players] Squid [as in slid or slide] for the lead disc and Cuttle [rhyming with scuttle] for the goal. All the same fishy family. As we chewed the fat and drank innumerable cups of tea, the sport was finalised. During the discussion, the propelling of the SQUID which we had accepted, kept being referred to as pushing, so it became logical to refer to the 'bat' as a PUSHER. Bingo: I had the PUS, so bung an H on the end of Octopus and I had OCT-O-PUSH. Eight pushing. The Cuttle fell by the wayside in favour of Gully as the goal. There was still the equipment needed. The Pushers and the Squid. This task was a liaison between Jack Willis and Frank Lilliker. Jack had to make the Squid before the Pushers could be finished by Frank. We knew that we needed the Pusher to encompass the squid by about a third in order for the squid to be passed and not be stuck in the horns of the pusher. Jack had to find a suitable mould in which to cast the lead. I believe an old sweet tin was eventually used. Second problem was the acquisition of the lead. We appealed to our members for their old lead toothpaste tubes,-- yes toothpaste [ 1954 Note: it was normal to rub mercury powder into the gums of teething babies]. My landlord lost a few inches of unnecessary waste pipe, but Jack found enough eventually. The Pushers were then completed to fit Jacks dimensions. Questions remained. Was it a possible game? Would the squid move on the bottom easily? Would the Pusher release the Squid for passing? So far, everything had been hypothetical. There was only one way to find out. In the pool.

The first game of the Sport of OCTOPUSH

Armed with the Squid, Pushers, and the rules on our Notice Board, which we always towed around then [we did not have a clubhouse] we descended on the pool [the old Portsmouth Guildhall Baths]. Roping in John Ventham, Jack, Frank and me formed into two against two to test out the action of the pusher v squid v player. It worked and no adjustments were apparent to prevent it being considered as a viable game. Fortunately, we did have sufficient time to come to that decision, because as soon as the others in the pool realised that the gear was there they were in the water all having a push. It was only when I took their 'ball' away [at great personal risk] did we get to playing approximately to the Rules.

That night OCTOPUSH was delivered

Octopush was now played regularly, but we transferred it to the Royal Marine Baths at Eastney, the commando training pool [canoes, rafts and frogmen]. We had almost unlimited free access with the occasional expert training by the R.M.s. The longest session I can remember was 7 to 1 o'clock. This pool was slightly heated until 6 o'clock and we could use the residue!! It was the ideal size for Octopush and approximates to the present day dimensions. Most of the playing was between our own members but also matches against visitors, particularly Bournemouth and Brighton. To promote club membership we held Exhibitions and Galas when Jack explained and we demonstrated Octopush and entertained with a variety of U/W games, such as shooting at balloons with spear guns etc. Seated in the balcony at a Gala was a young fellow called John Towse who eventually became a member and was instrumental in fashioning the National Octopush Ladder in the 70's. In my monthly contribution to Peter Small the Editor of Neptune, the original BSAC Journal on the Branch Activities I informed him of Southsea's new game Octopush. This he announced in the November 1954 issue.

In 1954/55 as Branches were starting or in embryonic stage many faced failure with training impossible. The Bath Superintendents were not permitting the use of our basic needs i.e. mask, fins or snorkels in their pools. It so happened that it fell to me to persuade these all-powerful officials otherwise. It became my brief when on the National General Committee. Just a sample of quite a large number -Gravesend - Stoke Newington - Woolwich - East Greenwich- West Ham - Birmingham - Halifax - Bradford -etc., the list goes on of the baths banning this very basic equipment. This undertaking on my part was primarily for the advancement of the whole diving sport, but influenced my Abbreviated Rules for Octopush.

Two items in my Rules, which are directly attributable to that current situation, are:

  • In Rule 2 I specify 'but in no circumstances using over arm strokes'. The reasons being.
    1. One hand must hold the Pusher so the arc swung with an overarm stroke could strike another player. Although I was not unduly worried about the injury I was concerned that he may break someone's facemask and cause merry hell with my Bath Superintendent for broken glass in the pool. This was the main gripe of these gentlemen, along with contamination.
    2. As previously mentioned, Southsea were given instruction by Royal Marine 'frogmen'. In consequence, all the early Southsea divers used straight legs and knees when finning and ankles together when submerging, in the case of the frogmen the technique was to avoid detection as well as efficiency. This had an advantage in that there was less surface disturbance and with the limitation of the overarm thrashing there was a better opportunity for the poolside spectator to view the goings on under the water.
    3. The most important consideration was that 1954 BSAC Rule Handbook forbade jumping in from the poolside and the use of overarm strokes.
  • In Rule 4, the reason for it was to pacify our Bath Superintendent by not using metal snorkel that may break masks. Secondly, it was to initially prevent the snorkel being used as an extra pusher. It was never enforced.

    It has been suggested that knocking a diving weight around the pool bottom with our snorkel was the origin of Octopush in a form of hockey. At no time did this happen. Although it may appear to be the natural evolution, it is fantasy on the part of the later day perpetrators of this myth. Logic dictates the impracticability:
  • The snorkels in general use in the 50's were of an anodised thin metal tube, copper coloured. There were two types. Both had a U bend with a small rubber mouthpiece, in one type the other end was either similarly bent with a rubber cage and a ping-pong ball as a valve, the other was straight with a rubber water exclusion valve. As new members joined, proud of their posh snorkels, we first had to assure them that if they took the appendage off water wouldn't gush into their lungs. Such were the days. Apart from being very thin and dentable, the wretched mouthpiece had a tendency to slide off the tube. I had a strip of paper wedging mine on. In addition, instead of coming off, it also went the other way and you ended up with two inches of tube down your gullet. From the foregoing it is highly improbable that we would have risked bashing away at a lump of lead and the pool bottom with our relatively expensive and delicate snorkels. Another reason was as we only had one each it would have necessitated lifting our heads out of water to breathe.


It only remains to wish all Octopush /Underwater Hockey Folkz Past and Present - Enjoy

Updated by Phil Thompson on 16/03/20