Obituary Bill Bowen-Rees

The following obituary was originally published by the Henley Standard on Monday 23rd January 2012.

A commercial diver from Wargrave has died, aged 84.

William David Bowen-Rees (Bill), was born in March 1927 and baptised with Jordan water by his grandfather, a London Society missionary in Africa.

He was a boarder at Bryntirion Preparatory School in Bridgend, where his best friend was Geoffrey Howe, who went onto become Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Bill helped him with his geography and history and so feared for the country when Mr Howe became Foreign Secretary.

In 1940, Bill boarded at Blundell’s School in Tiverton, Devon, where he gained colours in almost every sport.

His desire to help the war effort was satisfied when he joined the Royal Observer Corps and he was able to spend his holidays at his post at Rest Bay, Porthcawl.

He knew every British, American and German plane and could distinguish many by their sound.

In 1942 he spotted three Junker 88 bombers coming over the sea from the direction of Ireland and alerted Stormy Down aerodrome but couldn’t prevent an attack in which many were killed.

In January 1945, Bill was called up for Royal Marine service and qualified as a commando after extensive training. He served in the commandos until VJ Day when he was transferred to Infantry, the Welsh Regiment, which he was to join in Burma.

En route he got himself seconded to the Somalia Gendarmerie in Italian Somaliland where he spent many months chasing slave traders, gun runners and drug smugglers. He completed two guards of honour for Emperor Haile Selassie.

When he arrived back in Britain, Bill decided to go on a two-year course in agriculture for former servicemen. Around 1950 Bill’s parents, Richard, a GP, and Addy, bought him Robert’s Wall Farm, just outside Tenby.

He met and married Jill Colley in 1952 and they had four children, Nicola, Jeremy, Rhiannon and Julian.

Bill grew increasingly exasperated by government interference and bureaucracy and sold the farm to a neighbour.

He then bought Little Rock House, which he ran as a guesthouse.

It was at this time that he set up his first diving school, Dragon Divers, in Tenby harbour.

Bill caught, by hand, hundreds of lobsters, crabs and crayfish, which he sold to the local restaurants.

He featured in the Guinness Book of Records for lifting the largest living lobster (14.5lbs), which he found in Milford Haven harbour.

Out of the holiday season, he was a commercial diver and became an underwater explosives expert involved in preparing the new petrochemical jetties in Milford Haven.

He was also called by the police, coastguard or RNLI when a body had to be rescued from the water, something he rarely spoke about.

In 1970, Bill (by then divorced) moved to the Algarve where he set up a diving school in Praia da Luz. During his 10 years in Portugal, he taught thousands of people to dive and to marvel and respect the wonderful sealife. He was known especially for his ability to teach children both to swim and to dive.

Business declined after the 1973 Portuguese Revolution, which had a devastating impact on the tourist industry on which the Algarve relied.

Bill visited many countries and used his charm and quiet authority to persuade travel agents to resume promoting the Algarve as a tourist destination. He was very well respected and loved in Portugal and there are two or three streets and a restaurant named after him.

Bill’s teaching prowess was sorely challenged when he met his future wife, Dr Lilian J Lodge, who was his only failure and whom he insisted on marrying “because it was the only way of preventing her from calling me a charlatan”.

After their wedding in 1980, Bill moved back to Britain. The couple bought a smallholding in Hampshire and Bill set up a market garden business.

He also became an enamellist and, during the non-growing season, made jewellery that he sold. He loved rough shooting with his best gundog, Henry, with whom he had a special affinity — Henry devoured Bill’s old hip bone after a replacement operation!

Bill missed his boats and the couple moved to Maidenhead and then Wargrave where they could be seen, always with several Labradors and often with numerous grandchildren, enjoying a tipple on the Thames or diving around the bridges with the Nautical Archaeological Society.

The couple founded an IT consultancy for which Bill’s primary role was, not surprisingly, corporate entertainment.

William Bowen-Rees was a man of many parts who lived life to the full. He loved entertaining his friends and was a raconteur par excellence. He was a charismatic peacock, full of fun and a bringer of joy. He was very opinionated and seldom politically correct but nonetheless a real gentleman and wise counsellor.

Bill died at home, with his immediate family around him, on December 14 after a prolonged illness, heralding the end of an era. Life will be just a little dimmer for Lilian and his family and all those into whose lives he brought fun and joy.