Ernest Frank Guelph Cox, born in 1883, the eleventh son of a Wolverhampton draper, left school at thirteen and studied electrical engineering in his spare time. He was employed as Engineer at a Wolverhampton power station by the age of eighteen, moving to the post of Assistant Engineer at Leamington, and from there to Ryde Corporation on the Isle of Wight. From Ryde he moved to Hamilton in Lanarkshire, at the age of twenty-three, moving yet again, this time to Wishaw in Lanarkshire as Chief Engineer, aged just twenty-four. It was here in 1907 that Cox married the daughter of Wishaw Councillor Miller, the owner of Overton Forge, a Lanarkshire steelworks, and joined the firm as a partner. Unable to leave his post at the power station, he carried out both jobs simultaneously. In 1913 he set up the firm of Cox and Danks Ltd, with his wife's cousin Tommy Danks as a silent partner and financier. Cox's need for capital was met by Danks, who sought a way to increase his inheritance without personal involvement in business.
The firm was well positioned to profit from large munitions manufacturing contracts during World War I. The end of hostilities opened new and lucrative opportunities in scrap and metal salvage, enabling Cox to open new business in Sheffield, and buy out his partner Danks' interests by 1920. In 1921 Cox had branched out into shipbreaking, including two British battleships HMS Erin and HMS Orion and some ex-German naval items including a large floating dock taken as reparation following the scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet prior to the Armistice.
In 1924 he turned his attention to the wreckage of the High Seas Fleet, scuttled at its moorings in Scapa Flow in late June 1919. Though initially written off by the British Admiralty as unsalvageable, the rises in the price of scrap metal had changed the value of the wrecks making them profitable to lift, based on Cox's estimates of the quantity of high quality Krupp steel armour alone.
His initial investment was to buy from the Admiralty the rights to salvage SMS Hindenburg and SMS Seydlitz, and 26 destroyers. The two heavy ships were both accessible from the surface and Cox's idea was to raise the Hindenburg and use it as a floating platform from which to enable salvage of the other ships. This was ultimately to prove impractical, as several attempts to lift the Hindenburg ended in failure, due to the hulk's instability and the likelihood of its capsizing whilst being pumped out, as it was sitting on rock and not shingle as had been first supposed.
He took his ex-German floating dock, and sectioned it to salvage the first of his destroyers, which was then cleaned and converted into a floating workshop. His team was composed of local labour supporting a core of hired divers and skilled salvage men from all over Scotland; they were soon raising a destroyer every four to six weeks. Heartened by this, Cox bought the rights to the remainder of the sunken fleet, and proceeded to lift the battlecruiser SMS Moltke which was upside down in shallow water, by filling it with air. It was towed to Rosyth on the Firth of Forth for scrapping. This basic technique would be used repeatedly on many ships of the fleet. It was during this stage of the project that his venture suffered a severe blow; the price of scrap metal collapsed, finally stabilising at a quarter of its previous value. Whilst sufficient profit remained to ensure a chance of breaking even, the sunken fleet no longer represented the cash rich harvest that it once had. Indeed, the price of scrap remained depressed until 1937, well after Cox had effectively retired from salvage.
A plain spoken and often blunt man, Cox was known for his explosive temper; he was respected by his workers as being brilliant, hard-working and stubborn to the point of pig-headedness. He did not spare either his workers or himself during the eight years he remained at Scapa Flow. He kept his business afloat by common sense and good judgement, such as the salvage of coal from the wreck of the Seydlitz to provide fuel for his machinery during the General Strike of 1926. This was balanced by acts of ego, such as the re-sinking of the Seydlitz after it had been successfully lifted early, as he had arranged for the press to be present on the day that it had been scheduled to be raised. Considered a 'showman' by his contemporaries, Cox was happy to allow the recording of some of the works in progress at Lyness by reporters and photographers, including film shot for newsreel.
By May 1932, Cox had raised the battlecruisers SMS Moltke, SMS Seydlitz, SMS Von der Tann, and SMS Hindenburg; the battleships SMS Kaiser and SMS Prinzregent Luitpold, and the light cruiser SMS Bremse.
In 1932 Cox sold the marine salvaging side of his business to Alloa Shipbreaking, and retired from marine salvage. The Prinzregent Luitpold was the last ship that he raised in Orkney, despite having bought the rights to salvage SMS Bayern, sunk at Scapa in 20 fathoms.
His yard at Lyness employed 200 workers at the peak of his business, and he was noted for granting holidays with pay during times of financial hardship.
Ernest Cox died in 1959 at the age of seventy-six.