The West Country At War - pt1.

In 1941 I was a teenager, coming up to seventeen, and I was living in Devizes. My father thought that since I was interested in chemistry, he’d get me a job as a lab assistant in a firm of analytical chemists called Waterfall and O’Brien who had a first floor lab in Queen’s Square in Bristol. He thought it would give me a practical idea of what it was to be a chemist, as I really had none.

I commuted daily from Devizes on the train for the whole of a year. There were two people working there, one called Weeks, who was an amazing old boy. He only had one arm, having lost the other in the First World War and he did everything with only one arm, even quite complicated things like pouring things out and using pipettes and flasks. The other man, called Toogood, was very down to earth and was always teasing me about being interested in classical music. The boss was a man called Howe who was a strict Plymouth brethren, and rather upright - but I didn’t see much of him unless things went wrong. I think he was a warden and he came in one day with an incendiary bomb hanging from a string on the handlebars of his bicycle. He had to call in on us for something before he took it to the police station.

The thing I remember a lot about is my lunch hours. The Centre in those days was just a waste of mud and cinders, because it had never been finished, a few cars, but not much would be parked on it, and a long mobile fish bar - well not fish but spam fritters ans sandwiches. I used to take lunch there sometimes because I then used to go to a lunch hour concert in the Colston Hall, with a big orchestra almost once a week. This was CEMA, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and Arts, which became the arts council and they had these lunch time concerts. I’d never had the chance to listen to a big orchestra before, so I enjoyed it a lot. Other times I would go for a meal in one of the British Restaurants. There was one in Castle Street and there was a huge one in the Council House, which hadn’t been finished then, it was half built and had no plaster or anything, just brick walls and a whopping great British Restaurant. British Restaurants provided nourishing meals for workers at lunchtime. You’d get three courses for about 1/6d: soup and a main meal and a pudding, very good value, unrationed. There were a lot of people working out in the day and this was a way of supplementing their rations, which was a very good idea. The whole business of rationing in those days was extremely efficient and very fair. Then if I felt like a treat, I’d walk up Park Street to the Berkeley, which in those days had a big restaurant on the first floor with a string trio.

The analytical chemist was an amazing place to work and I learnt a lot there. We had some interesting wartime jobs, some of them quite hazardous. One of the most hazardous, which only the boss and Toogood did, was going down to Avonmouth when the tankers turned round. They had to take a special apparatus and sniff the tanks to see if there was any remaining oil or petrol in them. If there was and people started welding, the whole thing might blow up along with everything nearby. It was a very responsible job and they went down on a motorbike at any time of the day or night to do this at Avonmouth, which was still occasionally bombed and strafed. I never graduated to that particular job.

My boss, Mr Howe, was the gas decontamination officer, in case we had a poison gas attack. Being a very conscientious man, he read up all the literature and he couldn’t find out how, if you had butter or flour contaminated with mustard gas, you got the mustard gas out to assess how much there was of it. He thought he’d better do some experiments on this, so I was sent up to Canynge Hall, just up by Redland library, and given a small jar of mustard gas, carefully sealed up in a cardboard box and I went on the bus back to Queen’s Square with it. He did his experiments and discovered that it was almost impossible to get the gas out once you mixed it up in the butter or other food substance.

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The West Country At War - pt2.

Another war job we had was that somebody decided there might be a breakdown in the water supply. Obviously there had been in some areas, so we had to sample all the ponds and lakes and wells within about twenty miles to see whether they were fit for drinking water. We used to be sent out with sterilised bottles, and lower them down the wells and bring them back. There was some kind of lagoon somewhere I remember which we were asked to sample, and the bottle was about a third full of seagull shit, but we still got our sample of water!

Then we did another job which I was very much involved with. A cargo of Wolfram ore came from the Middle East, from Malaysia or Singapore, the last one to come into Bristol. This was very precious because it was a very important element of making strong steel for gun barrels etc. It came in and we had to assay it, which means you take the whole cargo and sample it very carefully and you get down to a very small representative sample of about two pounds out of a hundred tons or so. From that you work out how much ore there is and multiply it up, and that’s the value of the cargo. This stuff was delivered in hundred weight sacks to a big warehouse on the Feeder, which had been a big cotton mill. For two months I went there from Temple Meads and we sampled this Wolfram. It was a very long process.

We did a lot of work for a tannery to tell them how much tanning power was left in the bark - the tanning was done with a funny mixture of bark and dog shit. I think the dog shit releases the tannin or something. It’s a very old way of doing it. We only tested the bark fortunately!

The exciting thing we did was with cows’ stomachs from Avonmouth, where the farmers had thought their cows were being killed off by the fumes from the smelters. When the cows died they’d send them to us and we’d size up how much cadmium there was in the carcass so they could claim. Eventually Imperial Smelting bought up all the farms because they got fed up with it. There was also a bloke who died of cadmium poisoning and his widow brought his remains in for us to test so she could claim compensation.

The only other wartime job we did had a perk, as it was checking up on dried fruit. Dried apricots and other fruits came in from America and were preserved with sulphur dioxide, so we were given samples of it to check it was all right. We’d get two or three pounds of it, mince it up, test it and I’d get the remains to take home. My mother would say, "I hope it’s not been through the same mincer as the cow’s stomacks!" It was the same mincer actually, but we had to chemically clean it in between.

I finished working at the chemist’s about a year later and went to university as a science student, which was a reserved occupation. One of the conditions was that you did a radio course, because they were desperate for people in radar and also you had to be in the training corps, cadet force. I did that for a year or so and got 8% in my radio exam, which shows how seriously I took it! However I came to the conclusion I didn’t really agree with the war and I thought somebody ought to say that wars were, in the end, pretty useless and ought to be avoided. Even though this one might have a good deal of justification, I felt that somebody still needed to say that wars were not a satisfactory way of solving things.

The Chemistry of Life

The Periodic Table currently has 118 well defined and well characterised chemical elements, but only six primary elements are used to form a biological entity; every biological entity!