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.


Send a message

E-mail address


0117 958 3448


Waterfall & O'Brien Ltd
138 Forest Road
BS16 3SN Fishponds
United Kingdom