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.