Cosy Corners in Depression and War
Autobiography of Joan Hughes
The story of one person's nests

Birmingham University 1965-1966

[Interviews and applications 1965]

During the middle part of 1965 I stayed with Aunt Violet in West London and applied for employment. I got plenty of interviews but no job offers. One interview was at Port Sunlight. Here I stayed the night and in the evening watched a lightning storm send jagged fork lightning into the sea from the picture window of the hotel living room. It was exciting to watch, though dangerous for anyone out in the sea in a small boat. Only twice in my life have I seen this kind of storm. Once on the Isle of Wight, and now on Merseyside.

I was given a fair interview for the post of analytical chemist in the soap factory, but I expect there were younger male applicants, who would be preferred. Another interview took place at a gas-works in London, and the laboratory seemed smelly. When I had a day trip away from home, I enjoyed it. There was another trip to a hospital in the North of England and this time I stayed in the nurses' home. But I was glad when I failed that interview, since I disliked hospitals. My friend Jennifer told me about a post of supervisor for the lab in a London hospital in which she worked. I was given a very fair interview and believed that I would have been given this post if I had shown more enthusiasm. But I did not want to be supervisor over people who had worked in the lab for many years. One of these was Mary and she was a qualified hospital laboratory technician, but she refused to supervise anyone. The doctor told me he would have given her the post if she had been willing to accept it. Jennifer was an unqualified laboratory technician and thus was ineligible for promotion.

There was some radiochemistry being carried out in this lab, in which I had no experience. The doctor pointed out some lead blocks placed in a fume cupboard, and a row of small beakers standing behind these.

"It is quite safe," said the doctor. "The lead blocks are an effective shield."

It did not look safe to me, because the fume-cupboard looked cluttered and dirty.

While I was at home, Aunt Violet talked to me incessantly, and it was difficult to fill in the applications for work, while she was talking, so I went out most days and sat in the local public library to do my day's work of form-filling. After about a month I realised that I was not making progress, so decided that perhaps I should at last have a stab at doing what I had always wanted to do, which was research into new aspects of chemistry.

With this end in mind I applied to as many universities as possible. At this time of the year, research studentships were advertised in the broadsheet newspapers. I think that I applied to almost all the Universities with the exception of Oxford and Cambridge, where I knew that I did not stand a chance.

This effort produced only one interview. I was summoned to Manchester University where I was asked questions on organic chemistry, to which I was unable to reply, as I had not being studying recently; my work as an analytical chemist had not made use of this type of theoretical knowledge. I was very good at looking up information in libraries and absorbing it quickly, but had very little advanced theoretical knowledge in my head. I was not a lecturer, but a bench worker, so had little use in remembering the more esoteric theory. The one place where I would have succeeded quickly was in analytical research, but unfortunately I did not realise that at Birmingham University, there was an analytical department which could use my experience.

Birmingham

The application to Birmingham University was one of my last, and when I was summoned to an interview there, I had almost given up hope. I was pleasantly surprised to be asked very few theoretical questions. The department had already accepted a student who had previously worked at the Government Chemist and were favourably disposed towards me. Moreover Professor Belcher preferred mature students of about thirty years of age. At 37 I was a little old, but I was told that there were some students older than me.

Analytical chemistry was probably not popular with the "high fliers" - that is people who had just left University with good degrees, but Professor Belcher preferred plodders, with some years of experience as laboratory workers behind them, and I was told that I could start on a one year course at the beginning of September to do research for an M.Sc. degree.

I jumped at the chance, as I had always wanted to do research in chemistry. I would have liked to have done a Ph.D., but as there was no grant available for me, I knew that I could not afford three years at University. Professor Belcher had been able to get £7 per week allowance for me from a charity, which I gladly accepted. In a cheap hostel I knew I could live on about £10 per week at this time, which meant drawing three or four pounds from savings. This did not allow anything for social life, but I would have no time for this. The M.Sc. research degree normally took two years, with an extra year for those proceeding to Ph.D., and I had accepted that I may have to do double the normal hours in order to complete my M.Sc. by research in one year.

My immediate problem was finding somewhere to live in Birmingham, within travelling distance of the University. I scanned the Birmingham telephone directory and found the address of a convent acting as a "hostel for working women". I had not time to look for rooms in Birmingham, as I was at present living with my aunt in London, and would have needed somewhere to stay while I looked. I thought that I might leave the convent hostel later and take a furnished room when I had settled down.

When I arrived in Birmingham at the end of July [1965] it was about five weeks too early to start work at the University, so I decided to take a temporary clerical job. There was work of this kind easily available from all the employment agencies. I usually applied for routine book-keeping work. It was badly paid but enough to live on, so with the idea of economising, and not withdrawing savings until necessary, I took a job as temporary clerk at Lucas, which made motor car engines. The work was easy and the office manager was kind, so I enjoyed this temporary work.

The hostel seemed peculiar from the start and I did not like it very much. There were about eight working girls there, but no-one over twenty years of age except me, and I was 37. Nevertheless I thought the accommodation would suit me while I out all day working at Lucas.

There was only one nun doing the cooking for all the girls. At first she was friendly and sometimes chatted to me, saying she enjoyed cooking for the girls. But she said that she had not really wanted to be a nun and that her father in Ireland had put her into a convent when a young woman. She also told me that she found saying her office tedious, and would have liked more leisure time to watch the television.

I was sad when I heard this, as this was the first nun with whom I had ever chatted. I had thought that all the nuns in the Catholic Church had sincere vocations and were dedicated to their work. This was rather an astonishing confession that I heard from this sister.

Several other things in the hostel disturbed me. One of these was that though the cooking was excellent, and we were being given strawberries and cream for a sweet in the evening, the strawberries which had been picked from the convent garden had not been washed. I could see some dirt on them. The apron which the nun wore for working in the kitchen was also very dirty.

After two weeks at work where I was getting on well, I noticed a severe pain in my chest and stomach. I wanted to continue at work at Lucas as I thought the pain was due to "nerves." I remembered my severe headaches which had been painful, but due to "nerves" and thought this was a similar situation. But the officer supervisor noticed that I could barely walk across the room, and when I said I was in pain, told me to go home. Thus ended my temporary job. When he heard that I was living in a convent hostel, I was told "the nuns will look after you."

I thought that they would look after me but unfortunately this was not the case. Next day I had severe stomach pains and diarrhoea and stayed in bed with weakness. I found that I would not be served an evening meal unless I struggled downstairs, so this I did. The nun told me I could not stay in her hostel, because I had too many books in my room. I went back to bed and next day felt very hungry. This seemed part of the illness. I am not sure whether I could get downstairs for the evening meal, but may have missed it.

The two girls sharing my room were going to a dance that evening and I asked them to bring me back a bar of chocolate, because I felt so hungry. I gave them the money for this. However when they returned late at night they told me that they had not been able to get any chocolate and returned my money. I was very disappointed and did not know what to do.

In the middle of the night I felt somewhat better, and resolved to go downstairs and get some dry bread from the nun's kitchen. My hunger seemed so intense that anything would have satisfied it.

However when I got downstairs I found that the refrigerator was locked. I had never seen a locked refrigerator before and thought that this was outrageous. There was not a scrap of bread about anywhere. I went to see if I could find the nun, but discovered that she did not sleep on the premises. The main door to the hostel was locked. I thought that this was very dangerous, and wondered how we would have got out if there had been a fire, for none of us held a key. The next day the nun told me that she was going to transfer me to Rubery Hill Mental Hospital.

"Why are you going to do this?" I asked. "I have got stomach trouble, not mental illness."

"Because I have seen that you take those red tablets called Nardil," she answered.

I had registered with a doctor who had been recommended by this nun. He had discovered that I was taking Nardil when I had attended his surgery one evening to have my ears syringed. He had not been an obliging doctor for he had told me that he could not do this at evening surgery. As I did not wish to lose time at my temporary clerical job, I had to abandon the idea of having them done.

The next morning the doctor called. He did not offer me any medicine for my stomach pain. Instead he informed me that he had already called an ambulance to take me to Rubery Hill Hospital. I was astounded that this could be done.

"You won't have to stay for more than a week at Rubery Hill," he said. "You are not suitable for residence at this hostel. You should be living with academic people, not with working girls".

Then he tried a more kindly tone, saying that I should easily be able to get into St. Francis Chaplaincy University Hostel. I doubted this. These hostels were meant for undergraduates.

The working girls had never objected to my company. I had never told them that I was taking Nardil. I was infuriated, but could do nothing as I was too weak to go and look for alternative accommodation or pack up my possessions. These were all left in my wardrobe at the hostel.

About half an hour later there was a loud knock at the door. In my weak condition I dressed and went downstairs. I found that there were two severe looking ambulance men at the door in addition to a driver. I wondered what was happening, and indeed if I really lived in England, as I was being treated like a criminal.

The van had dark coloured glass in the windows which meant that I could not see out. I did not know Birmingham and did not know in which direction I was being taken. One of the ambulance men sat on each side of me. I was too terrified to speak. I had committed no crime. My only offence had been to develop a high temperature with stomach trouble while staying in this convent hostel.

It flashed through my mind that the stomach trouble may have been due to dirty food, and the fact that the nun may not have washed her hands properly before preparing food.

At the hospital I was put into a bed in a large ward, and a doctor examined me. I was allowed to stay in bed, as I had chest pains, stomach pain and a raised temperature. I believe that I was given a few antibiotics. As I laid in bed, I thought that as soon as I was strong enough to get up, I would go and search for alternative accommodation.

In fact, the first day I felt strong enough to get up, I went and sat in the day room with other patients. A male nurse came round and handed me two white tablets.

"What are these?" I asked.

"Largactil", he answered.

I did not know what this was but swallowed the tablets. Within half an hour I started to go to sleep in the chair. I complained to the male nurse that I did not want to go to sleep during the day-time.

"Oh, the tablets always have this effect at first. You will get used to it".

"I will do no such thing", I thought, and resolved not to take any more.

The next day, though still suffering from stomach pains, I resolved to go out immediately after breakfast and do some business. Firstly, I wanted to pack up my possessions at the convent hostel, and later to look for some alternative accommodation.

When I got to the convent, the nun complained that my books were taking up too much room in the bedroom, even though I had contrived to stack them all inside my wardrobe. I spent the day packing my books and clothes and a few other items such as my 35 mm camera into two large cardboard boxes and left them in the convent storeroom.

Meanwhile I found that I had received a letter from Professor Belcher asking me to call at the University to collect some scientific papers which he wanted me to read in preparation for starting my research work. I had to phone the University and explain that I was ill, and that it may be a further week before I could call there.

The next day the stomach pains returned violently and I had to rest, but I managed to refuse the largactil tablets. As I was a voluntary patient, I could go out of the hospital whenever I liked. All I needed was to regain my strength.

On Wednesday I looked into the windows of estate agents and found that the cheapest rooms or flats were £10 per week. I was not willing to pay more than £3 per week, as my total income was £7 per week, and the shortfall had to be made up by withdrawing from savings I had made during my years with the Government Chemist. In the evening I called at the convent. I found that one of the girls had removed my camera from one of my boxes and was examining it. When I asked why she was handling my property, she said that she was only looking at it. Nevertheless I felt that my property might be unsafe in the convent storeroom, so next day I hired a taxi and had the two boxes transferred to the luggage storeroom at the hospital. When I arrived with this amount of luggage, the nurses complained that it was taking up too much space.

In my defence, I could not say that I was leaving the hospital soon, because I did not want anyone to know this, in case they tried to detain me in this hospital. On Thursday and Friday I continued my search for accommodation, but could find nowhere cheaper than the £10 per week rooms, because I had no time to go to the cheaper accommodation agencies, which were off the main routes into town. At the week-end, I collapsed again with stomach pains and stayed in bed at the hospital.

On the following Monday, I went out and thought that if I did not get out of the hospital very quickly, I would stand in danger of having my plan to do research at the University extinguished. So I resolved to take one of the £10 flats from the estate agent for which I had to pay one month's rent in advance. This meant withdrawing £40 from savings, but I thought this was worth it. I resolved to look for cheaper accommodation when I had settled down at the University.

The next morning I went to the public phone and ordered a taxi, and hastily gathered up my belongings which I had left in the locker near my bed into two plastic bags. I realised that I looked rather untidy holding these plastic bags, but told the nurses that I was leaving immediately. They laughed at me and told me that I was very ill and should not leave the hospital. I replied that I had work to do, and wanted to start immediately.

As I left the ward they shook their fists at me. Ignoring their shouts, I went to the luggage room and shifted my boxes into the road just outside the hospital main entrance. It took some time for the taxi to arrive, and I was glad that I had ordered it before assembling my luggage, because I was afraid that the nurses would summon the psychiatrist in order to detain me.

This doctor had already been angry with me, when I came into the hospital in time for tea on Friday afternoon. He had asked me where I had been all the week and said he had not had an opportunity to examine me. I had told him that I wanted to get on with my job at the University and had no wish to be examined. I just wanted a prescription for the tablets which suited me called Nardil, an anti-depressant and did not want to take any largactil, which was a strong tranquilliser. I wanted to work not go to sleep!

When the taxi reached the flat, I knew I had to rest as my stomach pain was still quite severe. Perhaps to-morrow I would find a new G.P. But I was convinced that the stomach pain would pass away with rest.

I was very thankful that I had managed to escape to the peace of an empty flat and had not told the hospital my address.

Unfortunately my financial documents were detained in the hospital office. I had kept my cheque book on my person fortunately and could pay the immediate bills. But I needed my Post Office Savings Book, and a Co- operative Building Society deposit book in which I had most of my savings.

I knew that I needed a week's rest to regain my strength so phoned the University and told them I would be starting work with them the following Monday. I would be a week late starting. It was now the beginning of September.

Birmingham University [September 1965]

On my first day at the University, I went to see Dr. Stephen and was allowed to borrow his original Ph.D. thesis. In this was described the preparation and use of reagents such as 4-amino-4'-chlorobiphenyl. This had been used to determine trace amounts of sulphate ion in 1953. My work was intended to determine even smaller traces of sulphate and nitrate by using this and other organic reagents.

Professor Belcher also offered me a small paid job. One evening per week, I was engaged to coach his 12-year old son in mathematics. I had to catch the bus to his house, and teach his son arithmetic, including logarithms, and elementary algebra and geometry. His son was very polite, tried hard, but was not very good at mathematics. For this work, I was paid 12 shillings and sixpence per week, which I usually spent at the hairdressers. My hair was very greasy, needed washing at least once per week, and facilities for doing this at home were poor. Although I often worked from 8 am in the morning until 10 pm at night, once per week I took a three-hour lunch break, which included doing shopping for week-end meals and having my hair done.

The laboratory was normally open on Saturday mornings and we were expected to work until 1 pm. On Saturday afternoons I would sometimes take a rest after having lunch in the canteen, but often examined my research notes and planned the work for the following week in the laboratory. On Sunday mornings I went to a Church run by Jesuits in Edgbaston, and cooked my lunch at home on two gas rings. On Sunday afternoons I usually felt the need to rest at home.

Once I had completed my first week's work at the University, I felt confident enough to travel up to Rubery Hill Hospital, call at the administrative office and reclaim my financial documents. After my experiences at the convent hostel, I would not let this hospital have my home address, but on producing identification I was relieved to get back my savings account books. Soon I would need to withdraw some of this money to live on, as insufficient money was coming into my current account. I left these documents in a safe place at home. I felt relieved to be fully in control of my own affairs once more.

A small part of the introduction to my research thesis was written at home, and this follows.

"Trace analysis may be defined as the determination of a very small amount of an inorganic or organic constituent present in a very much larger weight of material. It is necessary in most industries to examine products for the presence of contaminants, which may have very damaging effects on the products, or be a toxic danger to the consumer. Chemical analysis for traces of these contaminants is often necessary; the purity of the chemicals required to carry out the analysis must also be checked. In product development, and in biochemical and medical research, trace analysis is often needed. With the ever increasing production of chemicals or products containing chemicals whose long-term effects are unknown, trace analysis is needed to make sure that these chemicals are not accumulating in the soil, water or atmosphere of the earth, where they may be transmitted to plant and animal life.

Sulphates and sulphur are amongst the commonest trace constituents of organic matter, and sulphates are usually present in water. The determination of small amounts of sulphate or sulphur is required in the coal, rubber, petroleum, water-treatment, paper, pesticide and plastics industries. It is necessary to analyze fine chemicals for sulphate impurities, and to determine sulphur in sulphur-containing organic compounds; and sub-micro analysis for sulphates or sulphur is frequently required in medical and biochemical research."

The purpose of a University Department like ours was to produce general analytical methods, which we hoped could be used and adapted by any industry, public analyst or other user.

I was extremely fired by enthusiasm for this work and on some days worked exceptionally long hours. I can remember arriving by an early bus at 7am in the University laboratory and working until 11 pm at night. I could not keep this up for long, but did this sometimes when the work appeared to be going well, and I thought I was on the verge of discovering new methods.

Unfortunately it was my mistaken belief that I needed the drug Nardil to give me the energy to do this work. I found a new GP who was willing to write prescriptions for a month's supply of this drug. At this time prescriptions were free and easily available. I told Dr. Stephen that I was taking Nardil and I could see that he did not approve. However he smoked a pipe and often walked round the laboratory smoking this, so I did not feel guilty at taking Nardil. I thought "Dr Stephen needs his pipe to keep going and I need the Nardil."

We were both wrong; but the kind of research which would have convinced us of this, interested neither of us.

The flat was very comfortable. I had a bedsitting room and a separate kitchen. The neighbours were quiet, and when at home I could write up my notes easily. However at £10 per week I knew that I could not afford to stay there. I had to withdraw this amount from savings, because my expenses on food, fares heat and light absorbed my total income which was only £7 per week, obtained from a University charity.

On Saturday afternoons I had to look for alternative accommodation. I did not find this until I had been in the flat for four weeks and had had to withdraw another £40 to pay another four weeks' rent in advance. The new bedsitting room cost only £2 per week, but for four weeks I had to pay the rent on two lots of accommodation. I gave four weeks notice to my present landlord, but did not move immediately.

At the end of October I moved to the attic bedsitting room in City Road, Birmingham.

In the old flat I had had the luxury of a private toilet and bathroom. Here such facilities were shared. Though I was quite used to sharing, in this house it did not work out satisfactorily. It was necessary to put one shilling in the meter in order to have a bath, but unfortunately the water did not heat for an hour. I used to put my shilling in on Sunday mornings at 6 am. Then I would go back to bed, and have a bath at 8 am.

This procedure worked satisfactorily for two weeks. On the third week, when I got up at 8 am all my hot water had gone. I discovered that the person living in the room below me, would creep into the bathroom at about 7 am and steal my water. My money was so short that I could not afford to lose it. I would keep awake and on tenterhooks on Sunday mornings and keep going to check if the water was hot. But as I was already so tired with the week's work I could not always do this and often had my bath water stolen during the next few weeks.

At the University I was told that I could have a free bath in the student's union building. However this was at the other end of the campus, and it took about half an hour to walk down there. As this facility was closed at about 7 pm each evening, I could not usually spare time from my work to do this. Even my meal times were hurried. During the week I ate lunch at 1 pm and tea at about 6 pm in the nearby students' refectory. These meals took all my weekly cash allowance, after fares, room heating and the hairdressers and launderette had been paid for.

Then one day I was asked to visit a department containing a large centrifuge, which I needed to use. It was at the other side of the University building in which I worked. This meant a long walk down corridors. I saw a ladies' toilet and entered to use it. Inside I found a bathroom. There was a cleaner there and she told me that I could use this bath if I wished. Thereafter I had a free bath each week in the University building in which I worked. It was little used. Apparently, most students did not know that this facility existed.

At home, I never did much cleaning; but did my washing up at the sink in the corner of the room. In this room there was cold water only. Usually I boiled a kettle for washing up.

One day I phoned my aunt in London and she told me she could no longer look after my excess scientific books. I had planned to collect them one day when I had time. I asked her why and she told me she did not want to dust them. I could not understand this, because I hardly felt the need to dust my books, and the top of the book-case took only five minutes to dust.

However, this meant I had to take a day off from work, which I could ill spare and go to London to collect these books. These had to be packed into cardboard boxes and sent to Birmingham by carrier. These were books which I was not currently using, on subjects I had had to study for my first degree, such as physics, mathematics and geology. When they arrived I left them in one corner of my room, not having the time to unpack them.

My main concern was my work. For the next three months, I was busy preparing samples of the dye Sulphonazo.

This had first been prepared by a chemist called Budesinsky working in Czechoslovakia. His paper had been translated into English. At this time several English people including my former colleague, Mr Fleet, who I first met in the Government Chemist pesticide lab, had gone to work in Czechoslovakia for a year. He did this following a Ph.D. at Birmingham. He had been working with a different reagent than me, but it had also been used for determining traces of sulphate. Though this was a "Communist" country, a fairly liberal policy prevailed with regard to the exchange of scientific workers. We had Klara, a 26 year old student working as a research assistant in Professor Belcher's department, following her degree in Czechoslovakia.

One of the other interests of Professor Belcher which had been developed further in Czechoslovakia was the polarograph, or falling mercury electrode, which was used for determining trace metals. I had never had the opportunity to find out how this worked, being unable to understand the textbooks on the subject, which were full of advanced mathematics. I was much more at home with spectrophotometric methods which were used extensively in food analysis and with paper chromatography which I had used in the determination of traces of pesticide at the Laboratory of the Government Chemist.

There were three student canteens at the University of Birmingham, in a building near the library and administrative offices. There were three floors with the cheapest canteen on the top floor, moderate prices on the middle floor, and the most expensive at ground level.

I was short of money, nevertheless went to the moderately priced canteen, as I could not tolerate the stodgy food served in the "cheapery". My male colleagues went to the very cheap canteen at mid-day, usually worked from 9 to 5 and presumably had better food cooked by their wives in the evening. Some were unmarried; one young man said he lived in very dingy lodgings; these being very cheap, suited him. All the woman students were single. Most of these were 30 years of age or over. One woman, who came from the Netherlands had had a career as a secretary, before giving this up to do a chemistry degree, and obtaining a post as a research assistant, which financed her M.Sc. For this privilege, she had to do about three hours routine work per day. The rest of the time she was able to devote to her research. Unlike me she had two years for completion of the M.Sc. degree.

There was a man of 44 who was financed by his company. Until then he had been a salesman, though originally qualified in chemistry, and having experience of analysis in his early career. He had been advised by his firm to return to bench work as an analyst and was being retrained for this work. He was using ion exchange resins. He told me that Professor Belcher who was his personal supervisor was making him work exceptionally hard. He had other problems. His mother who had a long-term illness was now in hospital, but her flat had to remain empty ready for her return. He was worried about this, as he did not believe his mother would regain sufficient health to look after herself in this flat. There was one other older man. He was 50, and I was extremely surprised to find that he was a research student. Apparently he had been made redundant from his previous position as technical college lecturer, and Professor Belcher had invited him to do a Ph.D. He was a personal friend of the Professor. He main occupation appeared to be incinerating samples in a furnace and weighing the ash. He never divulged what he was doing.

One person with whom I became quite friendly was called Aleya. She came from Iraq, was westernised and said that she intended to settle in England. Sometimes I went to the canteen at mid-day with her. It was in this canteen that I first tasted water-melon. These slices of red, watery fruit were served as a dessert. I had not been in the habit of buying fruit apart from apples, oranges and bananas and strawberries during June and July. The exotic fruits and year-round supplies which are in the shops to-day were then unknown.

Colin was another student who was kind to me and showed me how thin layer chromatography was done, in case I needed to use this technique in my research. He also mended my broken iron, which blew up one day at home. This was not exceptionally difficult; I think one of the wires had become loose, but I had not time to examine it myself. I was working twice as hard as most of the other research students because of my need to pack two years work into one.

Chris was a Catholic. He told me he lived near Rubery Hill Hospital and attended the church near there. I had met the priest in charge of this church when he had briefly visited the hospital during the two weeks I stayed there. Chris said that his sermons were very dull. I was finding the sermons at the Jesuit Church interesting. The congregation was invited to provide the bidding prayers each week, by putting their petitions in a box at the back of the church. As many as possible of these were read out.

Chris never stayed late at work in the lab and appeared to be rather unenthusiastic about his research. He was very efficient and tried to devise the shortest method for completing each task; he went home promptly at 5.30 pm each day. Some of the other students occasionally stayed late, especially the older man of 44 who told me he had worked on mustard gas during the war. He was glad that it had all been destroyed out at sea and was never used in the second world war. I thought his ion exchange research interesting as in my earlier days I had worked with these materials at water treatment companies. One day when I felt unwell he took me home to my lodgings in his car. I received many kindnesses and help from the students during my year at Birmingham.

David was another quiet research student, single and living in lodgings. In total we numbered four women and six men. It was a happy atmosphere in this research lab. I had never enjoyed work so much.

None of us talked much about our research to the other students. It did not appear to be the custom. The exception was the monthly lecture given by each Ph.D. student in turn, when they would summarise what they were doing. However as I was doing only an M.Sc., I was not asked to do this. Colin was the unofficial leading research student. Unfortunately he was one of the only ones who never succeeded in publishing a research paper. From my M.Sc. work I eventually published two papers in a chemical journal, called "Analytica Chimica Acta".

Besides the monthly lectures, we had an evening monthly social gathering in an office near the laboratories. Professor Belcher attended these functions, and our overseas students were encouraged to provide the food, representative of their countries. The ex-secretary, who was doing an M.Sc. like me, was Dutch. She provided a meal based on Dutch cheeses.

I am not sure what Klara provided but Czechoslovakian food was what she had in mind.

We had an African student with us doing a Ph.D. but he was rarely working in the lab during the day time. When I arrived early for work, sometimes at 7 am, I would find him there and he told me that he worked all night. He said that he preferred to work at night. The lab was always open. There was a small back door left unlocked. I do not think the paid staff and security men knew about this door. It led up spiral stairs on to a balcony, from which the lab could be entered. I always used this door, and very rarely entered by the front entrance, which was unlocked at about 8.30 am when the stores staff started work. These people left off at 5.30 pm.

My bench was directly adjoining the balcony. This balcony was sometimes used for paper chromatography. These were often developed by means of a spray. People did not want to contaminate the air in the lab with solvents, so used the balcony as an alternative to a fume cupboard, which were always full of apparatus used for making organic preparations.

My initial titrations using a micro-burette were so encouraging that Professor Belcher became keenly interested in my work. Unfortunately when the Sulphonazo failed to keep, even at low temperatures in the refrigerated room, the work had to be abandoned.

Working at Birmingham University was always a pleasure. I had a bench to myself and cupboards beneath it. It was similarly equipped to my old bench in the food lab at the Government Chemist. Much walking about during the day, carrying samples to different rooms was necessary. Complex instrumental work was done in separate rooms which were kept cleaner and drier than was possible in the main lab, where much glassware was used.

Often I had to walk about the campus. Sometimes I went to the students union building for a bath. It was a long walk, by the lake to the opposite end of the campus; this walk did me good after a long day in a confined space. The edges of the lake were obscured by bushes, reeds and varied plants, so it was not possible to walk very near the water's edge. Views through the foliage were attractive. Often I walked round this lake during cold weather when there were very few people about. During my time at Birmingham, I met very few undergraduate students, and knew nothing about their lives.

Occasionally I had to visit another building. One day, near the end of November I had to visit the organic chemistry department, as capacious fume-cupboards were available and the chlorine cylinders needed for the preparation of a complex compound called 4-amino-4'-chlorobiphenyl were stored there. I had to prepare a sample of this compound for my own use in determining traces of sulphate.

The first stage of this process involved passing chlorine into 4- nitrodiphenyl. Chlorine is a very dangerous gas. I was provided with a respirator by Dr. W.I. Stephen, which I was told to put on if any chlorine gas escaped from the fume cupboard. This was a fearsome piece of apparatus. I had never in my life worn a respirator and I wanted to avoid putting it on at all costs. It was only a safety precaution for use if the extractor in the fume cupboard broke down. As all the fume cupboards at Birmingham University were maintained to a high standard, I did not expect the respirator to be necessary. I was working in a corridor, adjoining a large lab. The corridor contained only a fume cupboard. The procedure required standing near the chlorine cylinder and passing chlorine through the liquid contained in a large flask for about two hours. Personal attention was necessary because the chlorine had to be passed through at a slow speed in order to give time for the necessary reaction to take place. All went well during the first hour. The flask containing the liquid was supported on a balance. When the flask had increased in weight by a fixed amount the reaction was expected to be complete.

I began to get worried because the procedure appeared to be taking a long time. Several of my colleagues were working in the adjoining lab. Unfortunately they could not see me. At lunch time they all left the room and turned off the main switch which controlled the fume cupboards. They did not notice that I was still at work in the corridor.

I did not notice that the fume cupboard had been turned off. I was making a mistake in the preparation by passing the chlorine too slowly. This may have been fortunate as it saved me from being poisoned by the chlorine. What was escaping from the flask was not chlorine but a volatile chlorine compound. I did not notice it at first but gradually became aware of a sweet smell. I panicked. I did not know how to put the respirator on. I thought I should get out of the atmosphere as soon as possible, so simply turned off the chlorine cylinder and walked back to the laboratory.

I told Professor Belcher what had happened, as he happened to be in the analytical laboratory when I got back. So far I had had no successful results from my research and he was not feeling very pleased with me. He was angry that I had not brought the reaction flask back with me, but had simply turned off the chlorine and left my preparation half-finished. Dr. Stephen was more sympathetic.

Earlier in the day he had seen me working in the corridor which was rather cold and had offered to complete the preparation himself. I regretted now that I had not taken advantage of this offer. At this moment I was feeling rather miserable and tired as I has had nothing to eat. I usually worked for longer hours than the male colleagues who had three years to complete their degree and was beginning to feel very tired.

However Dr. Stephen rescued the situation by purifying the compound I had partially made. He was an expect at preparing 4-amino-4'- chlorobiphenyl. Only about one third of the estimated amount was made, but this was enough for me to use in my analytical research.

I worked hard and before Christmas successfully completed an adequate method for determination of microgram amounts of sulphate. In the end Dr. Stephen was quite pleased as the method was suitable for publication.

Nephelometry means light-scattering. The success of the method depended on producing very small evenly-sized particles of precipitated sulphate, suspended in aqueous solution. A simple optical instrument which measured the extent of light-scattering, depending on the concentration of sulphate was used for the determination. After I had completed the initial method, further checking for the effect of interfering substances was necessary.This was not completed until about the end of January 1966.

Before this I had a Christmas break, as the University closed completely for one week. I spent this with Dad at Gordona. By this time Eve, his housekeeper whom he was hoping to marry was living there. Marriage depended on getting an annulment of his marriage to his second wife, Mary. Unfortunately, she had returned to the USA in 1951 and could not be traced. This prevented the annulment from being granted by the Catholic Church. Dad continued living with Eve as his housekeeper until the time when Eve had a stroke and had to be looked after in a cottage hospital. Cottage hospitals acted as a nursing homes in the 1960's and early 1970's. Eve's sister, Mavis was living in Bradfield, a village nearby. She visited and prepared a meal starting with real Yorkshire pudding. Eve and Mavis came from Yorkshire. Both had married and were now widows, but neither had had any children. Mavis was feeling rather lonely at this time, and was glad to spend Christmas at Gordona. With the four of us, the old house was quite full.

I felt that the amount of experience that 1965 had held for me was enough to fill ten ordinary years.

1966

I started 1966 with a sense of urgency. Patiently I completed a method for the determination of traces of sulphate. It was adequate. However there were some deficiencies in the method. After precipitation the particles remained stable for only about an hour. The conditions under which the test was carried out had to be rigorously standardised. However, Dr. Stephen my supervisor was felt the method was useful enough to be published and started to write a paper on this subject to be published under the names Martin and Stephen. This was not finally published until March 1967.

By the end of February 1966 it was felt essential to proceed to examine similar methods for the nitrate ion. I spent two months on this work and by the end of April was beginning to feel tired. I knew that by the end of July I had to write my M.Sc. thesis and it was essential to allow at least two months for this, for not only had it to be written but also typed and bound. Five copies were necessary.

At this time I began to write my thesis. This work was mostly done at home, though I sometimes did some written work in the University Library. A mishap occurred one cold evening just as I arrived home. I discovered that the room below mine was on fire. This belonged to the woman who used to steal my bath water. She appeared to be a very rough woman. She worked in a greengrocer's shop nearby. At that time the young shop assistant who was engaged to be married to the man who owned the house was indoors in her large room on the first floor of the house. I lived on the second floor where there was only one room. All the other residents were out, including the landlord, who occupied the ground floor.

I maintained that the fire engine should be called immediately and that the door to the room which was on fire should be kept shut in order to prevent the flames from spreading. However the young shop assistant insisted on getting a bucket full of water from the bathroom to put out the flames. However as we opened the door a sheet of flame met our eyes and we quickly shut the door. I convinced Margaret, the shop assistant that it was dangerous to stay in the house. She was persuaded to go downstairs while I called the fire engine from the nearby phone box. I went out of the house hurriedly and forgot to take my keys. There was a Yale lock on my door upstairs and it had snapped shut. I was worried about the safety of all my research notes and work written for my thesis in my upstairs room. But there was no time to worry and I was concerned for the safety of the young woman.

Fortunately the fire engine arrived promptly. The fire had not spread beyond the one room and it was successfully extinguished within an hour. As I had left the room locked the firemen had to put their ladders up to the third floor and enter my room by the window. They were then able to open the door and let me enter the flat.

Both my room and Margaret's were completely undamaged.

The furniture in the burnt out room was ruined. However it was safe to go back into the house to sleep that night. It appeared that the tenant in the room below me had smoked in bed and had gone out to work that morning leaving a smouldering cigarette in her bed. When she returned later that evening the landlord gave her notice. As her room was uninhabitable, she did not come back into the house again. I was thankful about this as she had been rough and unpleasant to me on the rare occasions when I saw her. I do not know where she went. I did not see her again, but imagined that she had gone to stay with her boy-friend.

When I mentioned the incident to Dr. Stephen in conversation one afternoon, he advised me to get a room in the YWCA. Aleya, the Iraqi research student lived there. I would have been glad to take this advice but felt I could not spare the time to move at present.

Accordingly I stayed on in the dismal room. However it was very quiet and I was able to use my small manual typewriter quite undisturbed every evening. I found that typing was more tiring than working in the laboratory, and the numerous tables and chemical formulae were very tedious to type. The first chapter I had taken to a typing agency, thinking that it would be better to have the thesis typed professionally. But when I examined the result, I found that so many mistakes had been made with chemical formulae and technical words and occasionally with figures in the tables of results, that I had to do an enormous amount of very tedious corrections on the finished copies. I decided that it would be quicker to type the whole thesis myself. I had to use four carbons in the typewriter in order to produce five copies. The faintest and least readable copy was the one which I kept for myself.

Meanwhile I continued to work daily in the laboratory but had to content myself with shorter hours in order to allow myself time to write and then type the earlier parts of the thesis. I was still working very long hours.

Occasionally I visited the local shops. I discovered a shop which specialised in selling unusual curious items. In this shop I purchased a propelling pencil. These have gone out of fashion. The lead was encased in a metal container and the pencil was gradually drawn up so that the point was protruding by a suitable amount. These pencils needed no sharpening. This operation was accomplished mechanically in the interior of the metal cylinder, so that a sharp point always protruded. The propelling pencil I had purchased was superb. It had three cylinders with different coloured leads, so that these colours could quickly be changed and put into the correct position for use. In addition twelve more coloured leads were contained in an outer annular space surrounding the working cylinder. If I wished to use one of these supplementary colours, I had to change it with one of the three main colours. Nevertheless this was a quick operation and the whole set of fifteen colours were always available in a handy portable form. I used these colours to illustrate my thesis in colour. I had to do the drawings separately for each one of the five copies. I think I was the only research student who went to this amount of trouble to represent the colours of separated compounds on my strips of chromatography paper. This was done in relationship to my studies of the dye Sulphonazo 2.

Meanwhile in the laboratory I had to proceed with the determination of trace amounts of nitrate.

I did not have to undertake any difficult organic preparations with the two nitrate methods. The samples of organic compounds used had already been prepared by Dr. Stephen. I had to recover the reagent from each set of tests to be used again, not only because the compound was expensive but because preparing it freshly was a long tedious procedure. The solvents consumed in the recovery process were much less expensive than the reagent and the procedure was not time-consuming. I produced two accurate methods for determining very small amounts of nitrate, and these were written about in my thesis. However, they were not more sensitive than previously published methods. By sensitive I mean that the method should be suitable for determining smaller traces of nitrate than previous methods. My sulphate method had fulfilled this criterion but the nitrate method failed to do so; therefore Dr. Stephen decided not to publish these results in a scientific paper.

Then I had a reason for excitement. While I was engaged in nitrate determinations, I discovered a much better method of preparing gum ghatti, the additive used to stabilise particles for measurements of their light- scattering properties in suspension. This was of sufficient merit for me to feel that it was worthwhile to repeat the sulphate determination using the new form of gum ghatti. My time was running out. It was late in May 1966, and I worked late in the evenings, delaying the typing of the thesis until I had invented an improved method for sulphate determination, which was even better than the one I had worked out in January. Dr. Stephen judged this suitable for an additional publication. On this occasion Professor Belcher was very pleased with me, and mentioned my hard work while giving a talk to all of the assembled research students with whom I had spent a year of my working life.

I felt very pleased and elated at this moment, though very tired. This work was not completed until the end of July.

Then I had to go home and type up the rest of the results and get the thesis bound by the University Library. In August I had two interviews for employment. The first person turned me down, but I succeeded in getting employment with Cadbury. I did not like my new prospective supervisor very much. I had some suspicion of him at the interview because he told me that my research thesis was not important and that I should start work straight away and not type the thesis up. I refused to do this but accepted the offer of a post, starting from the beginning of October. This left me the rest of August and September to get the thesis typed and bound. The last two weeks in August I spent in the lab cleaning all the used apparatus and taking it back to the stores. Some of the students neglected to do this. However I was very loath to leave the University where I had spent such a happy year, and being rather tired, the cleaning took me a long time. In between I chatted to some of my colleagues. Some of these would continue working next year, but Colin who had been so kind to me was on the last year of his three year research for Ph.D. He was awarded his Ph.D. but had no publications which I believe was a disappointment to him. Nevertheless, he obtained a first-class post in the research department of a large chemical company. Aleya also completed her thesis for Ph.D. and was employed by a chemical company in Birmingham. I did not see either of these friends again.

before after

Index

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Index

Rubery Hill Mental Hospital 1965





Copyright Joan Hughes 1993-1997. Published with permission.