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

Polyvinyl acetate continued to September 1977 - unemployment and museum work

At the beginning of the January 1977 term Joy arrived. She had been given a training grant by the Department of Employment. Dr. Pritchard invented a semi-fictitious agency called the Heavy Metals research Unit which employed Joy. Like me she was a research assistant. Her research project involved the determination of lead in samples of hair. The other people in the laboratory each gave samples of their hair to help Joy in her work.

In 1977 there were two Asian research students working for Ph.D. They had already been working there for two years and this was their final year. These were Mr. Ahmed and Mr. Joshi. Mr Ahmed hailed from Bangladesh and Mr. Joshi came from India. They were both very polite young men and easy to get on with. They were working on poly (vinyl acetate). I collaborated with these two students, by also working on poly (vinyl acetate) and filling in the gaps in their work.

Joy worked independently on determining lead and mercury in hair. At the time there was some concern that dentists were being poisoned by mercury because they were continually working with dental amalgam. I cut off a lock of hair and gave it to Joy for her tests. The Ph.D. students also co- operated. After the tests on the control sample consisting of laboratory staff was completed, Joy had to go to dentists' surgeries and ask for samples of their hair. Joy said she was afraid to go to her own dentist for this purpose as her family owed him money.

Like myself Joy was about 50 years of age and had been working on an Open University Research degree. She had to do the science projects in her kitchen at home which was not very satisfactory. She had a week's practical work at summer school but cramming practical work into one week of the year was not enough. Joy had worked as a laboratory assistant in a hospital medical laboratory before she was married so remembered the basic lab skills.

Joy often complained that she was not given enough help by Dr Pritchard and was left too much on her own. I said that in research "You had to push your own boat out." It was easier for me, as 15 years ago I had completed an M.Sc. by research at Birmingham University and was skilled in library research. The library at the Polytechnic was inadequate, so I spent days at the Science Library in Central London. Dr Pritchard gave me copies of previous papers done in the department on poly (vinyl acetate) which was a great help.

A young Chinese man worked alongside me on the bench nearest the back entrance to the research lab. The back entrance was a fire escape and we did not use it, but sometimes stepped outside to drink tea on the top of the steps in the fresh air.

The Chinese man told me he had no grant to support himself and was living on his wife's earnings. However the Polytechnic were not charging him fees. Apparently he had already completed his three years research for Ph.D. but had not completed sufficient work to be awarded a Ph.D. He did not appear to work very hard as he only appeared in the lab for a few hours work about three times per week. Joy remarked tartly that she considered it was a waste of public money to allow him to continue work in such a fashion. His research supervisor came in to encourage him occasionally. She was the only female staff member in the chemistry department. She did not chat to any of us.

One very chatty person was called Dr. Anderson. Dr. Anderson was Scottish and proud of it. He said that there a clan "Anderson" and he possessed the specific kilt belonging to it. I never saw him wearing it, but this is not surprising as we did not have the kind of celebratory day where such wear would be appropriate at the Polytechnic. The nearest was the annual degree ceremony when an academic gown was hired by new graduates. But no-one wore a kilt!

Dr Anderson told me a story about the Wee Free Church in one of the Scottish Isles, where his family originated. The sermon gave the following information:- "You are in danger of hell-fire if you do not keep the Sabbath holy." One man did not do this; he kept his shop open after attending church. On the Scottish Isle where he lived there was no public transport on Sundays, no other shops or public houses opened and church attendance two or three times per day was the norm. Women could not put their washing on the line on a Sunday. The sermon told people that the man who disobeyed these rules eventually died and asked God to allow him to enter heaven. God said, " You cannot do that because you did not keep the Sabbath." So the man said, "I dinna ken." And God answered "Well, you ken the noo!" Dr. Anderson delivered this anecdote in exaggerated Scottish speech, which he did not use for his chemistry lectures.

I told him I was a Catholic and that we were not as strict as that. We had been told not to do unnecessary servile work on Sundays, but if we were doing the "work" for pleasure, or engaged in intellectual work or entertainment like drinking in a public house, it was quite acceptable. This meant that those forms of work which provided entertainment were also acceptable. Many people would say that drinking is part of Catholic life! I told Dr. Anderson that I had eaten sausages sometimes in my employer's canteen having forgotten that it was Friday. This was in the 1960's. It was before the Vatican Two Council of the church when Catholics were not allowed to eat meat on Fridays. Dr. Anderson replied that sausages would hardly count as they rarely contained meat! I do not think Dr. Anderson was a very strict member of the "Wee Free" church.

Dr Anderson worked hard and did some private research in spare periods when his teaching was completed. One day he was working with smelly sulphurous compounds. The smell stuck to his clothes, and he told me that when he arrived home that day after work, his wife was reluctant to let him into the house.

He said that he worked hard at the Polytechnic because he did not like gardening and other hobbies with which other men might fill their time. He told me that his mother had been a doctor of medicine and worked for twenty-two years after his father died. She earned enough to send him to a good university, without the struggle to win scholarships which the poorer students of his age group had to do in the 1950's. Grants for students were not universal then even for those who achieved good GCE "A" level results.

At the Polytechnic I usually worked until 7 pm in the evenings. The other research students usually went home at 5.30 pm. During my last hour at work, Dr. Anderson often came up to my bench to have a chat. The other lecturers were not so friendly, except for a Polish gentleman who gave lectures in gas chromatography. I used the gas chromatograph in his department.

Mr Newman the inorganic chemistry lecturer was distinctly cool, and I always failed his practical work. To justify my training allowance I had to attend lectures and do practical work one day per week. The reason why I failed was that there was a rush to get clean apparatus from the cupboards under the bench. The younger students usually grabbed this first and the only apparatus left for me was dirty. It took me too long to clean it up. So I never completed any classical inorganic chemistry, because I had insufficient time after doing the cleaning. I did not care because I knew that formerly I had been able to accomplish this work easily and had no need to obtain further experience in it.

However the inorganic lecturer and Mr Newman who got me to do Kjeldahl tests both said that I was no good. Likewise they said that Mr Ahmed was no good as he could not write English fluently. They also said the people who expressed left-wing views at Union meetings were "No good" and lowered the tone of the Polytechnic. I did not take much notice of what this group of three lecturers said, because Dr. Pritchard for whom I worked four days per week thought that I was very satisfactory. He also thought that Mr. Ahmed was satisfactory.

I had to walk round the corridors at the Polytechnic and visit different rooms, one where the spectrophotometric apparatus was kept; and one where some apparatus using heat measurements was kept. This heat measurement method was very simple but the apparatus was new to me, and the technician kindly showed me how to use it.

Some apparatus was very complex and a technician was employed to run it. Such was the nuclear magnetic resonance. But the instruments I used were simple.

At the Government Chemist I had had experience in using IR and UV and visible spectroscopy and though the instruments at the Polytechnic were newer models, the principles by which they were run were the same. The work was very enjoyable, and much more interesting than the clerical work I had been obliged to do in recent years.

During July there were incidents at the Polytechnic and one-day strikes by the porters for higher wages. It was a time of student unrest and sit-ins, and these students supported the porters' strike. It meant that I was not able to do any practical work at the Polytechnic on a few days before the summer holiday. This did not worry me too much as I had to start writing a report of my work which kept me fully occupied at home. On the days when I visited North East London Polytechnic I found that a young man called Andy Strouthous was barred from entering the Polytechnic. He had been elected President of the Students Union for a year and was a member of the International Socialists who were very active in 1977. I did not understand student politics, but found some ugly notices on the college notice-board bearing messages like "Kill Andy Strouthous". I tore these notices down and threw them into a waste-paper basket.

I went up to the research lab and found that the lecturer who shared Dr. Pritchard's room was drunk. This often happened even on normal days but today Dr. Pritchard was having a hard time as the man was leaning against him and shouting some threats concerning left-wing students. The Polytechnic was to be kept shut that day as a group of students were barring one of the entrances and the administrative staff had decided to call the police to clear the way. Dr. Pritchard told me to go home. However I went to lunch at a nearby workmen's cafe to await developments. It was often frequented by staff and students when they tired of the college canteen. I thought it would be an interesting day.

I worked in the science block and the students' union was not very active there, but this building contained the head office where all the administrative work was done, and so the students' demonstration was taking place there. Usually I passed the Social Science block on my way to work each morning on the bus. It was situated between Bow and Stratford. I had never been inside this building, but guessed that these students were much more interested in politics than the science students. In the afternoon just as I thinking of going home, a large group of students from the social science buildings arrived. They stood outside the college building with banners. They were younger than the average science student and seemed much more excitable. I noticed a woman of about 45 standing with the group of young students. I asked her if she was a student and she told me that she was a social worker, but also a student doing a part-time course and was supporting the student protest. She looked oddly out of place amongst the group of young people, but was very enthusiastic and animated when I spoke to her. She told me that the protest was to get Andy Strouthous reinstated as President of the Student's Union and able to enter college premises. By this time I felt tired, so went home.

Later in the day the police arrived but I did not see this. There was a report in a local newspaper. Andy Strouthous was summoned to appear in court. I think I saw him enter the science block on one occasion. He was charged with illegally entering college premises. At the end of the summer term Andy Strouthous disappeared. The porter's strike lasted only a day and I believe they received a pay rise. The fuss died down as quickly as it had appeared.

One unfortunate aspect was the appearance of National Front Stickers all over the science block. There were many Asian students doing science courses and research and this made the atmosphere unpleasant for them. However none of them supported the International Socialists or took part in student activities. They were very quiet people who concentrated on their work.

Nevertheless there was a great deal of fault in the way the administrative authorities at the college treated the incident. I think the Students' Union wanted a quiet discussion with the Head of the Polytechnic and this was refused.

Summer 1977 was a time of much excitement round the college, but I was disappointed, because when my year's work came to an end I did not receive another appointment.

30.9.1977: North East London Polytechnic. Certificate of Study. This is to certify that Joan May Hughes having completed a course of study in Instrumental Analysis of one year's duration involving a minimum entry standard of Graduate in Chemistry and having been assessed in relation to the object of the course, namely (i) Acquisition of a knowledge of the principles and application of instrumental methods of chemical analysis (ii) Preparation of a report on personal experience in the field, has reached the prescribed standard at Post-graduate level.

I spent the last three months of 1977 unemployed, though I wrote to many establishments hoping to gain an appointment in chemistry. Hospitals turned me down as I had no previous experience in a hospital laboratory. This was Joy's previous field to which she hoped to return.

In despair I looked for other work and obtained a part time job in the Museum Shop at the Geffrye Museum to start immediately after Christmas on the 3rd of January 1978. It was something to look forward to after the Christmas break.

before after


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Copyright Joan Hughes 1993-1997. Published with permission.