Autobiography of William Joseph Dibdin F.I.C., F.C.S.
Analytical Chemist
1850 - 1925

Section 1   Chapter 2

First Business Experiences

Now commenced a period of "toiling, rejoicing sorrowing" indeed.

The strangeness of my surroundings was great and the roughness of the men about me, at first, seemed unkindness itself, especially from those and, not a few, who seemed to think that nothing could be done without the most violent language and there was brought home to me in sad earnest the physical defect I had always suffered from, but largely unknowingly, my short sight. As my normal focus of clear vision is only about four inches and spectacles for children were practically unknown, I soon found that I was not quick enough to scan invoices and hand written documents with the rapidity required and many were the trials I underwent because of my necessary slowness. The defect became so marked that eventually I had to have spectacles and then one’s life was almost a burden. In those days (1864), I suppose I must have been the only boy in London wearing spectacles and it seemed to be the bounden duty of every passing labourer etc in the street to pass remarks as if I was a wicked person who wouldn’t see properly with his own eyes, but must, in some spiteful and cowardly way, employ outside aid. I was naturally a nervous child in many ways and the constant annoyance had the effect of still more conducing to personal isolation and a desire to work quietly away from vulgarity. In fact the position was so acute at times that I would gladly have accepted my Father’s wish to follow his artistic work, had it not been for the very fact that my eyesight prevented my obtaining a clear view of the thing to be copied. In those days optical science was in its infancy and there was no such thing as a cure for astigmatism etc. Had I been supplied with the corrections to eyesight I now enjoy my whole life might very possibly, and I think certainly, have been very different, but I made the best of things and did my best.

Amongst the companions with whom I was thrown in my work at Camden was one I met late in life and who was one of the best friends a man could have. I refer to John Leach who was Senior Cashier in the Inquiry office to whom I acted as clerk until I was appointed Junior Cashier.

Leach was a gentleman by instinct and abhorred the vulgarity of so many of the rank and file. Later he went to evening classes at King’s College and eventually took Orders in the Church of England.

It was largely due to his influence that I joined the Sons of Temperance and the Young Men’s Christian Association, both of which enabled me to do good work later on in Queensland, opening a branch of and the Young Men’s Christian Association in Rockhampton, where attending a meeting some years later on my return to Rockhampton from up-country, I was hailed as "Father Dibdin"; and at Copperfield, on Peak Downs, where I received from Head Quakers the temporary title of "Deputy Most Worthy Grand Patriarch" for the purpose of opening a lodge of the "Sons of Temperance". To show the character of this man amongst men, I quote the following from a letter still in my possession which I received from him on the eve of my departure for Australia in Oct 1867.

"My Dear Dibdin

You will receive this very shortly after the note which I ought to have despatched from Clipstone yesterday, putting it into my pocket I forgot in the hurry of leaving to post it. If at all possible, it is my intention to pay you a visit for a few moments before you go. Keep your courage and spirits up, parting is most painful I am sure. Remember and remind your parents how much more numerous are the opportunities for success in life in your new sphere than here. Promise to write them by every mail and do all you can to soften the great pain which they cannot but feel at your departure. Their kindness and self sacrifice in allowing you to go will be repaid a hundred fold. I wish I were going with you but I must remember the continual feast which contented mind gives.

My dear Dibdin, I feel that you will leave the old country with a determined resolution to continue that good course of life which you have hitherto lived, you will pardon me saying this but I know how much change of life, scene and companions tend to obliterate sometimes those resolutions we from. I feel that yours is the most critical age of youth, and will continue so for two or three years to come. But I also feel that whatever news, public or private I may receive of you, will record the continuation of a life which already commands the highest possible respect and esteem of your fellow workers. I shall often think of you and remember your safety and success in my petitions to Him "who holdeth the waters in the hollow of his hand.

My mother and sister join me in wishing you "Godspeed"
Faithfully from J.M.Leach."

Did any young man ever receive a more beautiful and encouraging letter ?

I have always been grateful that such a man should write one such a letter. No wonder that I have kept it amongst my best treasures.

Some thirteen years later when I had returned to England and was assisitant to Mr J.W.Keates, the Consulting Chemist to the Metropolitan Board of Works, I went with him to St Pancras Vestry Hall, to examine the *** test apparatus in consequence of an adverse test which had been made on the gas by Dr Shirley Murphy, Medical Officer Gas Examiner to the Vestry – ( later Medical Officer of Health to the London County Council and Sir Shirley) when to my surprise I found my old friend Leach in the capacity of confidential Clerk to the Medical Officer ! Soon after he joined the Ministry and all too soon passed away. It is a simple story, but not without no little influence in my life.

[ Sir Shirley Foster Murphy was born in 1848 and educated University College School and Guy's Hospital. Murphy was Vice President of Royal Sanitary Institute, Society of Medical Officers of Health, Epidemiological Section Royal Society of Medicine and Royal Statistical Society and examiner in Public Health, Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons. He was a Bissett Hawkins Medallist, Royal College of Physicians; Jenner Medallist, Royal Society of Medicine; Medical Officer of Health, Administrative County of London and a member of Royal Commission on Tuberculosis. Murphy was knighted in 1904; awarded Knight Commander Order of the British Empire, 1919, and became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. Murphy died in 1923. ]

These early days before my leaving England were spent fairly busy – amongst other occupations I learnt shorthand by attending Evening Classes held under one of the Railway Arches off Chalk Farm Road and became a corresponding member of the Phonetic Society. No doubt the considerable practice I obtained in copying leaders in newspapers etc made up in some part for the short lived school period. My father gave me an excellent impetus to the study of Euclid. I asked him once what was the good of it ? When he replied "It will teach you to think better. For instance it will make you play a better game of chess." No further inducement was required, and under his tuition I devoted many evenings to mathematics etc. As I had to be at the office at Camden on alternative weeks at 6 o’clock in the morning I generally went to bed about 9 and was often up and on top of Primrose Hill to see the sun rise before going on to work. Thus I became accustomed to early hours and per contra disinclined for the late hours of society life which, despite all the inducements during 21 years of my official life, has never had any attractions for me.

After I had been at Camden for some three years, my brother Lowes wrote home from Queensland suggesting that I should go and join him there, as the outlook for young men was so much better than in England. This resulted is my resigning my position as cashier in the Inquiry Office, preparatory to my departure. It was during the interval between resigning and leaving England that my father earnestly endeavoured to induce me to take up art and gave me no little instruction in landscape drawing and painting. But I could do little more than become a copyist in consequence of my eyesight and it was hopeless for me to think of making it my serious work in life and, accordingly, I went out to Australia and became an accountant etc.