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

Section 3

Early Chemical Work and Official Life

Chapter 1

My arrival in England in March 1874, after a long beat up channel against Easterly winds and landing at Blackwall on snow covered ground, was indeed a change from tropical Queensland. Now commenced the search for work. I soon found that this was not as so easy to get, but nothing daunted I accepted a suggestion by my brotherís [ George Michael Dibdin ] father-in-law Mr.B.W.Fase to collect outstanding accounts for him and others. This I did for a short time, when was offered a travelling agency for a firm of axle makers at Wednesbury. [Between Wolverhampton and West Bromich]

I was young and jumped at anything which promised good business. After scouring London and the neighbourhood for some 50 miles round, I got together a fair amount of business, so much to the satisfaction of the firm that when I finally took up chemistry in earnest as a living, they made me a present of an additional cheque equal to the amount of that which I had earned in recognition of the many new introductions I had gained for them.

While engaged in these occupations, admittedly of a temporary character, my Father earnestly endeavoured to induce me to take up art and follow in his footsteps. I did my best, but as before, my eyesight was against me. How could I draw objects which were all blurred to my vision. One day my brother-in-law, Montague gave me an introduction to a Mr Lloyd, of the London Water Purifying Company, in the Strand near Somerset House. They wanted a general assistant in business who could make analyses of water. My experience, so far as it went, in photographic chemistry warranted my stating that I was willing to qualify myself for this work in particular my general business experience would enable me to do the rest. My suggestion was accepted and I accordingly went to Prof. J.Alfred Wanklyn who then had his laboratory at 117 Charlotte St Fitroy Square and was in the Zenith of his reputation. After a months work I received the following certificate from him:

Laboratory, 117 Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square

London W

13 April 1976

I certify the Mr William J. Dibdin has attended a course of practical chemistry in my laboratory and that he is able to make water-analyses. I entertain a high opinion of Mr Dibdinís ability and aptitude for practical work in a chemical laboratory.

J.Alfred Wanklyn

It will be readily understood that is those days water analysis had not reached the high state of accuracy and precision now attainable, but I certainly should not have received such a certificate of I had not prepared myself by preliminary work and when the chance came, threw my whole energies into it not only with a view to business but with a real love for the work. I shall ever remember the peculiar feeling of solemn awe which I experienced at first entering on work in a real laboratory; true it was not a very grand affair as laboratories go, but it was my first experience of the kind and a wholly happy one.

Armed with this document I took up the appointment at the modest salary of two pounds a week and had the joy of fitting up a laboratory for water analysis and although the allotted room was small, I made it a palace of delight for myself.

Now fully entered on my lifeís path I followed it keenly. Of course, I soon found my way to the Chemical classes at the Birkbeck Institute and worked in the evenings at home. At this time I was blessed with the friendship of a family Medical Adviser, Mr Senior M.R.C.S. etc who was a keen Microscopist and took great pleasure in advising and instructing me. Together we used to search the ponds of Hampstead and Highgate and bring home samples for examination on Sunday afternoons. He lent me books and even his microscope until I got a small one of my own and used to send me specimens for dissection Ė one day bringing in the top joint of a boys finger which he had first removed ! Under his direction I dissected a Bullís eye Ė With such a friend how could I help being somewhat of an enthusiast in my work. Together we went though Tyndallís Lectures on Frictional Electricity and he introduced me to the mysteries of Geology and Astronomy and made me dip into Botany. [ John Tyndall wrote a number of books on science including "Lessons in Electricity at he Royal Institution 1875-6" and a book on Faraday and "Six Lectures on Light" ].

In fact without my knowing it he took me through the complete University Course, so much so that when I later found myself in touch other professional men, I found my way made smooth by the kindly teaching of this dear friend.

After being with the Water Purifying Company for over twelve months where I learnt all the mysteries of water filtration etc. I left in consequence of the overbearing manner of the Secretary and started a private laboratory in a room in my fatherís house at 53 Belsize Road St. Johnís Wood. There I carried out special researches on new filtering materials, water analysis and general chemistry and earned a lean living. It was at this time that I examined for Messrs. Atkins, the filter makers of Fleet Street, a new filter material then called "Carferal" [ a Silicate Carbon Filter ] which in an active form became know as "Porous Carbon" and later as "Polarite".

Kimmeridge Shale also came in for a share of my attention in connection with which I had my first adverse business experience with City Speculations. I was to have received a fee of fifty guineas for a thorough investigation of Kimmeridge Shale with a view to the utilisation of the coke resulting from its distillation as a substitute for animal charcoal. I put in nearly three months work and then took my preliminary report by appointment to my client. He was pleased with it and was just about to write me a cheque for the first { part } of my fee when there came a knock on the office door. He asked me to excuse him for a moment, went to the door and went out and I never saw him again or the cheque either! As this was a few days before Christmas and I had recently become engaged it will easily be imagined what my feelings were!

In the Autumn of 1877, my kind friend and mentor, Mr Senior advised me to add to the stock of my experience that in connection with gas analyses testing by going to Mr J.M.Keates, the Consulting Chemist, Superintendent Gas Examiner to the Metropolitan Board of Works for a course of instruction, as he had no doubt I could get work in that connection. Accordingly I wrote to that gentleman and subsequently arranged to undergo a course of tuition in that branch of chemistry. After some preliminary personal instruction he arranged for me to attend at the Camden Street Gas Testing Station in the Evenings, and there learn under Mr. Greenwood, one of the official Gas Examiners under the Board, the whole art and mystery of Gas Testing under the Regulations of the Metropolitan Gas Referees. This I did with alacrity and greatly enjoyed the new experience. In addition to this I also went to Dalston Gas Testing Station where Mr Keatesí private assistant Mr.H. Leicester Greville was the Gas Examiner. Under such auspices it is not surprising that I was soon proficient in the work, and coupled with the experience in general gas analysis in Mr Keates laboratory, I found myself armed with another weapon and added the magic word "Gas" to "Water" in my repertoire.

In December 1877 a Temporary vacancy occurred at the Ladbroke Grove Gas Testing Station and on the 21st December the Metropolitan Board of Works appointed me for one month as "Gas Examiner" at that Station. As this work had to be done in the evening, at my own convenience, it left me free for my other work and I now began to feel that I had got my foot on the ladder at last. This appointment was continued for a further period and on the 1st March 1878 the Board made the appointment permanent.

About this time the condition of the River Thames in consequence on the discharge into it of the London Sewage, was subject of no little controversy in consequence of a report which had been made by Capt. Calver R.N. to the Corporation of the City of London on the state of the River. This report was referred by the Metropolitan Board of Works to the Engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Consulting Chemist Mr.Keates for report.

Certain other engineering and chemical experts were called in, Dr. Dupre in particular.

As a large number of samples of the River water had to be analysed extra assistance in the laboratory was necessary and I had the great gratification of being invited by Mr.Keates to undertake the work as a temporary chemical assistant under the Board.

This meant attendance in the laboratory at Spring Gardens from 9 to 5, Gas testing at Ladbroke Grove in the evening, and my own private work, which was too good to resign, in my own laboratory at St. Johnís Wood, at night and early morning.

But it was worth it. My income began to warrant me thinking the time might come when marriage would be permissible and every extra bit of work was only a stepping stone.

It was in connection with this River work that I first gained my introduction to Dr.Dupre and I shall ever remember the kindness with which he invariably treated such a minor member of the profession as I had then a right to consider myself.

It was in the spring of 1878 that I devoted my first really spare cash to the purchase of my microscope, a binocular stand, which Mr Hugh Powell of Messrs. Powell and Lealand, approved and supplied me with a battery of lenses etc. Hitherto all my microscopical work had been done with borrowed instruments and I joyfully embraced the opportunity of obtaining a real good instrument with first class lenses "for my very own".

With various improvements to the stage, sub-stage, fine adjustments etc. and a set of apoduomatic Lenses and condensers, this is the instrument I have used ever since and with which I have done some good micro-photography, such as the photographs of the Bacillus Typhosus of which Professor Darling of University College was kind enough to write that "it is the finest example of micro-photography he has seen."

The work in connection with the Thames inquiry in reply to Capt. Calvers report was not long completed before a great change took place. Mr Grenville, Mr Keates assistant, was offered the post of Chemist to the Commercial Gas Company and on his accepting the position, Mr Keates offered me the vacant position as his private assistant. This, it is hardly necessary to say, I accepted at once although the salary 30/- per week was small., but in view of the position etc. I considered it well worth taking, especially as he consented to my continuing my private work at home in addition to my official post as Gas Examiner.

In view of this definite position and prospects marriage was faced with confidence and on the 5th September 1878 my wife and I started for a happy honeymoon on the River Thames between Reading and Pangbourne, where we lived in a boat for the first week and enjoyed glorious weather Ė On return I commenced my new duties at Spring Gardens as Mr Keates private assistant.

At few weeks soon brought further work on the River Thames in consequence to the disaster of the "Princess Alice", when a large number of pleasure seekers lost their lives. The statement was freely made that in consequence of the state of the river water large numbers were "poisoned before they had time to be drowned". The Board immediately ordered a special investigation and, as Keatesí assistant, I was busy for a time in making analyses of the river water, particularly taken at the site of the disaster at a corresponding time of the tide : low water. When Mr Keatesí report was presented, in which it was clearly shown that the statement was un**** { unverified } by the facts, the Board decided to view the site and on the 9th November 1878, went as a committee of the Board, on board a steamer and arrived of the Beckton Gas Works were the accident took place. By Mr. Keates instruction, I was present, and it was my duty to hand round samples of water taken from time to time as we proceeded down the river, to members for their inspection. When the site was reached and the crucial sample, which must have corresponded as close as possible to that in which the accident occurred, was under inspection one of the members of the Board, Mr Robert Jones, who also was chairman of the Commercial Gas Company, loudly exclaimed that it was all very well looking at the sample, but half a pint of it would kill anyone and said "I will give Five Pounds to anyone who will drink half a pint of it". This struck me as such a direct challenge to my work in making the analysis under Keates direction., that I immediately replied "Iíll take you Sir". The members present exclaimed. "here you are, Jones, Hereís your man." I then turned to the steward asked him for a glass, on receiving it, I filled it with the sample from the jar I was holding, and said "Five Pounds if I drink this, Sir". Jones could not call off and wishing him good health I drank it off and he immediately paid up, having to borrow a couple of sovereigns from members to make up the amount. The incident found its way with the "Globe" who remarked "If this gentleman lives he will be heard of later" In August 1915 this incident was referred to in the "LCC Staff Gazette" copy of which is attached.

Following this came the big arbitration between the Corporation of the City of London and the Metropolitan Board of Works on the cause of the formation of certain mud-banks in the Thames. The City sought to put the expense of removing these on the board in view of the contention that they were caused by the discharge of the London Sewage. On the side of the City, Dr. Edward Frankland and Dr. Meynott Tidy were retained and on the side of the Board, Sir J.Abel, Dr. Odling, Dr Dupre, Dr.Voelcker, Dr Sorby and well as eminent engineers of both sides. The investigations were most exhaustive and I gained an immense amount of experience on all sides of the question, as in my position as Keatesí confidential assistant all the chemical and other evidence passed through my hands, in addition to my own share of the work. After a lengthy arbitration the decision was given definitely in favour of the Boardís contention that the banks were formed naturally in the River and not by any influence of the sewage discharge. Not content with this result, the City then formulated a complaint to the effect that the discharge of the sewage was a nuisance and danger to health, and a Royal Commission was appointed to investigate the whole question. This bought about a further lengthy inquiry in the course of which, before the evidence could be formulated Mr Keates died, on 7th May 1882. On the next day, Monday I reported the circumstance to the Board and asked for instructions in regard to the duties of the Department which I had, informally, being discharging during Mr Keatesí illness for over a month, it being remembered that I was not an officer of the Board other than in regard to my Gas Testing in the evening. The Board thereupon appointed me to carry on the duties.

This resolution placed me in the position of head of the Chemical and Gas Department for the time being as it was agreed that I knew the work, had been doing it and in regard to the Royal Commission Inquiry, the Board already had retained such eminent men as Abel, Dupre Sorly etc.

The first official work in this connection was to prepare a statement of the condition or stage at which the investigations for the preparation of evidence to be given on behalf of the Board before the Royal Commission and I was requested by Sir Joseph Bazalgette and Mr Ward, the solicitor to the Board, to undertake this duty. I accordingly drew up a detailed account of the progress of the work, with analytical results and this was printed and submitted to a conference of experts and officials with the result that it met with entire approval and I was requested to continue the work on the lines I had indicated as necessary to complete the chain of evidence. This naturally greatly strengthened my position so much so that when the chemical evidence was commenced before the Commission I had to open it and bear the first brunt of the opposition. I was followed by Frederick Abel and others. The conclusion of the Commission was in great part in favour of the Boards contention, but in favour of further inquiry.

The Board, in 1882 appointed me a "Chemical Assistant on the Staff of the Board", relieved me of the position of Gas Examiner and instructed me to supervise the whole of the Gas Testing Operations; and to Superintend the Gas Meter Inspections, this virtually installing me in the position of Chemist and Superintendent Gas Examiner which full title was later accorded to me after my evidence before the Royal Commission.

Up to this period, in addition to the Sewage of the River work, I was actively engaged with Mr Keates in connection with the experimental work relating to the installation of the Jablochoff System of the Electrical Lighting of the Thames embankment and at one time had serious thoughts of devoting myself to electricity, but the charms of chemistry had too strong a hold upon me. I also was concerned with the question of the treatment of Cleopatraís Needle erected on the Thames embankment to protect it from the influences of the English climate.

Mr Keates also held the position of Chemist to Messrs Joynsonís Paper Manufacturing at St. Maryís Cray and to the Scinde Valley and P****** Railway, both of which appointments were given to me on his death as by the terms of my appointment with the Board I was not precluded from private work in my own time.

I thus had a wide experience in general chemical technology. Amongst other work I made many analyses of Cements for Mr John Grant, one of the Engineers for the Board, whose researches on the strength of cement gained him a world-wide reputation. As my various experience have been on so many different lines, such as sewage, River work Gas, Photometry, Lime Cement, Water Supply etc I propose dealing with my experiences in regard to each under separate headings as otherwise if followed chronologically they will become so involved as to make it difficult to recite and still more to follow.

Having carried the story up to the point of my appointment by the Board and the first part of the Inquiry by the Royal Commission I will continue that side of my lifeís history by reciting the essential features of my work in connection with the purification of the Thames; and the subsequent investigations on sewage purification culminating in the general adoption of the system known as "Contact"" Beds and their latest development, the "Slate" Beds and then proceed to deal with the other subjects in their turn, perusing that the various investigations and inquiries were often running together. For some years in succession, the greater part of the summer months were more fully occupied with the river sewage work and the winter months with work relating to photometry and the standards of light, but this is only a very broad differentiation as the various descriptions of work ramified according to the urgent necessities as they arose.

These matters were actually additional to a great mass of official routine work on references by the various Committees of the Board, and later the London County Council which involved analyses of Foods and Drugs and General Stores for the Asylums, Fire Brigade, Works Department etc. Consultations with the various Chief Officers etc. etc., Investigations into the London Water Supply, giving evidence before Royal Commission, Parliamentary Committees and in the Law Courts.