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

SECTION 4  CHAPTER 1

  1. WATER ANALYSIS

As already stated my experience in water analysis commenced in 1876 when I underwent a course of instruction under Pro Wanklyn at that time considered one of the greatest authorities in this work and I commenced work as a Chemist to the London and General Water Filter Co in the Strand next door to Somerset House, where I stayed one year. I then fitted up a private Laboratory at Home in Belsize Road, St John’s Wood and obtained independent work, amongst others from the Atkins Filter Co, then in Fleet Street for whom I continued to make analyses for many years, and assisted them in working out their Water Softening process. When I went to Keates and he found that I was thoroughly up in this work he employed me officially on the Thames question when my experience in this branch of work became greatly extended, especially in view of the controversy between Frankland and Tidy on the one side for the Corporation and Abel Odling Dupre, Voelcker and Keates on the other for the Metropolitan Board of Works with the addition of Dr Sorby on the Microscopical side. Later when I succeeded Keates all the water analyses required by the Board from time to time in relation to Feed waters came into my hands so that when the great water controversy came on when the London County Council proposed to buy up the London Water Companies and substitute a supply from Wales in place of that from the Thames and Lee I was prepared for the heavy work which came upon the Chemical Department especially as in 1979 the Metropolitan Board of Works had made somewhat similar proposals and we had done a lot of preliminary work on the quality of the water supplied to London in connection with which I was specially retained as an extra assistant by the Board on the recommendation of Keates and I then established a reputation with Keates and Dupre for my Microscopical work as will be later referred to.

We had two bid inquiries on the Water supplied to London in consequence of a Royal Commission being appointed and I had to prepare evidence on the question for which purpose the London County Council instructed me to make daily analyses of the water from the Rivers Thames and Lee and their tributaries and also of the Filtered water supplied to London and that from the Kent Wells. For this purpose I had to engage an additional staff of fourteen assistants and organise the system of collection of the samples. Additional expert evidence was also retained, viz Pro Klein of the Westminster Hospital, Bacteriologist to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, also Dr Dupre and Dr Thomas Stevenson of Guys Hospital and Dr Frankland. Thus armed with a complete chemical and Bacteriological staff of assistants and colleagues we went to work and a more exhaustive investigation of the whole question could not be conceived especially as at the same time the Medical Officer of Health to the Council was instructed to retain three independent Medical Officers of Health, viz Dr Ashby of Reading, Dr George Turner of and who made independent examination of the Sanitary condition of the localities from which the waters were collected so as to ascertain if any and what sources of pollution existed in their respective areas. The whole of the information so obtained was given in evidence before Lord Balfour of Burleigh’s Royal Commission with the ultimate result that their decision was in favour of the quality of the existing supply.

Not satisfied with this defeat the Council decided to go to Parliament for powers to buy up the Companies and to substitute an alternative supply from the gathering grounds in Wales. For the purpose of sampling the water so proposed I was instructed by the Water Committee to personally go to Wales with an assistant and collect samples and examine them. This was accordingly done and I had one of the hardest tasks to get it finished in time for the Committee, but when the report went in it was kept back for some months although I had been strongly requested to start off the same evening as the day of request. I travelled all night arriving at Brecon by the first train in the morning. The trip lasted about a week, during which time we were travelling early and late through the mountain Districts, sampling Rivers and Lakes and sending the bottles off from Station to Station as we collected them for the Chemical analyses to be made at the Laboratory at headquarters in Craven Street Strand "putting down" any Bacterial cultures on the spot as controls on those made in the Laboratory. The results of these check tests were very satisfactory and showed that there was no occasion for carrying about a portable Bacteriological Laboratory as we had done.

I had often wondered why I had been sent off in a hurry and later came to the conclusion that word had been received that the Rivers were in the very pink of condition after the Country had been thoroughly flushed out by the Winter rains. The month was in May and everything in the pink of condition, with the result that the Welsh water naturally showed up most favourably in comparison with the London filtered supply taken over the whole year. In drawing up my final report on the whole question I pointed this out, with the further fact that if the London waters were softened they would be to all intents and purposes as good as the proposed Welsh waters. Of course this gave great offence to the political party who wanted to get the London Water supply into their hands and it was actually suggested that the "Chemist" should be made a subordinate Officer of the Engineer and that all the Chemical Reports should go through the Engineers hands! This extraordinary proposal showed how strong was the feeling on the subject and to what lengths those interested were prepared to go in order to attain their object which was not only the control of the Water supply of London with this consequent power over all the Labour and other interests involved but the expenditure of about £80,000,000 sterling in buying up the existing Companies and substituting the Welsh water for the existing sources. The expenditure of about £50,000,000 on new works was too tempting a bait for all the interests involved and the consequent rage of those who no doubt looked for some pretty pickings, found vent in trying to smother "The Chemist" who dated to tell the truth and whose Report clearly indicated that the whole scheme was unnecessary and a monstrous injustice to the rate payers of the Metropolis.

Later, the formation of the Water Board and their most elaborate investigations clearly showed the absurdity of the scheme and completely justified the conclusions at which I arrived.

Now, after twenty years have passed by I can look back and feel grateful that I had the wisdom to see the truth and the strength of character to state it in unmistakable terms.

It was in connection with this work that I devised the little instrument known as the "Micro-filter" by means of which the suspended contents, however small, in even the purest waters can be collected, estimated and examined under the Microscope, thereby placing water analysis on a far more sound and satisfactory character than had hither to been the case. The utter ignorance in regard to this point which formerly prevailed amongst some of our best Chemists was well illustrated in 1876 when I asked Prof Wanklyn whether Microscopical examination was not of value in determining the nature of the pollution, when he replied, most emphatically, - "Not the slightest – Not the slightest whatever." It must be said for him that at that time we did not know how to collect the extraordinarily fine matters in the water and if we could get them had but very indifferent knowledge of their indications and therefore Chemistry was almost entirely relied upon to afford the desired criteria.

After my retirement from the London County Council I had ample opportunities of extending my experience of Water Analysis as it was not very long before I was retained by a Corporation to make systematic examinations of the four sources of supply. Shortly after this a District Water Company retained me to make monthly analyses of the water supplies. In addition a very good practice arose in this class of work and samples came at various times from nearly all parts of the world. One of the latest investigations was made at the Isle of Man for the Board of Control of the Home Office. The interned Germans there had made complaint to the American Ambassador that the Water supply was bad. I was then asked to visit and report which I did and found that the whole trouble arose from the use of a new water pipe which had been treated by a non-rusting process with the result that for a few days the water had a peculiar taste. This soon passed off and all was well again. I nevertheless had a most interesting visit and almost fancied that I was again amongst the Welsh hills looking at the proposed source of supply for London, so like was the character of the gathering ground.

I had a very narrow escape from anticipating Koch’s invention of the gelatine plate culture method for estimating and separating Bacteria which has so greatly advanced the science of Bacteriology. I was making some examinations of gelatine in 1882 for Messrs Joynson, the Paper Manufacturers, and thought that it might be of interest to observe the behaviour of growths of different moulds upon the gelatine when it had been dissolved and allowed to "set" in which porcelain basins and kept at Laboratory temperatures for some time. I had, therefore, about a dozen such cultures growing freely but unfortunately at that time Keates died, and as I had to take his place as head of the Department, as previously explained, my whole time was taken up with strictly official duties and I had to abandon everything else.

It was at this time that I was so tied day and night that I had to give up my one recreation, volunteering, to my great regret.