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

Section 7


Having been brought up in the country, I have always been accustomed to plenty of outdoor exercise. At School I developed my jumping powers so when I went to Australia I could clear nearly 5 ft. When I went from Rockhampton to Copperfield I found that my reputation had preceded me and within a few days of my arrival I was challenged by a local athlete to a trail jump which he won by an inch.

My cricket was of course very indifferent in consequence of my defective eyesight, but with the aid of spectacles I nevertheless enjoyed the game. On one occasion in a match at Rockhampton I went in "last man" just as dusk was falling , but there was a bright moon. In this half light I was able to see better than most with the result that I "collared" the bowling and was knocking up a good score, getting runs off every ball, when the bowler refused to go on as he could not see, so "I carried my bat" having saved the game for my side.

I had no chance of boating in England but at Rockhampton I lived for some time on the bank of the River Fitzroy. There I used to go down to the boathouse before 6am., get out a boat and go for a row, following this with a swim and then home to breakfast well prepared for the hottest day. We often used to take a boat on a Saturday and spend the weekend camping out down the River, fishing and shooting, and thus I kept in good healthy condition and suffered no ill effects from the climate in any way, especially as I was teetotaller. The must amazing experience in fish catching I ever had was one evening when we went up Crocodile Creek, near Rockhampton. There was a party of 4 men and a lady. The tide was at the full springs and the water calm. Fish were leaping out of the water in twos and threes and the lady remarked " I wish one would jump into the boat". Hardly had she uttered the words before one leapt right against. We immediately secured it and then the game commenced. Some thirty or forty fish, each about 20 inches long, I forget their name, a sort of salmon trout, jumped into the boat and many out again before we could secure them. Nevertheless we got about twenty and carried them home in great triumph. Hearing of our success another party, of whom I was one, went to the same spot again at full tide that night in the hope that a similar success would be obtained, but although we made a fire in a frying pan to attract them, on the Chinese fishermanís plan, not a single fish was seen.

On another holiday trip up the River to Sandy Point we lost a rowlock overboard. I volunteered to dive for it as I knew that the bed of the river was all clean sand. As I was groping on the bed of the stream, feeling for the rowlock, which I fortunately secured, I suddenly remembered that a large alligator had recently been seen there. It may easily be imagined that no time was lost in rising to the surface and getting on board again. Almost a fortnight later the alligator was shot at that point.

I had a good deal of horse riding in Australia and was comfortable in the saddle. My longest ride was from Copperfield to Rockhampton, about 200 miles, which I did in 5 days on one horse and after a weeks rest, I rode back again on the same horse and leading another back for a friend, riding the two alternately.

Kangaroo hunting gave me the best practice in riding but I found it risky in consequence of my horse, who was keen, trying to dodge the trees to closely, so that I often had to suddenly throw my leg on to the saddle to prevent collision.

It is astonishing how a knowing horse will follow the chase and in the bush one has to "ware" [beware] branches, fallen timbers hidden in the long grass; but it is good practice, nevertheless.

Volunteering was, perhaps, my special pleasure. I first joined the Corps in Rockhampton, where I served five years and gained the Government Grant of a £20 Land Order with which I took up a plot of Land, but too far away from the town to be of any use to me. On my return to England I joined the Queens Westminster Volunteers in which I served ten years, and only gave it up when I became too busy with my official duties and positively had no time to attend the drills.

The medal for fifteen years service which was afterwards given, had not then been notified otherwise I should have made a special exertion to have "stuck it" the last years and so have had this as an heirloom.

As already stated I gained my marksmanís badge each year. If my eyesight had then been corrected for astigmatism, I believe that I should have made my mark with the rifle. On one occasion I walked smartly from St Johnís Wood to Wormwood Scrubs to take part in a Company competition and arrived just as the firing squad was finishing. I was allowed to fire my seven rounds which I did as fast as possible and made six "bulls" and one "inner". Not so bad under the circumstances.

At Rockhampton, I took great interest in the Fire Brigade and rose from Firemen, to Captain of the Engine and then Superintendent of the Brigade. The biggest fire we had to deal with was that at a large (for Rockhampton in those days) corner store. I was then Superintendent. The fire broke out at night and raged until late on the following morning. I will remember standing closely watching the progress of the fore and my preparations for pulling down the adjoining building. I had the "Hook and Ladder" men already stationed with their hooks in position and the attached ropes in the hands of the men ready for my order to go ahead. The Mayor, Police Superintendent, Town Surveyor and others where all standing by me urging me to give the order. I said, however, that at the moment we had the measure of the fire and thought I saw my way to get it under without incurring unnecessary destruction of further property. I therefore waited, with the result that I was right and we conquered. As all the buildings were of wood it will be readily understood that it was a close squeak. I mention the point mainly to show how a knowledge of oneís strict attention to details and a steady head are useful against unskilled excitement and haste. We were greatly complimented and the newspapers rightly gave us the credit of having saved the whole of that side of the street, which undoubtedly would have been involved if it had not been for our work. At that time I was only 21 years of age.

Gardening has always been a matter of course with me from my early days, as already shown.

When I went to Rockhampton I gained experience in tropical vegetation in my brotherís gardens. He once took a house with a two acre garden which had been used as a market garden and was well stocked with bananas, citrons, limes, pineapples etc. and after that he took another similar one at Rockhampton with numerous Orange trees. On my return to England, I had further experience in English Gardening at "Mayfield" Sutton and at "Purleybury" which had an old fashioned one acre walled in Kitchen Garden which had been neglected for years. Here most of the fruit trees were more like forest trees which had not born fruit for years and I was advised to root them up and plant fresh. Instead of that, I pruned them something more than freely and well manured the ground, with the result that splendid crops were obtained.

When at Purleybury, I was strongly advised by my Doctor to take up Golf as I was feeling too stiff for the stooping necessitated by gardening. I therefore joined the Purley Downs Golf Club and as soon as I had conquered the preliminaries, greatly enjoyed the game but found it a hard task at 59 years of age to learn new tricks. Nevertheless I persevered and, on our removal to St Johnís Wood, I joined the Harrow Club where I had some good games. The change was amusing in one way. At Purleybury, I was naturally a duffer amongst strong players but I had gained such experience that when I went to Harrow I found many of the men looking upon me as a "swell" at the game ! On moving to Putney, I joined Wimbledon Town Club. I seldom could sufficient practice and became that "bete noir", a "twenty man" of whom it has been said that one never knows where to have him, as sometimes he will play like a professional and at another time "not at all". Now I am a member of the West Norwood Golf Club with a handicap of 16.

Another recreation I took up was the Lathe. I first took to this to employ me in the winter evenings and found fine exercise in roughing down a big chunk of box wood. I found subsequently that a knowledge of turning was extremely useful in designing experimental apparatus.

Astronomy I have already mentioned in connection with my telescope which was given to me as a Telford Premium by the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1887. I was sorry that I could not give as much time as I should have liked, as it was impossible to work both day and night, especially as my illness from blood poisoning intervened and prevented my doing all that I intended, although I finished the work I undertook.

Microscopy of course gained a good deal of my attention. Apart from its use in my work, I loved it for its own sake and have improved my microscope until it is now quite one of the best as already recited.

Perhaps the principal hobby I have had is photography. This I first took up in Copperfield and later more particularly at Mayfield, where I did a great deal with it.

Subsequently experience in this direction was excluded so as to embrace Micro-photography in which I scored a distinct success with the photograph on the Bacilillus on Typhoid Fever.

I sent a copy of this photograph, magnified ten thousand diameters to Prof. Starling of the London University Gower Street who in acknowledging it said "it was the finest example of micro-photography I have ever seen" ( as already stated).

In Consequence of the trouble I found when taking up the dry plate work, in regard to exposure, I bought a gross of plates [ 144 ] on one occasion and set to work to test them on every variety of subjects, light and lens, and then tabulated the results from which I worked out my exposure tables.

On showing this to the editor of a Photographic Paper he was so pleased with the system that he places it before a firm of publishers who undertook to place it on the market. After some time, not hearing from them, I called and was then informed that they had been threatened by a man who was running an opposition affair, that if they published my tables we would take all his advertisements out of their papers. They offered to give me the copies of the tables which they had prepared and a sum of £5 to cancel the arrangement. I assented to this as in my official position I could do nothing. I afterwards sold the copyright to a firm of plate makers, who put it on the market, but soon afterwards withdrew it, probably for similar reasons.

As soon as I published my tables various copies in one form or other were brought out and there was great competition. I was told an amusing story respecting the various merits. On one occasion an amateur photographer was arguing with a friend on the respective merits of exposure tables when one of them said "Its no use your talking, I have the best of them all." At last one said "Which is yours." The reply was "Dibdinís" "Why " said the other "thatís mine". The fact is, I ought to have had sufficient capital to have beaten down opposition by sheer weight of advertising and then I should have reaped my reward. Anyway I had my fun and learnt something of the ways of men.