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

Section 9

Men I have met

In the course of my official experiences I have met many varied characters in connection with both the London County Council and its predecessor the Metropolitan Board of Works. The one who naturally first comes into my mind is Lord Magheramorne, formerly Sir James McGarel-Hogg, who was for 18 years Chairman of the Board.

[ Sir James MacNaghten McGarel-Hogg KCB, 2nd Baronet, (1823-90) was created 1st Baron Magheramorne in 1887. He was the son of Rt Hon Sir James Weir Hogg Bt. James MacNaghten McGarel-Hogg was baptised with the name of James MacNaghten Hogg and he succeeded to the Hogg Baronetcy. On 8 February, 1877, his name was legally changed to James MacNaghten McGarel-Hogg by Royal Licence. ]

He was a stern disciplinarian but at the same time a most kindly and just man. He was Chairman during the whole of my period of office with the board and during that time I never heard a word from anyone of the staff but in praise of his manner of exercising his function as Chairman and Chief of the Staff. Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the Chief Engineer to the Board, was always very kind and considerate to me in the early days after Keates’ death and I had to suddenly take charge of the chemical part of the Inquiry on the Thames question and afterwards when we had to carry out and design the new process for treating the whole of the Sewage of London. He was said to be a "tartar" in his way, but I had nothing but cordial co-operation from him throughout.

[ Joseph Bazalgette was born in London on 28 March 1819. His father was a captain in the Royal Navy. Bazalgette began his career as a railway engineer, gaining considerable experience in land drainage and reclamation. In 1842 he set up in private practice. As chief engineer to London's metropolitan board of works in the mid-19th century, Bazalgette had a significant impact both on London's appearance and, through his design of an efficient sewage system, on the health of its inhabitants. ]

I well remember coming up the River one day, after a visit by water , to the Outfalls with him. We were passing along his great work the Thames Embankment and he was looking at it with a kindly affectionate interest. It was just when the busy busy of the mob talk of the greedy aspirants to office who afterwards came in as "The London County Council" was at its full. I could not help remarking to Joseph "Well Sir Joseph, they may say what they like, but there is something by which you will always be remembered". The remark seemed to be grateful to him and he turned round as if with a sigh of relief, as if to say, "yes you are right."

Mr Reginald Ward, the solicitor to the Board, was a well known man and a curious mixture of elderly bachelor of the most kindly instincts and a hard working official.

On one occasion in the course of a discussion at the Board, one Member said " Mr Ward is a perfect cormorant for work. "At that time when great discussions were on about the proposed process for treating the London Sewage and we were working on experiments at Crossness. Mr Ward asked me if there was any difficulty in seeing something of them as he would like to do so. I told him to mention his own time and I would go to the works with him and explain them fully. Accordingly he went. The works were situated on the banks of the River and it was necessary to walk about two miles across the Plumstead Marshes to reach them from the Railway Station. When we were almost half way and absolutely no one in sight or hearing Mr Ward amused me by saying "Now that we are with out any witnesses, I should like you to give me your opinion about these experiments. Do you really think the process will answer the purpose"

I thought this was the perfection of legal caution, to get away from "witnesses" and to ask what he could as easily have done any time anywhere. However I soon convinced him. When going round the works we met some of the children of the workmen who lived on the sight in homes built by the Board and dear old Reginald, who was a big bulky ponderous sort of man, pulled out of his pockets some picture cards which he distributed. The contrast between the stern old lawyer, whose staff looked up to him with awe, and the kindly old boy giving pictures to children was worthy of Dickens.

One of the most remarkable men I knew was Prof. Tyndall, who was one of the Gas Referees.

[ John Tyndall FRS (2 August 1820 – 4 December 1893) was a prominent 19th century physicist. His initial scientific fame arose in the 1850s from his study of diamagnetism. Later he studied thermal radiation, and produced a number of discoveries about processes in the atmosphere. Tyndall published seventeen books, which brought state-of-the-art 19th century experimental physics to a wider audience. From 1853 to 1887 he was professor of physics at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, where he became the successor to positions held by Michael Faraday. ]

He was generally a silent man who would listen attentively and then come out with a shrewd question direct to the point. He always gave one the impression that it would dangerous to try to "bluff" him. I have related the incident of the photometer at Tooley Street Gas Testing Station and his evident pleasure with the simple experiment which I made with a newspaper to demonstrate my method of obtaining a steady flame in the photometer. At the time the electric light was first introduced for public lighting in London in 1883, a Bill was before the committee of Parliament to regulate certain matters, and Professor Tyndall was invited to open the question by giving the Committee an introductory Lecture on electricity, as at that time very little was known to the general public about it, although the experts thought they did. In the words of my Chief Keates, Tyndall practically commenced by saying "In the year one …." which was a common phrase at that time taken from the comic opera in which the Mayor of a provincial town persistently intercepted a Royal Visitor in order to read to him a petition commencing with the phrase "In the year one .." and who was as often impatiently told to "shut up". There is nothing in the story except that it throws a sidelight on the men and times of which I write.

Amongst Engineers perhaps Sir Frederick Bramwell stands out most prominently.

[ Sir Frederick J Bramwell (1818-1903)
Sir Frederick J Bramwell was born in London in 1818.
In 1834 he was apprenticed to John Hague, a mechanical engineer, and after his apprenticeship had ended, spent some years there as chief draughtsman and manager. He was particularly interested in the vacuum system for distributing power, and was so impressed with its potential that he, along with a fellow apprentice, worked out a proposal for a Subterranean Atmospheric Railway between Hyde Park Corner and Bank.
He worked for some time at the Fairfield Railway Carriage Works at Bow, and was also involved with the development of the motor car. In 1881, at a meeting of the British Association, he predicted that, by 1931, the steam-engine would only be seen in museums as an interesting relic of a past age, having been superseded by the internal-combustion engine. He made his name as a scientific witness, testifying in matters connected with engineering or patent litigation. He also acted as an Arbitrator.
He was also President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1884. He died in 1903. ]

He was one of the most genial of men certainly as witty as any. After he had been made a Fellow of the Royal Society a client called upon him with reference to the amount of fees charged by Sir Frederick in a certain case. When Sir Frederick printed the letters ‘F.R.S’ after his name, " Yes" said the client "of course I quite understand and congratulate you upon the honour conferred upon you "No no" said Sir Frederick "you see they mean ‘Fees Raised Sincc’ ".

Sir Frederick’s brother, Lord Bramwell, the eminent judge was also another wit. The story had gone round about the three liars – viz. ‘The Liar’, ‘The ---- Liar’ and ‘The Expert Witness’. "Yes" said Lord Bramwell, "and there’s my brother Fred; Sir Frederick being one of the most Expert Witnesses of the day.

Sir Charles Hawksley was another well known Engineer who made his name and fortune as a Parliamentary Witness.

[ Charles Hawksley (1839-1917) was a British civil engineer. [1] Hawksley was born in Nottingham, England in 1839 and was the son of civil engineer Thomas Hawksley. [2] He studied at University College London and after graduating entered into apprenticeship with his father's firm, which had been established in 1852 and specialised in water related projects. ]

On one occasion Counsel confronted him with some evidence on a similar point, but which was directly contrary to that just given "what have you to say to that Sir Charles" severely asked Counsel " Well" came the answer " I can only say that I know more now than I knew then !"

Of members of the Parliamentary Bar whom I have met, amongst whom I may mention Pope, Bidder, Michael Pentier, Little and many others of the old school, I really think the most clear headed and quickest to see a mechanical point was Balfour Brown who seemed to have the power of grasping the essence of an intricate case more cleanly and rapidly than any of the Counsel I have known.

One of the most remarkable men I have met was Dr Sorby the eminent Microscopist. He was retained by the Metropolitan Board of Works in connection with the Thames Inquiry and, in order to carry out his investigation with that thoroughness for which he was justly celebrated, he moored his yacht on the River at Erith for three weeks during which he took samples of the tidal flow day and night, besides having other samples which I had collected for him from other parts of the River etc. As a result he prepared a most valuable and interesting report, bringing out most novel and convincing evidence. He was not a little proud and pleased with his results ands all agog to discuss the matter fully. A few days before the Inquiry opened, Bidder our leading Counsel, held a consultation at his chambers to which all the witnesses were invited and it was understood that there would be a sort of full dress rehearsal. Sorby came up especially form Sheffield and went with me to Counsel Chambers. He was in a state of suppressed excitement bursting over with the details of his investigations and ready to set them out for the full instruction of the legal mind. When we had all met, Bidder commenced a recital of his speech in opening the case, dealing fully with the Engineering features then the chemical, meteorological, geological etc until after about an hour of this Sorby sitting on thorns all the time, he turned towards Dr. Sorby and said, casually "and then there are some interesting microscopical results which Dr Sorby has obtained which will no doubt be very useful".

As we walked away from the consultation poor Sorby was almost ready to cry with disappointment and vexation. It was too bad. All his energy, work and success to be thrown away and cast aside with a few casual words. But he had his revenge. His report was printed in full and added to the knowledge of the world. This story is human but illustrative of what frequently happens when the enthusiastic expert strikes a new feature utterly beyond the comprehension on Counsel whose mind is full of law precedents.