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William Joseph Dibdin 1850 – 1925
Chemist, Engineer and Entrepreneur 
in an historical context

Taken from  The Life and Times of the Dibdin - Aglio Family

Full autobiography 

 

Although in the 1840's and 1850's his father appears to be sufficiently well off to be living in the centre of town or in leafy Banstead, it seems that later in the 1860's money was not so available. William Joseph refers to having to leave school at 14 years old because his father could not afford for him to stay on and tried to teach him to be an artist. He had capability but because of his poor sight which could not in the 1860's be economically corrected, he could only manage to paint copies of his father's work. Thomas Colman Dibdin had a total of 12 children.

From WJDibdin's autobiography 

“On the removal of our family from Banstead to London, Kentish Town, I went for 12 months to a school in Fortess Terrace but, when at 14 years of age, I had the opportunity of obtaining a clerkship with the London and North Western Railway at Camden Station and knowing that my father had a hard task to keep a large family going I asked to be allowed to accept it.

Much against his wish my father consented and I went one day to the office and on asking what time I was expected to be there on the next day, was staggered to be met with the question " Oh! I suppose you can be here at five o’clock", I meekly answered "Yes Sir" and was there the next day at five am. And so ended my school days and I entered on my life’s work.”

At this time the family was living in Kilburn which at the time would have been just on the edge of the built up area of London. See Map of London 1882

At that time the family was probably living at 53 Belsize Road which runs along the London and North Western Railway (LNWR) to Camden town station and on to the old Broad Street Station next to Liverpool Street.

Coincidently this was part of the North London Line or informally the Broad Street line that ran from Richmond Station to Broad Street and was used from time to time by the author to get to the city of London or to get the mainline train to School from Liverpool Street to Standon on one of the many branch lines that existed in the 1950’s.

It may have been that William travelled across to Camden Town station by train or he may have had to walk the two or so miles. This may have been his first encounter with the more difficult side of life in London 

Again from WJDibdin's autobiography 

“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.”

Life was such that William at the age of nearly 17 years old was driven to emigrate to Australia and he spent about 7 years there until he was 24 and his mother wrote to him saying that his father was missing him.

There is no mention of Marian Aglio in relation to returning from Australia but there is every reason to believe that she may have presented a pull back to England.

The Flying Cloud – the ship on which William sailed to Australia

The journey took 3 months, the first week of which was spent sailing from London to the Isle of Wight and the last week waiting outside Brisbane for a storm to settle.

In 1874 William return to England and re-entered London life with no qualifications but an entrepreneurial attitude and a growing interest in chemistry, through his encounter with photography. It is to be remembered that his father’s friend Augustine Aglio whose daughter, Marian, he must have fancied, had worked in the photography world some few years before.

In 1878 he married Marian and over the years she had a total of 10 children, one girl, Sophia, died at birth and one boy, Gus, died at of cancer at the age of 24.

Marian Dibdin nee Aglio

From the distant past there is a romantic anecdote relating to the courtship between William and Marian. Not only do we have the written story of him teasing her at twelve years old with her cat but there is a suggestion that his return to England was coupled with Marian, not just the letter from his mother that his father was missing him as his autobiography suggests. The story or myth suggests that Marian may have been about to got out to Australia to be with William and that they nearly missed one another because of the reversed journey which would have taken 3 months each way

Once back in England, it seems that William quickly talked his way into a job; family anecdote has it that he was asked on a tramcar by a fellow passenger what he know about soap and having stated confidently that he knew all about it, he read up about the subject enough to get a job and we have on record that by 1881 he was living with his family at Shepherd’s bush and working as an analytical chemist.

This story is not quite in line with the details in William’s autobiography but it does reflect his approach to work at the time:

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 brother’s [ 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 Dibdin’s ability and aptitude for practical work in a chemical laboratory.

J.Alfred Wanklyn

Note that again the centre of professional life seems to be in Fitzrovia.

It was through this process that William Joseph Dibdin started a career with the London County Council.

Much of his work surrounded issues relating to sewage and the purity of the water of the Thames. We are reminded that in 1854 Dr John Snow had the water pump hand removed from the water supply from the Broad Street Pump as he suspected that it was a source of cholera. It was later found that the supply was contaminated with sewage. In 1870 Bazellgette developed the major sewage systems in London including the complete modification to the Westminster Embankment which was to contain a new road, a main sewer and an underground railway, somewhat narrowing the river Thames.

A view of the new London Embankment after Bazzelgette had built, on the North bank, a sewer and train tunnel alongside the Thames, so narrowing the river, with a road on the top, between Westminster and Blackfriars.

Deepening a Sewer in Fleet Street. 1845

We are considering the "Victorian Era" and poverty was rife in London and although there is little reference to it amongst the family archives, one or two comments in William Joseph Dibdin's autobiography ring through ones memory. Particularly his reporting on the occasion he visited the Crossness Southern sewage Outfall across Plumstead Marshes, with a  Mr Ward, a stern old lawyer, distributing picture cards to children of workmen on the site. He referred to the situation as being worthy of Dickens.

Included in his writings are insights into the battles he had over the quality of the gas supply in the city and the corruption that he fought within the LCC.

For insights into the life of William Joseph Dibdin, growing up and working in Victorian London and as a leading member of the London County Council Engineering Department, do read WJDibdin's autobiography 

Dibdin in his laboratory at the
 London County Council

William lived with his wife and family in Shepherds Bush until 1883 when he and the family moved to 18 Union Road  Tufnell Park for a couple of years before moving to 112 Grange Road Sutton.

 

 

There does not currently seem to be a Union Road, Carleton Road, in Tufnell Park however in 1883-5 a Photographic Co. James Russell did occupy premise at 29 Union Road over that period.

 

Travel from Shepherd’s Bush to Central London was probably on the Metropolitan line which was the first “Underground line” built in 1864 but the connection to his office either in central Londn or later at County Hall south of the River was not available via the Bakerloo line or Northern line until after1906. There is a possibility that he travelled by horse driven tramcar.

 

The double deck horse trams used in London from 1870, when the first routes were opened, were twice the size of standard horse buses. This was because it was much easier for two horses to pull a heavy vehicle running on smooth iron rails than on a rough, uneven road service. Early horse trams could carry 46 passengers, 24 inside and 22 on the knifeboard seat outside.

 When living at Tufnell Park William would have been able to travel on the Midland line into St Pancras from Kentish Town Station and from Sutton and later homes in South London he would have been well catered for by the growing number of Railway companies.

At least by travelling by train he would have missed some of the traffic jams of the time

 

Ludgate Hill 1870

 

 William Josesh Dibdin worked for the London County Council until he was 47 years old in 1897 and then became so disillusioned by the battles against the corruption around him that he left and went freelance as an Analytical and Consulting Chemist.

While at LCC  he spent much time not only fighting the local gas companies to force them to improve the quality of their gas but also fighting vested interests within the Council itself. Time and again he was up against the so called expert advice of  “Qualified Scientists and Experts” and in one instance had to prove carefully and conclusively that a fresh supply water pipeline from Wales to London was not really necessary.

He was pleased also to win the battle over the most suitable chemical to help clean up the Thames at the Outfalls near Deptford.

His autobiography devotes one whole chapter to the battle of corruption within the LCC.

His expertise was not just limited to Chemical Science as he was interested in all aspects and so was involved in the testing and measurement relating to Electric and Gas Lighting.

In the winter of 1882-83 the great Exhibition of Gas and Electricity was held at the Crystal Palace where Siemens demonstrated the transmission of power by electricity. In conjunction with Prof. William Fisher of Middlesex Hospital, I was requested by the Committee of Management to undertake a series of tests of the respective values of different exhibits as to their merits for the development and distribution of lighting power. This work we carried out at the works of the South Metropolitan Gas Company, Old Kent Road during the early months of 1883, the results being presented in the form of a report which was published in the transactions of the Gas Institute for 1883. The various burners etc. to be tested were sent to those works where the company fitted up a special testing room for the purpose.

Prof. Fisher and I worked there nightly three or four times a week for nearly three months the work having to be done in the evenings, in consequence from other occupations during the day. I don’t think I ever worked harder than at that time. Official routine at Spring Gardens 9.00 – 5.00 with special investigations in connection with the Inquiry on the River Thames by the Royal Commission, General analyses and committee work; supervising 20 Gas Testing Stations and 3 Gas Meter Testing Stations, employing in all and staff of about 60 inspectors assistants etc.

Then to the South Metropolitan Gas Works and then home to Tufnell Park, right across London by the old slow methods of travelling and on arrival often having to take up some private work.”

William’s reference to the “old slow methods of travelling” is interesting as it emphasises how he had lived through an era of enormous change in modes of transport. During his lifetime trains became fully developed and spread over the whole country. Later he would have seen the introduction of the motor car and may well have seen his son Lionel own one.

 At the turn of the century, at the end of the “Victorian Era” he would have seen the spread of Electric Trams throughout London and in fact only five years before his death, Croydon Aerodrome opened in 1920 with passage flights to Paris and Amsterdam.

It was only eight years after his death that his son and daughter in law died in the first major plane crash over Belgium.

Lionel and Cecily Dibdin leaving
 from Croydon Aerodrome 1933

 

William’s scientific and engineering interest was such that he wrote books on Gas and Electricity, Photometry and Building Construction. 

 

We never fully understand what impact historical events have on our lives and how different they would be in another era but it is interesting to note that William Dibdin was conscious of the possible different way that his life would have been had lenses for astigmatism been available to him in his youth as they were later in life.

When 14 he turned down the choice of being trained as an artist by his father because he could not see clearly enough and it seems that there were no lenses readily available at that time with correction for astigmatism, although they had been invented in 1825. William would have possibly been a capable artist and there is reference to examples of his close work, but because of the limitations with his sight and because he disliked the social side of Railway life he went to Australia for a while. His experience there led him into the field of chemistry and practical engineering.

Over his life he moved house round London a number of times, settling in Shepherd’s Bush, Tufnell Park and then to the South London – Surrey area. Mayfield in Grange Road seems to have been fairly large but the house, Purleybury,  that the family moved to in 1909 was huge with extensive grounds. Here his son, Gus looked after poultry, but sadly they only stayed for a couple of years. Gus died in 1909 and it was about this time that his doctor told William to stop gardening and take up golf. It is not clear were he lived after this except that in 1916, during the First World War, he and Marian were writing from Chelton House, Burdon Lane, Sutton.

During the war in 1917 the family moved to 31 Idminston Road, probably rented accommodation, and the feeling was that the house would just about do, offering some space for a laboratory.

Both he and his wife and son lived here until their deaths in 1925 and 1928..

 

 

During the war he was expected to work on munitions in Manchester but the work not only bored him, presumably because of the repetitive nature but also he got ill because of the working conditions. The fact that three of their sons were at war as well as numerous other family members seriously worried both William and Marian. During the war he was still working on his sewage process and went on one occasion to sort out a problem with Lord Knutsford, near Manchester, who had a Dibdin installation. He sent his regards to Lionel on the front.

Lord Knutsford was Sidney Holland who was the Chairman of The London Hospital in Whitechapel between 1896 and 1931 and did much to keep the hospital viable and yet serving the poor in the early part of the century.

From being the rather “nervous young boy with a tendency to isolation” William Joseph Dibdin became a well loved and respected member of society. He, when young had joined the temperance movement and while in Australia had taken on any number of jobs and activities.

 

Taken from Eulogy by J.H.Coste, a colleague

“Types of mind and character are apt to recur in families. William Joseph Dibdin had much in common with his great-grandfather, Charles, who wrote:

"Go patter to lubbers and swabs) do you see,
'Bout danger and fear and the like.
A tight-water boat and good sea room give me,
And it a'nt to a little I'll strike.
Though the tempest top gallant mast smack smooth should smite,
And shiver each splinter of wood,
Clear the deck, stow the yards, and house everything tight,
And under reefed foresail we’ll. scud.
Avast! I nor don't think me a milksop so soft
To be taken for trifles aback;
For they say there's a-providence sits up aloft
To keep watch for the life of poor Jack!"

These lines, I think, express very fairly W. J. Dibdin's philosophy of life. An ardent, brave, untiring man, he was too straightforward to study diplomacy, and was, without being aggressive, a fighter .

I first met him in 1894, and the first question he put to me was about Frankland's carbon and nitrogen process, in the value of which he believed to his dying day. I satisfied him and was chosen to work in the old laboratory at Craven Street. He at once impressed one as of a genial disposition, with a hearty and, sometimes, dominant manner which, one realised later, was the expression of a kind heart moved by sincere and compelling convictions. Moreover, however unconventional his chemistry seemed, he always had a clear idea as to what he wanted to find out, a keen eye for a likely road to pursue; and a readiness to adopt any hopeful means to an end.

The tendency many of us suffer from, to let learnedness obscure the real point at issue, never showed itself in Dibdin. He was at his best in attacking a technical rather than a theoretical problem. Whether the moral desire to meet some pressing need or the real love of investigation predominated I cannot say, but both motives were present in a marked degree, and inspired him to unwearying effort.

He was an enthusiastic experimenter, clever at designing apparatus and methods. One may mention the ten candle pentane argand, the radial photo-meter, the micro-filter, and a very good mercury pump for extracting the gases dissolved in water. A keen and able microscopist, his old staff remember with joy how, by an adroit touch of the cover glass, he convinced a rather highly qualified medical microscopist that a supposed desmid was nothing more than an air bubble……..”

For more see his autobiography

Although never academically qualified in the traditional sense and always up against those elite that were, he died a highly respected member of the chemical and engineering world.

Like many of the family he was not well off in his later years.