Chapter 9: Clouds Loom Over England

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by Dr. Sydney Ellerton

It was wonderful to see the folks again and to greet Lilian. It had been a nine months’ absence, an academic year. Lilian had by now got a job which she really liked, teaching at a grammar school at Lydney in Gloucestershire, just on the edge of the lovely Forest of Dean. There she got a proper rate of pay and normal day-school hours, much better than the private school in Uxbridge. She liked the place too, so close to the forest. In August, though, she was on holiday and we could have time together.

The England to which I had returned was not without problems. The Great Depression was still casting its shadow and the other shadow was that of a little spell-binder with a black moustache, who had been sabre-rattling in Germany for quite a long time and who was now getting really troublesome. There had been the ‘Anschluss’ with Austria, really an annexation and now it was the turn of Bohemia and Moravia, the predominantly German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia. Britain was quite unprepared for anything as serious as this. Quite soon the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, was off to Germany to do a deal with Hitler, and he was to come back, brandishing his umbrella and declaring that it was “peace in our time”. Whether he was utterly credulous about all this is not certain, but a year’s reprieve from war certainly gave us more time for preparation. Possibly ‘appeasement’ was a military necessity.

For me it was a return to Cambridge, to tie up some loose ends of the wheat work and look for a job. University funds were tight and jobs were not easy. The Association of Scientific Workers was finding it necessary to campaign against an institute in Edinburgh, which was advertising a job for a graduate at £150 a year. Such jobs as were around in Cambridge were supposed to have a starting rate of £300, but Prof. Engledow unofficially made room for one more recruit by reducing it to £250. That was where I came in, but not in the Plant Breeding Institute, where there was no vacancy at all.

There existed at the time a group of ‘Imperial Agricultural Bureaux’, dotted around British universities and research institutes and responsible for publishing a series of abstract journals. They were funded largely by the various countries of the Empire, large and small. They still exist, but no longer do we talk of the old imperial days and they are now the Commonwealth Bureaux. The Imperial Bureau of Plant Breeding and Genetics (what a grand title!) was housed in a few rooms in the School of Agriculture in Cambridge and it was there that I joined the staff.

The bureau director was Dr P.S. Hudson (‘Pen’), a remarkable linguist, always bustling about and being very ‘arty’. He had a hobby of piano playing and this he did at concert standard. His idea of a long summer break was to go to some distant place on a foreign freighter, practising the language, whatever it might be, with the crew. He spoke pretty well all the European languages fluently and was good not only in Russian, but in Ukrainian too. When anybody turned up in Cambridge with a communication problem, they would be funnelled along to Pen’s room. Since that was next to mine, with a partition wall between, I could hear most of the conversation in whatever language it might be. Welsh beat him, though, and he admitted that Estonian was also absent from his repertoire.

Then there was Miss Wilson, thin, pale, diffident, with a pinched kind of a face. Very polite, very quiet, dressed in sober browns and greys and dealing with some of the languages, Dutch, for instance. She used to come to me to ask the meaning of some of the scientific technicalities in the papers. Pen did not have this problem. His Ph.D. was in science and the development of his extraordinary skill with languages had been another of his hobbies. Some work was ‘farmed out’. Most of the German was done by Mrs Ingham, though of course it could have been done internally. She lived at the Grantchester end of town. Japanese and other very exotic languages were always farmed out, though the Japanese were contributing very little to the scientific literature at that time. I did the English, by far the greater part in mere volume but also the easiest, and occasional foreign-language papers. I remember a couple of occasions when I was saddled with a Romanian paper when Pen was away. Being a largely Latin-based language, it was possible to guess a lot, and the technical terms are much the same in all languages. The numerical tables helped a lot too and, after all, an abstract was only an abstract and much of it had to be missed out any way!

There was a secretarial staff under the formidable and well-named Miss Stearn, a roundish lady of about 40, with a florid face and an air of bustling efficiency which at times tended to bossiness. Of course there was no such thing as word processing or a computerised database. The Dewey Index was used for classification. All the titles were typed out on 5″ x 3″ index cards, cross-indexed according to author and the Dewey numbers.

This was far from my idea of a perfect job, and I would have hated it as a career, but it did mean that for a couple of years I was closely in touch with all the plant breeding literature world-wide and that was very useful afterwards. On the other hand it taught me how few were the scientific papers which really broke new ground, and how many were ‘pot­boilers’, often slightly altered presentations of work which had already appeared in another journal.

During these months at the Bureau I finished my thesis, had it typed by Miss Stearn, and submitted it. In due course I was called for an oral examination. This was a strange experience. As always, there were two examiners. One was Herbert Hunter, and the external examiner was Sir Rowland Biffen, a Cambridge man but technically external because he was now retired, or ’emeritus’. The questions came. Quite soon it became apparent that Hunter did not have the slightest idea what the cytological part of my thesis was about and he asked the odd question which was embarrassing to answer in such a way as not to show him up in front of Biffen. Biffen, however, in spite of his seventy or so years, had a brain as sharp as a knife. He put a certain finger on all the weak parts of my thesis and asked searching questions about them. He was almost too good.

After a due lapse of time I proceeded with other candidates for higher degrees, to the Senate House for the ceremony. There was a separate procession from each college. My little group passed through the college Gate of Honour, as John Kees had intended, clad in new academic dress, my gown with facings of scarlet silk and worn over it a black hood also lined with scarlet. We were walking two-by-two behind one of the college fellows who was called the praelector rhetoricus. His duty was to introduce us with a little Latin speech. Mother, father, Lilian’s mother and Lilian herself, proudly tagged along to the ceremony.

The war looked increasingly inevitable in spite of Chamberlain’s trip to Germany. It began to look closer when we had to turn up at the local school to pick up our civilian gas masks. I joined up with the Civil Defence Organisation, first of all called the ‘A.R.P.’ (Air Raid Precautions) and among many other things we had anti-gas training, using service gas masks this time. Praise be, the training was never needed. The gases were said to have characteristic smells and one, phosgene, smelt like geraniums, or so they said. Like most things, this had its funny side. After war broke out and I was at a defence post in Cambridge, one of my colleagues came rushing in, scarily reporting a gas attack. A look outside soon calmed things down. The post, on the edge of Sidney Sussex College playing field, was surrounded by a flower bed, mostly of geraniums.

Lilian and I were at long last able to plan our marriage, no less than seven years after we had first met. First of all, there was the question of a house. The estate agents’ lists were very different from what we find today. On the list of one firm, January’s, there were a hundred or so properties up for rent. We chose our favourite district, picked the houses at the top of the range which we felt we could afford, and the final choice was made on such a trivial thing as the colour of the interior paintwork. We ended up with a semi-detached house on a new estate just off Huntingdon Road. It was called Woodlark Road. Then we went around choosing furniture, to be delivered at the beginning of September, mostly from London stores. Years afterwards we wished we had chosen differently, but we felt at the time that we should be modern, and choose contemporary designs. There was a great deal of most attractive antique furniture available at the time, at much the same price, because antiques and fine workmanship did not seem to be appreciated as much as they are today. Later, when we were wiser and realised the mistake, we got around to calling the new designs contemptuous rather than contemporary.

One weekend during the summer Lilian was to come down and revisit the house we were renting, with a view to making detailed plans. She was in Lydney and Hugh Jones, a friend from Bangor days who had moved to Cardiff, was to pick her up on his way by and bring her to Cambridge. I waited and waited, but who should finally turn up at the door but a rather ponderous policeman. He told me that there had been a road accident and that Lilian was in hospital in Bedford, but that it did not seem too serious. She was badly shaken and concussed, with cuts and bruises and a broken nose. It appeared that Hugh, in his Austin Seven, had decided to assault a telegraph pole by means of a head-on collision. He had come off almost unscathed, but Lilian had been thrown forward against the windscreen. There were no such things as seat belts in those days. I forthwith went to see her, of course, but she did not even know me. In a day or so she was much improved but she had minor after-effects of the accident for the rest of her life. I used to tease her by saying that her re-made nose was a great improvement on the original.

There was another big event for me in August. Every ten years there had been an International Genetics Congress, a prestigious affair which drew people from all over the world. This year it was to take place in Edinburgh. I was put on the organising sub-committee and was given time off from the Bureau for the occasion. It meant a number of preliminary meetings in London, especially with Julian Huxley, with whom I lunched in the famous Athenaeum Club. In Edinburgh I was assigned, for the first time in my life, a personal car with driver. The driver was the daughter of Prof. Hogben, the well-known mathematician of Mathematics for the Million fame. She was pretty, but I was not supposed to notice that sort of thing just prior to my marriage!

The Congress was quite a problem from the organisational point of view. It was apparent that war was just round the corner and delegates disappeared in groups, day by day. The Russians never even came, and the Italians and Germans were recalled in the middle of the proceedings. Individuals from other countries also decided that discretion was the better part of valour. So each morning our little committee used to meet over breakfast, to see who was left and to re-shape the published programme accordingly. The conference went remarkably smoothly in spite of this. One little interlude for me was to go to Edinburgh Zoo with Julian Huxley. There is a substance, PTG (phenylthiocarbamide), which tastes sweet to some human beings, bitter to others and is tasteless to a third group, the different responses being hereditary. Huxley and I went around the zoo administering a solution of this to all the primates and then watching their expressions. He was above all interested in evolution, and wanted to see whether the same taste diversity was to be found in our cousins. It was. Some of the animals screwed up their faces and spat it out, some asked for more, and others just didn’t care.

At the end of the meeting people dispersed, mostly back home, but some Americans nonchalantly set out on a Scandinavian tour. The sad case was that of a young American couple, who had combined the meeting with a honeymoon, and returned on the 13,500-ton Donaldson liner Athenia. This was the first liner to be sunk by U-boats in World War II – on September 3rd 1939, the very day war broke out – and they both lost their lives. So did a great many London schoolchildren, who were being evacuated to a place of safety in Canada.

We were married in Barmouth on September 12th 1939, in the English Congregational chapel, which Lilian’s father had helped to set up, so that the visitors from over the border would be able to worship in their own language. It would have been so much more logical for the existing Congregational chapel to have services in Welsh at certain times and in English at others, but that was not the way it was. My best man, Leighton Yates, and I had travelled to Barmouth the day before on that wonderfully scenic railway which went through Llangollen, Bala and Dolgellau, and as tradition demanded we stayed at a hotel in Barmouth rather than at Lilian’s house. Next morning we duly presented ourselves at the chapel in good time, Moss Bros suits, hats, buttonholes and all.

Lilian had more difficulty. Her mother had hired a car from a local garage and the driver, known as Gibby John, was just a bit eccentric. He had collected Lilian, decided that she looked too nice for the sight of her to be wasted, and took her on a tour all round Barmouth, hooting the horn of his ribbon-bedecked car, before getting to the chapel. Luckily, Barmouth is not all that big, and she was only slightly late. She looked a dream in her embroidered, satin gown and I felt so very, very lucky.

The reception was in a restaurant in town and then we had planned to be leaving for our honeymoon in France. War had broken out just nine days before and we had heard Neville Chamberlain giving his ominous speech on the radio. The trip to Brittany which we had booked, like all other trips to the continent, had been cancelled, so we stayed overnight in Chester. Even that was a bit ominous, for from our room we heard the sound of marching feet, as an army unit headed for the station on the way to the war.

We went to Cambridge the next day, to our new home. That was a great feeling too, but again it was not as we had visualised. Most of our furniture was to be delivered in good time from London, but all the transport had been commandeered for the previous couple of weeks, carrying sandbags to protect important buildings and working on other similar tasks. So we got to a home with carpets laid, a piano, a gas stove and nothing else in the kitchen and a mattress and bedding on the floor in a bedroom. In the circumstances, the latter was deeply appreciated! We had friends living just down the road, Bill and Nest Price (Bill’s parents had been misguided enough to give him the initials W .C., so he was sometimes called ‘Flush’). They lent us kitchen chairs and we used an upturned tea chest as a table. We entertained friends Beth and Arthur and Beth’s parents while we were still in that condition, but in the end everything sorted itself out and all was well.

We were not prepared for what followed. The Nazi’s propaganda machine had been telling us for ages of the limitless might of the Luftwaffe and we all knew the term Blitzkrieg and its implications. We were expecting to be bombed forthwith. Going down to the centre of Cambridge, we wondered how much longer the college buildings would be left standing. Nobody had anticipated the ‘phony war’, which lasted through the autumn, winter and spring. In King’s College Chapel, the enormous, stained glass windows which covered most of the walls had been taken out, piece by piece, many thousands of numbered bits, and stored well below ground in a slate quarry in North Wales. It must have been the biggest jigsaw puzzle of all time. The gaps left behind had been filled with sheets of plywood, with small, plain glass inserts to let in some light. Particular treasures of other kinds had been safeguarded too. Nothing happened, though, and month after quiet month went by and we were in the summer of 1940, warm, sunny and beautiful. The war was now no longer phony, for the Battle of Britain had started and the odds against us were formidable.

A little problem occurred during the winter of 1939 to 1940. Lilian did not feel too well one day and after we had tried to shrug it off by a brisk walk in the snow, things looked worse rather than better. She had gone down with measles and I did my not very good best as a home nurse. Before long, her mother turned up to take charge and I was immensely grateful. Lilian managed to get a swollen face from a dental abscess at the same time. ‘Polly’ Carter, the congregational minister, turned up one day to meet my new wife, spotty and feverish and with a swollen face. Afterwards, when she was well, he never recognised her, at least not for a long time. She did not look at all like the person he had first met.

Meanwhile there had been a ridiculous panic in Whitehall. At least the panic was understandable, but the proposed solution was ridiculous. During the first world war we had run very short of sugar because of the German submarine blockade. Such shortage was a new experience, for sugar had always come in very cheaply from the West Indies, Mauritius and elsewhere, all red bits on the world map. After this it had been thought prudent to subsidise the building of a series of seventeen beet sugar factories in England and one in Scotland, mostly put up in 1924 and 1925. Now, therefore, we were supposed to have had a degree of independence of supply, but the whole thing had been badly bungled. We had continued to buy our seed from continental Europe, from Germany (most of it), Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Czechoslovakia and France. So now we had an industry, founded for strategic reasons in case of another war, and no seed to sow, at least when present stocks ran out. When I was a research student with Watkins around 1936, he had spotted this problem and had written to point it out to the Ministry of Agriculture. They had replied after a long pause, to the effect that, as long as these foreign countries were willing to supply us with seed at the prevailing price, all was well and nothing needed to be done. Now, in 1940, it had at last been realised that this was not such a good argument and the panic meetings ensued. It makes you think about our rulers, does it not?

It became even more absurd, for the official reaction was to start breeding sugar beet. It is a biennial and from a nucleus of selected plants it is necessary to think of at least eight years, probably twelve, before anything in commercial quantity could possibly be expected. It was going to be a very long war, it would appear. Prof. Engledow was at these meetings and he was deputed to look for a breeder. None was available, at least none with real experience, but he must have remembered that he had sent me off to America with an instruction to study the breeding of cross-fertilised plants. Maybe he even remembered that I had mentioned sugar beet in my report. So he sent for me, and I found myself with the task of setting up a new section within the Cambridge Plant Breeding Institute. My qualification was that while I knew very little indeed about the subject, nobody else who was available knew even that.

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