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





On the 5 September 1878 I married, as already stated. At first we resided with my Parents at Belsize Road, St Johnís Wood, but in December we took a house at Shepherds Bush in order to be near my Gas Testing Station at Ladbroke Grove where I had to make the tests in the Evening. In September 1882 we moved to "Mayfield" Grange Road, Sutton, which I took on a 21 years lease.

I had not resided there long before the Members of the Local Board found me out and trotted me one Sunday afternoon down to "just have a look at the Sewage Works." Well, I naturally was glad as a good townsman to do anything I could to help them, and as a result, in the end, they adopted the Bacterial System for the treatment of the sewage in place of Chemical treatment. My reward for all this was that I was later elected as a Member of the Local Board and, later, of the new Urban District Council, of which I became Chairman in due course. The Sutton Scientific Society elected me a President and I was Vice Chairman of the School Committee. Technically, I ought to have been Chairman as at that time I was the Chairman of the Board, but I waived that honour in favour of Mr one of the elected Members of the Committee and who was one of the Government Inspectors of Schools. Of course in virtue of my position as Chairman of Council I was ex officio a Justice of the Peace and had to attend the Court at Epsom weekly as well as very frequent local cases at Sutton as the Police found that they could get me for certain, my Official movements at that time being very regular. It was often funny to find a Policeman waiting for me at the Railway Station on my arrival from town and saluting me with the remark, "thought I should catch you by this train, Sir. I have about thirty papers we shall be glad if you can sign." What with meetings and visits to the Sewage Works I once worked out that I had walked about 2000 miles on Sutton Public affairs. Of course this is little compared with what others have done, but on the top of my other work I felt that I had done my share.

In *** I was elected President of the Institute of Sanitary Engineers, and in 1910 President of the Association of Managers of Sewage Disposal Works. Also a Vice-President of the Society of Public Analysts. I have twice served on the Council of the Institute of Chemistry and twice on the Committee of the London Section of the Society of Chemical Industry and had I been able to devote the time to a more regular attendance should in all possibility have been elected Chairman, but one cannot do everything. Amongst other positions I have filled are those of Sidesman to Christ Church, Sutton and All Saints, Finchley Road, St Johnís Wood. In Freemasonry I am a Past Master of the London County Council Lodge and of the Garden City Lodge and am now a holder of London Rank. In Australia I was a member of the Odd Fellows and attained the Rank of "Past Grand". As already mentioned I was a Son of Temperance and was also made an Orangeman.

From all this it will be seen that I have met many men of various grades in Society and have learnt to take a tolerant view of the idiosyncrasies of my neighbours and to trust that they will be equally lenient to me, for we all need it. At one time I became a member of the Constitutional Club but did not continue mainly because it was too great a temptation to "take it easy" in the Library after Lunch. Such luxuries were, I felt, not meant for a hard-working horse like me.

It was during my residence at Mayfield that I obtained the grant from the Royal Society to defray the expenses of an investigation as to the actual intensity of the light of the Stars. I built the Observatory myself, often being at work on it at five oíclock in the morning. My books on "Photometry" and "Public Lighting" were written there so my associations with "Mayfield" are not a few.

In September 1906, in consequence of the Lease at Mayfield having expired and the desire of one of my sons to start a Poultry Farm we moved to "Purley Bury" at Sanderstead. Here we lived for four years, or one year after his death when, as my wife was often alone in a big house by herself in consequence of the dispersal of the family by marriages & c, we moved to St Johnís Wood. Here we lived for our years during which time Marian and Rex married, when we moved to Putney, near my sisterís residence. Soon after this, Christine started a School at Belmont, near Sutton, and as she had to take a house larger than her requirement my Wife and I decided to live with her in the remainder of the premises, which were large enough. After three years the Superior Landlord discovered that it was not permitted to have a school on the Estate although the Landlord had let the house specifically for that purpose. As a result my daughter gave up the School and turned her attention to Secretarial work.

On the outbreak of the Great War the Government placed an embargo on expenditure by Local Government Authorities with the result that my private practice fell off to such an extent that it was not worth while keeping up the Laboratory at Westminster where I was along for nearly two years in consequence of my Sons having joined the Army. I accordingly moved the apparatus to the top floor of the house at Belmont, where I found that my working powers were doubled in consequence of the saving in time by not having the journey to London and back, and the fact that I could start any work before breakfast and continue it until late in the Evening, if necessary.

Going back to 1882, after the death of my chief Mr Keates, and my appointment as his successor, the big exhibition of Gas and electricity took place at the Crystal Palace in the winter of 1882 Ė 3 and I was appointed one of the Jurors. I was the better prepared for this as in the previous Winter I had given two courses of Lectures at the Sydenham College, one on Chemistry and one on Electricity. I took great care in the preparation of these and I had thoughts of publishing them in book form and have often felt regret that I did not do so as I found that many others in a similar position had, and I was conceited enough to think, and do so still, that my arrangement of the subjects, in view of my practical experience, was not without its merits, but one cannot do everything. The fact, however, that I had given such a lecture no doubt greatly helped me in obtaining the appointment at the Board, so that it was not altogether luck, as some seemed to think, but the result of downright hard slogging.

The list of Papers &c which I had read before Scientific Societies, numbers over fifty and copies of each of these are attached to this resume of my life so as to make it more complete. The curious may like to refer to a number of press cuttings which are amongst my papers in references to my public work, publications &c.

There is now little more left for me to say up to the present except to indulge in reminiscences which may or may not be of general interest. I have tried to avoid many points such as everyone who has been in the public eye can easily imagine but which are better dead and buried. I am now alive, well and hopeful and what more can one want?

Of the Chemists of the day I was closely associated with Sir Frederick Abel, Dr Odling, Dr Dupre, Dr Voelcker, all of whom were retrained by the Metropolitan Board of Works on the Thames question. We were opposed by Dr Edward, afterwards Sir Edward Frankland and Dr Meymott Tidy who were retrained by the Corporation of the City of London. Later Sir Henry Roscoe who, as already mentioned, we called in on the question of the use of Permanganate of Soda for the Deodorisation and played such a pitiful figure therein. With Prof. Alexander Williamson I was very intimate as he was one of the few, who in his capacity of Chief Gas Examiner saw clearly and appreciated my position in regard to the London Gas Supply, and who, as one of the Royal Commission on the Thames question, followed my action in that respect. I well remember one day meeting him in the Strand outside the Charing Cross Railway Station at the time when I was in the thick of the fight with the Gas Companies. He was desirous of strengthening my hands in regard to this question and was impressing upon me what he thought was the right course of action and to make his observations more impressive actually pinned me upon against the railings and was, in a friendly way, thumping me as he made his remarks in order to give them greater force. I could not help laughing at the time at the picture as it then presented itself to me, wondering what the passers by would be thinking of, seeing this stern old white-headed man vigorously thumping a younger one whilst he was talking vehemently to him and at the same time congratulating myself that he should think me worthy of such interest and the contrast between that moment and those when in Australia I longed for the sight of the Laboratory of this same World famous Chemist who, in his time, had been the controlling influence of the Royal Society and also, in the opinion of Dr Russell of Bartís Hospital just missed having the the greatest mind of the Century.

Dr Edward Frankland was one of the cutest men of business as well as one of the most clear sighted Chemists of his day. Once when we were discussing the results of some work on connection with the London Water supply he said, with regard to a debatable result, "Yes, but there is common sense as well as Chemistry" which showed that he was not a lone-idea man, but could take an all round view, a factor which is not at all too common.

Of Dr Dupre I could say much as I was very closely associated with him in many ways, official and otherwise. He was always very thorough and spared no pains to get a correct result. He had a very strong temper and would bully his Laboratory man one moment like a demon and the next humbly apologise. It was all the same to "John" who was as faithful as a dog and took it all in good part, knowing that the Doctor suffered from a painful internal complaint which made him irritable. Unfortunately he never got over a strong accent, so much so that many people could not follow him, especially if he got excited as he was sure to do it opposed. One day a mutual friend, Prof William Foster, of the Middlesex Hospital and who was a joint Examiner with Dupre in an Examination for Chemical Students, came to see me and incidentally mentioned that he had got Dupre into a towering passion by telling him that it was a pity that he had not learnt to speak properly. A few days afterwards Dupre told me that Foster was a nice Fellow but it was a pity that he could be so rude, and then repeated to me what Foster had said, adding "I told him" "but what about yourself" This little quarrel between two of the best men of the day, confided to me by both sides, struck me as being rather good as showing that even such great minds had their comment vulgar side, or rather I should say their human sides.

These are but a few of the types. Of course there were few of the prominent Chemists but what I came in touch with one way or another.

I saw a fair amount of Lord Avebury (Sir John Lubbock) who was at one time Chairman of the London County Council. He was always courteous and affable, but to see him going about his duties one would never guess that he had such a prominent name in the World of Science, Art, Literature and Politics. He never showed the slightest anxiety or appeared to press a point unduly or even so much as to care whether he carried it or not. Probably hence his strength. I well remember when Mr Rolls Hoare, one of the members of the first London County Council, Kindly invited some of the Members of the Main Drainage Committee to a trip in his Yacht in the Estuary of the Thames to inspect the process of discharging into the Sludge from the Sludge Boats into the Estuary and then for a weekís trip on the Yacht to inspect certain sites which had at various times been proposed as suitable for discharging the sewage of London direct into the sea. On the first two days the whole of the Committee came down to Port Victoria by train and amongst them Sir John Lubbock who was Chairman of the Council. I had arranged with our host to take a photograph of them in a group on the deck and they arranged themselves accordingly, when Mr John Burns, who was one of them, dragged a chair forward and planted himself in the foreground a little in advance of the Chairman. Such was the character of the man, to push to the front without a thought of the fitness of things. It was on this trip that I think the first notion of entering Parliament was put into the head of John Burns, as every evening on deck after dinner Arthur Arnold, another Member and afterwards Chairman of the Council, was closely locked arm in arm with Burns and urging on him the advantages of his putting himself up for the House. For all I know Burns might have entertained the idea long before but he distinctly had it rammed into him on this trip. I took Burns photograph in the Cabin. When I asked him if he would allow me to do so he readily assented with the remark "Thereís nothing like taking the opportunity."