Wednesday, 22 July 2015

My Grandfather. My hero.

This is another of my slightly left-field posts. Perhaps because I've recently been re-reading sections of my family's "Log" from our holiday cottage and have therefore been reunited with my grandfather's handwriting. Perhaps because I've been irked at work by opportunities that have passed me by. Either way, my mind has wandered to my grandfather, and to just what an extraordinary, accomplished, brilliant man he was.

My grandfather (KWP) was born in 1907 to a working class family in a small village in Derbyshire. When he reached an age where he could go to secondary school, there were only two available to him in Derbyshire. Presumably there were more than two schools, but none that would offer a free education.

KWP's parents wanted him to leave school and go to work, to help support his family. However, his headmaster managed to persuade them that they boy had potential and to let him continue with his education. It does his parents great credit that they agreed to give him a chance. Even then, it wasn't exactly an easy matter - he had a six mile walk across the fields to school every day, and six miles home again. He remained proud, to the very end of his life, that he undertook this walk every day come rain or shine. It's hard to imagine having that level of dedication to the simple act of getting to and from school every day. KWP certainly made sure his grandchildren knew how much harder it had been for him if we dared complain about school!

I don't know how it came about, whether his headmaster again encouraged him or whether he made the decision entirely himself, but at the end of school he applied to university. He was offered a place at Emmanuel College, Cambridge but in the end couldn't afford to take up the offer. Instead, he took up a place to read Chemistry at Nottingham University, much closer to home. From my perspective this was a sound choice, for it was during University Rag Week that he met my grandmother, who had just graduated with a first in Geography and her teacher training certificate simultaneously. (The extraordinary women in my family are going to be the subject of another post. I wouldn't diminish their achievements by making only passing remark to them here.)

At University, KWP turned into one of those people we all know, who seem to be good at everything. He captained the University cricket team as a fast bowler and in one match took all 10 wickets. He also broke 11 stumps in the course of his bowling career there. With his friends he also, after the style of Gilbert and Sullivan, wrote a "Chemic Opera" - a comic opera on the theme of Dr Faust based in a Chemistry lab. He wrote the words, and his friends wrote the music. GrannyBear still owns the libretto to the opera, and we rather hope that her cousin owns the sheet music still. As it turned out, one of the the music-writing friends became GrannyBear's uncle by marriage, when he married my grandmother's sister. [Endearing aside here: One University holiday, KWP was invited to stay with his future in-laws, as my grandmother's beau, and he took his friend with him. My grandmother's sister's response on meeting said friend? "Isn’t he lovely, thank you KWP". Reader, she married him].

On top of all that, and cross-country running, and writing poetry, KWP graduated with a first in Chemistry. At that point he was offered a place on Notts County Cricket team. Sadly, in that era all players had to be amateurs and, not being a gentleman of independent means, he couldn’t afford it.

Instead he went on to undertake a PhD on silicon polymer chemistry under Frederick Kipping. From all accounts it wasn't a completely happy period, with a certain amount of friction between KWP and his supervisor. They did publish one paper together (J. Chem. Soc., 1930, 1020) but eventually KWP decided that he wanted to marry my grandmother, and being unable to support himself and a wife without a proper job, he left his PhD to start work as an industrial chemist for Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd (ICI). And he spread his wings and flew...

... During the war he set up the first nylon plant in Huddersfield to manufacture parachutes when the Allies had no access to silk from the Far East. (We have a rather unusual presentation gift from "The Works" in the shape of three industrial chemical vats, which contain samples of some original polymer.)

... After the war he, my grandmother, GrannyBear (12) and AuntBear (10) moved to New York where he became Managing Director of ICI New York.

... He became managing director of the heavy organic chemicals division of ICI.

... He was awarded an honorary ChemEng for his work with ICI. 

... He was quoted in the House of Commons by his MP, and appears to have been rather ahead of his time in 1964. Among the things he said were:

"I would also like to see some redistribution of Government departments away from London, and Tees-side take something from" [the over-concentration there]
"I would like to see a new university on Tees-side preferably a special institution for scientific and technological education and research of very special character."
Fifty years ago, my grandfather was trying to encourage investment into the north-east, and the de-centralisation of government. Fifty years on and nothing much has changed.

My grandfather, the working class boy who was to have left school at 11 but took a first in Chemistry instead. The young man who couldn't afford to go to the University of his dreams. The young man who couldn't afford to become a first class cricketer. The young man who couldn't afford to marry the love of his life and complete his PhD, so chose love. The young man who went on to become a captain of industry, who never let life hold him back, who championed the cause of the working man all his life, who painted in oils, who wrote poetry, who solved cryptic crosswords without filling the answers in, who could beat any one of us at cards as he counted the deck, who hybridized and named his own roses, who wrote stories for his grandchildren, who invented a dragon that lived in his wardrobe and had adventures with his grand-daughter. His woodworking left a bit to be desired, but you can't have everything can you?

My tragedy is two-fold - he was already 67 when I was born and died when I was 15 so I had little chance to know him, and I lost the last years of his life to Alzheimer's, so just when I began to consider my own path through life and would have loved to have heard more about his path, he was lost to me.

KWP, you gave me so much, and I love and miss you.

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