Chapter 10: Sugar Beet Comes To Cambridge

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by Dr. Sydney Ellerton

So in 1940 it was goodbye to the Bureau, and a new challenge, sugar beet breeding. It was more than clear that starting such a scheme was no way to win the war, but if that was what they wanted I was delighted to oblige. The problem was how to start absolutely from scratch. The only source of material was the commercial crops growing in the fields. It was clearly possible to pick out large, well-shaped roots from a field, but size is only very partially genetic and indeed it is often largely a matter of chance. Roots next to a gap would be bigger, as would roots that had grown on the spot where a horse had stopped and added extra fertiliser! It had been shown long ago that the only way to find out whether any genetic merit was present was to grow selected plants for seed and test the progenies for yield. Indeed, the idea of a progeny test was first worked out on sugar beet, in France in the nineteenth century by Louis de Vilmorin. Now the concept is used throughout the whole range of plant and animal breeding.

As to the source crops, the most successful variety in recent trials in England had been Kleinwanzleben E from Germany. It was logical, therefore, to go into crops of that variety which, like all others at the time, was a broad-based population. There was just a chance that such a variety would throw up different types if grown in different environments. That way it might just be that a greater variety of superior types might be found. This idea had been put forward by the Swedish breeder Rasmussen and was behind his idea of starting to make selections in Britain in 1935. In the autumn, therefore, I made about 1,000 selections in each of several locations: south of Cambridge on the chalk, in the black fen, in the silt land at Swinefleet in north Lincolnshire just south of the Humber, in Fife, the only Scottish county with a sugar factory and in Shropshire. At Swinefleet there were a number of airfields around, from which the bombers droned away each night on their mission to Germany. In Fife there were detachments of the Polish army, escaped from Poland to continue the war. Many of the local Scottish girls acquired Polish surnames.

The selected roots were brought back to Cambridge, and the next problem was how to test them for sugar. I didn’t, for that would have required facilities that were wholly absent. Instead, reliance was placed on the known fact that the juice of beets with a high sugar content would also have a high refractive index, for sugar was by far the biggest component of the dissolved solids. This was only an approximate guide but at this early stage of a breeding scheme extreme accuracy was irrelevant. So I got two or three little Bellingham and Stanley pocket refractometers for about seven pounds each and had some little hand borers made (shades of the Nantwich cheese market!) and some hand presses. By putting a core, about the size and shape of a cigarette in a handpress a few drops of juice could be squeezed out and tested in the refractometer.

It now came to light that at the Whitehall meetings Engledow had expressed the hope that a refugee from Europe, of whom there were many, might be found with a knowledge of sugar beet breeding. Soon one turned up. He was a rather rotund Jewish Hungarian who had very wisely escaped from Hitler’s grasp and had turned up in Cambridge. His name was A. B. Bauer and he had somehow got in touch with Hunter and convinced him that he was a beet breeder. That sort of thing would not be too difficult with Hunter. Bauer started by hoping that he would be my boss, but I had other ideas. It soon became clear that he had conned Hunter and that he knew nothing of breeding. Very much later, I learnt that his only previous experience of beet was as a salesman, touting an allegedly superior new beet variety, bred by a Hungarian professor named Niemitz, round the seed houses of Europe. The variety was supposed to be frost-resistant and suitable for autumn sowing. Nobody bought it.

Bauer tried to convince me of his almost psychic powers. He could, he said, by holding a beet in his hand and looking at the groove in it and at the texture of its skin, determine the sugar content. After making this claim, he reluctantly agreed to a statistical check on the next hundred roots we tested. He gave me his answer for each, in advance, and I then tested them with the refractometer and worked out something entirely strange to him, a correlation coefficient. This proved to be effectively zero, and henceforth things became a little more difficult for him. He had wandered into this test all unsuspecting. Statistical analysis had not at that time spread far outside Britain, the United States and Canada and as late as 1948, Graham Campbell of the Cambridge Plant Breeding Institute (my successor there) and I addressed a meeting in Brussels in which we propounded ‘La Methode de Fisher’ as a strange new thing. After all, it had only been around since about 1925!

It is interesting to recall what life was like in Cambridge during the early years of the war. In some ways it was very normal, at least until the start of the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940. Rationing was getting established but had not yet included as many foodstuffs as it did later. One could still queue for eggs in the market-place, for instance. Fuel rationing had arrived and was quite severe. Our house was hard to keep warm, for it was brick-built without wall cavities and with the single glazing which was then almost universal in Britain. Lilian had of course given up her Lydney teaching job and had not expected to be able to teach again. Soon, however, as men were called up to serve in the armed forces, there was an edict that women below a certain age and without young children had to get a useful job. The old ban on the employment of married women disappeared, and indeed it has never returned. She got a job teaching in a primary school at Sawston, ten miles from home on the south side of Cambridge. It was winter, and a bitter winter at that, and she cycled to and fro. Even a new pair of sheepskin gloves did not fend off the chilblains and she had had no training or experience in teaching in a primary school. Fortunately this did not last long, and she got a job in the Cambridge High School for Boys, quite near the railway station and still a cold cycle ride of three miles or so. This school had previously had only male teachers, and some of the boys, for a day or two, called her “sir” from habit! It was a prestigious school and a good job. It greatly helped our slim finances too. At the time the school had its usual Cambridge pupils and also many boys from a school evacuated from the East End of London. These street-wise youngsters ran rings round the locals and were expert in all kinds of devilry previously unknown in sedate Cambridge.

Everywhere there was anxiety about fifth columnists and about German spies being dropped by parachute in the middle of the night. Even Lilian was briefly suspected. When her brother was about to be posted overseas in the army, he rang her at school and as usual they talked in Welsh. The school secretary thought that she was talking German and ran off to tell the headmaster. He thought it very funny, for he was a Cornishman who knew something about Celtic languages. Later a friend was sitting innocently on a road-side seat looking at a road map. He was investigated too. Maps were more than usually useful then, because all the road signs had been removed, so as not to be useful to invaders. Late one spring evening we went off to Madingley with three or four friends to listen to the nightingales singing so wonderfully in the woods. Everywhere we went we were expected to take our civilian gas masks with us, in the cardboard boxes provided. We left our bicycles at the roadside and this suspicious action was reported by some assiduous local. The police read names on some of the boxes and it was our turn to be investigated.

Surprisingly, there were some advantages too, especially later, when the London Blitz had started. Some of the very best shows, plays, ballets and operas, appeared at the Arts Theatre, then pretty new and in prime condition. People like Margot Fonteyn, Frederick Ashton and Robert Helpmann were all to be seen in our local theatre. Normally most of these shows would have been in London. There were amateur efforts too, run to collect funds for the Red Cross. Our talented friend Cyril Cudworth (‘Cuddy’) wrote a pantomime that was fun. Believe it or not, Lilian was the fairy Ermintrude, frilly bespangled white dress, wand and all! It was performed in village colleges in the area. There were fine chamber music concerts in the beautiful venue of the Trinity College Master’s lodge. The Master was the historian G.M. Trevelyan, and his daughter Marjorie played the oboe very well. She collected musicians around her, including my Bureau former boss Pen Hudson at the piano.

Most of us did some kind of Civil Defence work. Lilian and I both took Red Cross first aid courses and she became an ambulance attendant. I took up duty as an air raid warden and also did fire­ watching for the university. It meant many sleepless nights, but we bore up. There were frequent air raid warnings, with wailing sirens sounding all around, and the sound of many planes going over in the night hours. We reckoned that we could tell the difference in the sound of ‘theirs’ and ‘ours’. They were not aiming for Cambridge, though. One or two stray bombs were all that fell. On one night the sound was especially loud, with many planes passing over, and that was the night Coventry was bombed and so severely damaged. Raids on Liverpool and other north­ western towns also gave us noisy nights in Cambridge.

The fire-watching was needed because not all the raiders carried high explosives. Incendiary bombs, individually light but dropped in large numbers caused havoc too. Fire-watching for me meant nights spent at the top of the tower of St. John’s College Chapel, bitterly cold in winter. Other nights were spent patrolling the science buildings on the Downing Street site. I was not so fond of wandering round the Anatomy School with a hand torch, past shelves stacked with bottles and jars with preserved bits of bodies in them. The one thing we did which was really valuable was to spot a fire just starting at the centre where a large amount of blood was being stored for transfusion. It was just an electrical fault, nothing to do with the war, but spotting it was very useful indeed.

There was the blackout. Everybody had to put dark curtains on their windows, so that no light shone out. A major part of the air raid warden’s duty was to see that this was enforced. We also stuck adhesive tape criss-cross on some of the windows. This was supposed to stop the glass shattering in the event of a bomb blast, but the scheme did not look very effective to us, especially as in many cases some of the tape very quickly began to peel off. There was no street lighting and cars had their headlights covered with cylindrical cans of dark-painted steel, with louvred ends that directed a little light straight down on to the road. Students walking in the streets with their black gowns were just about impossible to see. During the blitz, though, there was one thing we could certainly see and that was the red glow in the sky over London, fifty miles away, night after night for weeks.

All we had to do in the first winter of the sugar beet work was to select the roots with the best combination of size and dry matter content from our 6,000 selections and store them in a frost-free place. In the spring they were planted out at Great Shelford, a couple of miles out, in long, thin strips. This way, a lot of the genetic diversity would be preserved, because nearly all the pollination would be between near neighbours. This was in 1941 and it left a lot of spare time. I busied myself with looking at ways available to stretch the limited national stocks of sugar beet seed, notably by testing a semi-precision drill invented by Dr Martin Leake, who lived in Cambridge. That was hopeless too, because no spare engineering facilities existed to make such drills on an adequate scale. The factories were all making bits for the war. Much economy would have been possible without this, because at that time beet growers were required as a term of their contract to sow 15 pounds of seed per acre.

Occasional opportunities for a trip occurred. There was an entomologist named Petherbridge in the School of Agriculture and one day he took me down to Maldon, Essex to see sugar beet breeding work being conducted there. It was an ominous day. Hitler had broken through, or by-passed, the Maginot Line and was advancing into France with no trouble at all and was at the same time driving the small British army towards Dunkirk. Our side was engaged in a scorched earth policy and was setting fire to all the coastal oil installations. Drifting across the sky that day was a continuous procession of very black clouds, coming all the way from France. We also heard the distant, ominous rumble of explosions.

We found the sugar beet trials but not the breeder, J.C. Cullen, formerly one of my fellow-students under Watkins. He had been partaking of the bottle too heavily and had been taken away to Colchester to be dried out. We did see one interesting thing going on. It had been thought that sugar beet ‘ripened’ in the autumn, as the leaves often turned yellow just like birch trees. Only recently had it been realised that this was caused by a damaging virus. Another and much more genuine refugee, Dr Ripper, was busy killing the aphids which transmitted the disease. He was dragging a large tarpaulin behind a tractor while releasing nicotine gas beneath it. Dr Ripper was an enterprising immigrant from Austria who had managed to do a deal with the Ministry of Agriculture and Food that no local had ever even thought of. Virus yellows was not prevalent in certain years, being linked to the life histories of its aphid vectors. But Ripper, wishing to live through any lean years, negotiated a deal whereby he got paid even in the years when there was no work to do. After some time he married a wealthy landowning widow from Norfolk and finally ended his career after the war by flying his light aircraft into a Greek mountainside during bad weather.

The seed from our plots at Shelford was harvested by hand­ stripping; most of the sticks and dried-up leaves were separated in hand sieves and the seed was put in packets. Now came the problem. So far, sugar beet breeding had been light work for one. Now came the need for progeny trials. Beet was not a bit like wheat, where the produce of a single ear-to-row plot might be a few grains in a paper packet. Even at a single location, a proper trial would involve 50 to 100 tons of dirt-laden beet, which had to be harvested, washed, weighed and sampled for sugar. This would need equipment and people. When I pointed this out, there was a great coolness in high places. It appeared that even in Whitehall the truth had dawned and that the feeling of urgency that had started me had now faded. You may judge my relief when I had a telephone call from a certain Mr Clark in Maldon, Essex. He needed a breeder for a sugar beet project that sounded real. His existing breeder had proved unsatisfactory. I could guess why and all that remained was to negotiate a salary. I pitched it at twice what I had been earning in Cambridge and was accepted.

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