Chapter 4: The Bangor Years

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by Dr. Sydney Ellerton

Every change of school is an important step in life, involving new friends, new places, new teachers and is still more of a break when it involves, for the first time in life, living away from home. Often there are choices to be made too. My university scholarship, ‘in agriculture’, limited that choice to places with an agricultural department. The decision, Bangor, was an easy one for me. I had known parts of the North Wales coast since early childhood, having made many trips to the seaside at Rhyl, Colwyn Bay and Llandudno. A little later, with my parents, I had a couple of summer holidays in Holyhead, and explored Anglesey and parts of Snowdonia. The whole area was most attractive and held happy memories for me.

So I went to Bangor, a college of the University of Wales, in October 1932, to do an Honours course in Botany with Agricultural Botany. Having previously known and very much enjoyed visiting the area, leaving home for the first time was much less of a plunge than it would otherwise have been, but it was still an adventure and I was more than a little awestruck by it all. The surroundings were lovely, the view of the mountains of Snowdonia in the distance, of the Menai Straits and Anglesey and, closer in, many pleasant walks. The town centre was rather ugly, but you can’t have everything!

The University of Wales, with its four colleges at Aberystwyth, Cardiff, Swansea and Bangor, was pretty new, indeed Bangor celebrated its fiftieth anniversary when I was there. It had started by taking over a hotel at the east end of the town. This had been demolished after the stone buildings at the top of the hill overlooking the city centre had been completed, together with the science departments, of much cheaper and simpler design, at the bottom of the hill. To the students they were known as ‘top coll’ and ‘bottom coll’ and it was quite a climb from one to the other.

There were no Halls of Residence for the men students except for a very few budding school teachers. They stayed in Plas Menai, a hostel on the Holyhead Road in Upper Bangor. It was in the care of ‘Daddy’ Archer, the eccentric professor of education. He was tall, moustached and slightly bent and had a glass eye, so that you never knew whether he was looking at you or not. His twin enthusiasms were rugby and cats, and he was not a believer in feline birth control. He combined his two passions by naming his latest kittens after the players who scored rugby points for Bangor in the annual inter-college sports week in February. Sometimes he had more kittens than point-scorers and then he had a problem. One year, when the Bangor rugger players had done particularly badly, he was reduced to asking whether the women’s hockey team goal scorers would mind having the kittens named after them. His room had a very strong smell and anyone going to see the professor usually had to remove a cat from a chair before sitting down. I suppose a lot of the smell was ammonia, but the cats seem to have some very special additives of their own. Sitting on a cushioned chair, there was a certain anxiety as to what one was absorbing through one’s rear.

For the women students it was very different. They were all in Halls sternly supervised by the formidable Miss M.O. Davies and were normally pretty securely ‘gated’ at 10 p.m., extended a little on Saturdays, when the college dance went on until 10:30 and there was an hour’s reprieve. ‘M.O.’ was tall and massive, the archetype of the hospital matron, and she guarded her charges like a large and overpowering mother hen. Sometimes she would turn up at college dances and some of the braver men would ask her to dance, but I am sure that they would never get any favoured treatment. She always seemed fair and impartial though stern, and commanded a good deal of respect.

I had to stay in ‘digs’, in my case a private house in a terrace near the top of Glanrafon Hill. It was a narrow house, one room wide, three rooms deep and three storeys high. Mrs Turner, the landlady, was a widow and she prepared most of our meals for a weekly charge which, at 12s 6d (62p), now seems derisory. My bedroom was shared with another student and we ate our meals together in the sitting room downstairs. The ‘digs’ were opposite the side entrance to the Caernarfonshire and Anglesey Infirmary. The hospital mortuary was on that side and I used to see the medical failures being taken out feet first. It was a little damaging to one’s faith in the infinite powers of medicine! There was another lodger, Miss Clare, who lived somewhere at the back of the house, a middle-aged lady who professed a strange religion called theosophy and was given to attending table-tapping séances. She had almost been overtaken by technology. The mighty Wurlitzer had not yet reached the smaller cinemas and she belonged to the dying race of cinema pianists, pumping out music in the mood appropriate to the ever-changing pictures above. Glanrafon Hill led down to the science departments. It was steep and narrow, but most traffic avoided it for that very reason. It was a new and grand feeling, walking down to lectures in one’s own university.

At the time Bangor had about 600 students, small enough to form a community with a pleasant social atmosphere. Being so close to mountains and the sea, it was a wonderful place for outside sports. For outside studies too, such as field botany, geology and marine biology. Many botanical field trips were with Dr R Alun Roberts (‘Bob Alun’), who was a philosopher as well as an agricultural botanist, and taught us much about the history of the area which was certainly not in the syllabus. He imparted enthusiasm to us all. He loved his Wales and was able to point out all sorts of little traces of the distant past, still visible in the landscape. At the time he was giving weekly radio talks which were much treasured. I think I was as lucky to have Bob Alun as a teacher in college as I had been to have Bern Mills in school. We kept pretty fit scaling the peaks to see the alpine vegetation.

Exploring the area between the tides for algae of all kinds, seeking out the very varied and distinct vegetation on the carboniferous limestone areas on the edge of the Straits, and going up into the high mountains to look at the plants which had uniquely survived there from the days of the last ice age, all this was a real bonus for Bangor. I liked it so much that one Easter I went back to take a two-week vacation course, doing much of the same thing.

On these trips we became very much aware of the slate industry, which has been so important to North Wales and which was still active, though past the peak. The huge open-cast quarries near Bethesda and Llanberis were the largest anywhere and there were other places where the slate was mined underground, as can be seen today at Blaenau Ffestiniog. The major industry of the area, now almost completely a thing of the past, exacted a terrible toll on the work force, through accidents and lung disease. The quarry owners, on the other hand, lived like princes in mansions such as Penrhyn Castle, Vaynol Park and Plas Tan-y-Bwlch. We went on one of our agricultural trips to Vaynol, to see the herd of white cattle kept there. We saw the dairy and stables too, maintained in their original condition. In the dairy the floor and benches were marble and the pans, in which the milk was poured for the cream to rise and be skimmed off, were Wedgwood. In the stables all the woodwork was teak and the metalwork silver.

Of course there was more to it than lectures, laboratories and field trips. There was a reception and dance for ‘freshers’ on the first Saturday of term. There I saw and briefly talked to a certain Lilian Davies. She was pretty, soft-spoken and looked a dream in her pale blue, lacy ball gown. We chatted a while and I only afterwards learnt that it was more or less her duty to do so, for she was on the student welcoming committee for new recruits! I was captivated but also very diffident, for she was in her third year, very senior as compared with my raw newness. I went on attending the Saturday dances in the Pritchard Jones Hall and managed to get a few dances with her, and she was good enough to coach me in my fumbling inefficiency. Dancing was good in those days. For nearly all the dances you held your partner in your arms. None of this silly modern stuff! By the end of term I was seeing her home from the dances. She sent me a nice Christmas card, and in the following term things got a lot closer.

When Lilian died in 1991 we had enjoyed more than 51 years of happy married life. She was in her last year in college when we met and by the time I started my second year she had gone to teach in France. It was seven years before I had completed my various courses and got a job. Marriage before a career had been established was just not on in those days and on marriage the wife nearly always had to give up her post. So we neither married in haste nor repented at leisure.

My course was ‘Botany with Agricultural Botany’: fairly tough as it turned out, because it embraced very nearly all the Honours Botany course and a great deal more besides. They were good days, though. In the first year some time was spent on straight agriculture, indeed that part of the course coincided with the Diploma in Agriculture course taken by many farmers’ sons. It included Saturday mornings at the University Farm or some similar venue, usually with ‘Long Archie’, E.J. Roberts, height 6ft 7in. He was rather a benign character, generally popular, much absorbed at the time in learning Russian. Agricultural practice and history were included in the course, taught by Prof R.G. White, tall and skinny, with a rather thin, quavering voice. He was English. It was curious how Welsh professors of agriculture happened to be English. The more famous example was George Stapledon at Aberystwyth. Then there was the red-haired G.W. Robinson, the agricultural chemist: soils, geology, fertilisers and so on. A good deal of this was of practical use, but we never in a thousand years would have thought that the course was going to enable one of my fellow-students, Bob Innes, to discover large deposits of bauxite in Jamaica and found a new industry there. Bob was a Scot, as was another fellow-student, Duncan Cameron. Their families had moved to Wales and they both spoke Welsh like natives.

J.O. Thomas mostly looked after the agricultural botany laboratory work. While a junior lecturer, he was at the same time studying for a post-graduate degree. The ‘pure’ botany was much more academic with Norman Woodhead, (translated into Welsh as his nickname, ‘Pen Pren’!), Miss Davey, and Professor Thoday. Woodhead had also come from Nantwich Grammar School and took me under his wing to some extent. He was a bustling little bachelor, with glasses, often to be seen in Boy Scout uniform, for he was a scout leader. He played the piano as a hobby, particularly J.S. Bach. At the beginning of term he took me for a Sunday car ride, up the Nant Ffrancon pass and down through Llanberis, to have a look at the mountainous hinterland. Later, I often used to go to Sunday morning service in Bangor Cathedral with him. His specialty was algal blooms, a very topical subject today. Miss Davey was into algae too, specially the marine variety, and the ‘Prof’ was a physiologist. He had previously been in Cape Town University and had a habit, in lectures, of starting with ‘When I was in South Africa’, whereupon all his students pounded their desks vigorously. He was interested in the chemical secrets of succulent plants and also in host-parasite relationships. A year or two later I was at his request digging into hard hawthorn branches with a scalpel, in Loton Park right by the little village where my mother went to school. I was removing the ’roots’  whereby mistletoe extracted nutrients from its host plant. The scalpel slipped, went right through my finger, and I was off to the village nurse to get a dressing and a tetanus jab.

After the first year all the purely agricultural studies were left behind, but the practical initiation did no harm at all. It was not always easy to study for exams in the lovely summer weather we seemed to get and a good deal of my ‘swotting’ was done in the open air, overlooking the Menai Straits and watching the pleasure steamer, St. Tudno, docking on Bangor Pier or at Menai Bridge, and sometimes seeing a school of porpoises moving through the water, jumping clear and, with their curving backs, straightaway diving in again.

There were a few famous visitors to Bangor when I was there. The Chancellor of the University, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) came along, as did the former Prime Minister David Lloyd George and many others of lesser renown. They made a change!

Social life in the college meant a lot. In the first year I spent time with Lilian, of course, but she was in her last year and the looming exams were a serious matter, so we met for no more than two evenings a week, for about 2½ hours each, for she was ‘gated’ at 10. In the winter terms there was a college dance in the Pritchard-Jones (‘P.J.’) Hall on Saturday nights, with Harry Perry and his band playing very competently. It was the era of the saxophone rather than the guitar and one of the hits of the day, still much played, was ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’. When the band took a break a fellow-student, ‘SOS’ Williams would take over and play the piano brilliantly. Then there were the various societies – music, amateur dramatics and many others. I played chess for the college and also, for a while, exposed myself to grievous bodily harm by standing in a hockey goal. I used to sign up in October for the 30 chamber music concerts, fee half a crown, or one old penny per concert. They must have been the cheapest concerts ever. There were occasional big concerts, in the P.J. Hall, oratorios and such-like, with nationally known soloists and E.T. Davies, the Professor of Music, on the rostrum.

For amateur dramatics (there were English and Welsh clubs, but I kept strictly to the English) I was involved, as I had been in school, with the stage lighting. We did Galsworthy’s The Skin Game, The Barretts of Wimpole Street and others. Once there was a Nativity Play in Bangor Cathedral just before the college broke up for Christmas, and that led to one of my biggest panics, for the power failed just before the concert was due to start. We got it back just in time.

At Easter came my first visit to Barmouth, to Lilian’s home. Three hours by rail, via Caernarfon to Afon Wen (near Pwllheli) and then down the lovely coast of Cardigan Bay. Now even the county town, Caernarfon, has no railway, though the line down the coast from Pwllheli to Aberystwyth still maintains a precarious existence. Lilian’s father had died several years before, but her mother lived in a fine stone home, Compton House, on the High Street in the middle of town. How times change: it was later demolished and a branch of Woolworth’s now stands on the site. Meeting the girlfriend’s parent or parents for the first time must always be scary, but I need not have feared. All the music hall jokes about mothers-in-law were strictly inapplicable to Lilian’s mother, who was universally liked. She seemed to know everybody and would chat with them equally in English or Welsh. The only disadvantage was that, if she walked along the High Street with us, the repeated stops for chats made the journey seem interminable. There was another member of the family, Jim. He was a large retriever dog, first found by me munching lettuce under the dining room table. It turned out that it was not the lettuce, but the salad dressing he liked. He liked fruit too. When Lilian and I went blackberrying on Barmouth Mountain, and sat down and digressed a while as young lovers do, we found after a few minutes that Jim had eaten all the fruit we had gathered.

Surnames are a problem in Wales, being so repetitive. Lilian’s name of Davies was one of the common ones and, after the local fashion, she was known in Barmouth as Lilian Compton, living as she did in Compton House. This persisted long after the house had been demolished and Lilian had changed her surname on marriage. She had a younger brother, Wyn, around 13 years old at the time. He tended to tag along with us when we went walking, but I discovered quite soon that he could be bought off with chocolates.

I was in Bangor on a Cheshire County Education Department scholarship of £80 a year, which was enough with careful budgeting. It was supplemented in the first year, to my surprise and everybody else’s, by £10 from an endowment set up by Sir Delves Broughton, the squire who lived at Doddington Hall, not far beyond Wybunbury. The award was for ‘religious knowledge’. Doddington was often the venue of my early cycle rides. There was a park, a lake and a fine house. Also, in season, conkers. The Delves Broughtons used to go on safari in various parts of the world and sometimes they brought back animals, not always securely confined. There was a church on the estate, and on one famous occasion, during morning service, a brown bear walked up the aisle and the worshippers jumped up on to their seats very scared. I suspect that they had never before prayed so fervently.

Gradually, an idea of what I might want to do in life began to crystallise out. I felt that the academic world of pure science had an air of unreality about it and I felt I should do something more clearly of practical use. This is just a point of view, of course, since many if not most of the great discoveries in science have their roots in pure research. I talked to Bob Alun about this and he arranged for me to spend part of the summer vacation doing voluntary work at the plant breeding station of Gartons Ltd at Little Leigh in Cheshire, not far from Northwich.

Dr John Garton, in the 1890s, before the re-discovery of Mendel’s Law, had worked out the pedigree method of cereal breeding which remained substantially unaltered for many decades. In fact he really didn’t need Mendel as he had worked a lot of it out well beforehand. Much of his method is in use today, though there are some modern refinements. I used to cycle to Crewe, put my bike on the stopping train to Liverpool and get off at Hartford. Taking to my bike again, I cycled over the swingbridge which spanned the then busy River Weaver and past the chemical works of Brunner Mond, later the I.C.I., where they used Cheshire salt as a raw material. Little Leigh was out in the country and day after day I worked with the breeders, principally on wheat.

John Garton did not get it all quite right, of course. He would grow 500 rows of each new variety side by side and I spent days looking for off-types and weeding them out. That was very good, but he thought that inbreeding would weaken races of wheat as it did with many organisms and he ran a big programme intercrossing identical progenies of the same inbred, which would be multiplied up and eventually marked as ‘New Regenerated Breeds’. We know now, of course, that crossing identical lines was no different from self-fertilisation. There was a great deal going on which was very sound, however, and Gartons gave me an experience which influenced me for the rest of my life.

There was another diversion late in the summer. I had been awarded a prize consisting of a trip to the Norwich meeting of the ‘B. Ass.’, the uncomplimentary nickname for the British Association for the Advancement of Science. It was my first view of East Anglia and I loved Norwich. I went by rail as always, to Rugby and then by the long-deceased Midland and Great Northern Joint line through Market Harborough, Brandon and Thetford. Thetford Chase, that great extent of coniferous forest, had fairly newly been planted and looked very different from what it does today. The meeting was an opportunity to meet and listen to many eminent scientists, some more ‘with it’ than others, of course. The sixty-year old argument between the evolutionists and the creationists could still raise quite a high temperature in the lecture room, though for the creationists it was no more than a rearguard action.

The three years in Bangor went on steadily. There were only half a dozen students taking the degree in Honours Botany in my year, and I was the only one taking it in combination with agricultural botany. Some of my classes were therefore one-to-one tutorials with Bob Alun, which was good fortune indeed for me. I had to take life pretty seriously, because I had decided that I wanted to go into research. In those days it was virtually impossible to get a research grant without a first class degree. Getting any job without a good degree wasn’t easy anyway, for the economic depression was still going strong.

In the last year came a test of aptitude in research, a ‘project’. In my case it was to study, of all things, the common dandelion. It was not without interest, because it went through a strange kind of semi-sexual reproduction, in which all was normal up to a point, when the separated cells joined up again and pretended that nothing had happened. This was called apomixis and had the effect that all the progeny of a particular plant looked alike, just as if they had been grown from cuttings. There were therefore lots of different, distinguishable races of dandelions and this led to the classic type of dispute among systematists. There were the ‘lumpers’, who called the whole lot one species, and the ‘splitters’, who forever more were giving Latin names and descriptions to individual variants. This was quite good practice for me, which was all it was intended to be, but certainly not the basis for a life’s work. My mother and father were not entirely happy when I started to fill up the garden at home with dandelions, not the easiest weed to get rid of before the days of modern herbicides!

It was now 1935. The written examination started in late May and after them there was a break of about two weeks before the practicals. During that time the examiners would mark the papers, so that almost immediately at the end of the practicals, the result was available. It all seemed to go reasonably well until the very last practical, which was absolutely vile, with material in a state of near-decomposition and all sorts of impossible questions. At the end I was called for interview with Prof. Thoday and the external examiner, the eminent Prof. Fritsch. Here I was, in the sanctum sanctorum of the professor’s room, with the rather dapper, dark-haired Thoday and also the co-author of the best-known botanical textbook of the day, visiting from far-distant London. They both had faces a mile long and started asking me impossible questions, and I got really scared. Then, suddenly, when I was in the deepest of deep water, they burst out laughing. Apparently I had accumulated enough credits before the last practical for them to have a joke at my expense, the kind of thing which is very funny after the event! I got my ‘first’. It had never occurred to me that professors, occupying the unattainable pinnacles of the academic world, could be light-hearted conspirators! To the humble undergraduate they were god-like creatures and should not have stooped to such indignity.

Of course I still lived in Shavington with my parents except in term time. Lilian had taken a job in the south of France in September 1933, living with a French family and teaching Latin and English to French schoolchildren. Eventually she got a job teaching in a boarding school in Uxbridge, Middlesex and during this whole period we were able to meet during vacations.

The very last night in Bangor was memorable. With a group of friends who were also leaving, we arranged a beach party which went on into a magical, warm and still summer night. We had rowed a boat over to the Anglesey side and every movement of the water, every splash of the oars and every breaking wave were illuminated. I have never since seen a display of phosphorescence even approaching it.

Later I went back to Bangor with my parents for the degree ceremony. In those days ladies’ hats were a kind of status symbol and mother had bought an expensive new one for the occasion. I took them out in a rowing boat on the Straits and the new hat blew off. The current was strong, as it is at certain states of the tide, and it was last seen drifting away into the distance. Even the loss of her treasured hat did little to mar mother’s happiness on this very special occasion.

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