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There isn't a Snake in the Cupboard

A Review of the Life of J H Fremlin

CHAPTER 9 - 1940 to 1944
Reinet with David in a gas mask
The move of the valve division to Ilminster in November 1940 presented John and Reinet with another difficult decision. The wives of some of the other employees were going with their husbands but Reinet found herself to be too deeply involved in her work: she had made a gratifying number of improvements to the operation of the ASW in a short time but knew there was more to be done and did not believe there was anyone else available to take over who could equal her own commitment. The ASW had originally developed from the National Union of Scientific Workers but had failed to thrive. By the nineteen thirties the number of members had sunk to an all-time low of nine hundred when a group of scientists including Sage Bernal had come to the rescue and raised its profile in the scientific world, but this was only a start. Pay rates for scientists were generally very low. This was partly a hangover from the attitude of scientists themselves at the turn of the century who were so protective of the purity of their work that they avoided being seen to make money directly from their achievements. When Reinet had started work in the winter of 1937, she had found that the previous Secretary had let things slide and the office was in a very bad state, both dirty and disorganised. She threw herself into the necessary cleaning, reorganised the paperwork and went on to implement a whole range of new policies she herself had persuaded the Executive Committee to endorse. This all paid dividends very quickly and as the amount of work increased Reinet needed to take on an assistant at the beginning of the war and to move the office to larger premises. As time went on she increased the awareness of the association so much that new branches opened all over the country.

Once again John understood her needs, and while he took lodgings in Chard, four miles from Ilminster, Reinet moved from Holborn, which was being heavily bombed, to Northfield Hall, a steel-framed block of flats north of Camden Town, sharing with her ASW assistant, Brenda Ryerson. John cannot have liked leaving Reinet in London, and his fears for her safety were nearly realised when a couple of months after she had moved, Northfield Hall was bombed. Reinet was unharmed, although all her windows were broken leaving glass in everything including the sugar bowl, which contained the last of that week's sugar ration. A few other people in the block were killed by falling walls where some of the flats on the ground floor of the other wing were completely blown out, but the upper floors remained, standing on steel legs. Some acquaintances, whose flats were even more uninhabitable than Reinet's, moved in with her for a short while, and the Borough Council repaired the doors and windows. Reinet continued to live there, frequently offering a piece of floor for the night to friends who wanted a change from the shelters.

Having to set up a new laboratory in Ilminster held the work back at least three months. The tube whose ability to generate microwaves at the desired wavelength had been demonstrated by John's virtuoso performance with the torch bulb was at a critical stage of its development. The group had to set up a new workshop and find new sources of supplies before they could get back to work on it. Then they quickly cured a problem of noise due to irregular reflections and passed their research efforts on to Chris Foulkes' development section where research work was redesigned for mass production. By the autumn of 1941, the joint efforts of the research and development sections had produced a neat little tube, only five centimetres long, the S22A, designed to receive in the ten centimetre wavelength zone exactly as required by the Admiralty. Sadly, by the time this was working reliably, another firm's version had been accepted and gone straight into mass production. At the same time, Oliphant, who had been Assistant Director of Research at the Cavendish and who was now a professor at Birmingham University, was leading a group including Randall and Boot who produced the magnetron that could transmit 9.8 centimetre waves. This invention was closely followed by the development of the cavity magnetron, which was quickly taken up by the Navy and ships started to use it to detect submarines in 1941.

Although they had been beaten in the race, STC made several hundred of the S22A valves; those of better quality went to the Royal Radar Establishment at Malvern for use in testing other receiving equipment, while the rest went into army receiving equipment. There was always new work to be done to swamp the team's disappointment and John's group worked long hours examining all aspects of velocity modulation, developing new designs for tubes by delving into the theory and then testing their ideas experimentally. Later still, as the newer equipment was increasingly made with metal instead of glass, John's group did some work on the seals used to prevent leaks.

Secrecy made publication of the details of the valves they were making impossible although after the war John had several papers on the general principles of the work accepted for publication. There were still meetings with other groups working in the same field. Mr Gibson continued to bombard those going to the meetings with memos exhorting them not to give away information that might be useful after the war. Eventually John found an indirect way of asking the other team-leaders at these meetings if their superiors had also told them to maintain industrial secrecy and when he found that this was so, suggested that it was contrary to the war effort not to share their information and moreover, that a great deal of effort had already been wasted through duplication of research. From then on they all exchanged ideas considerably more freely.

Settling a large number of Londoners into what was almost another country caused many new problems. John's landlady's married daughter lived across the road and John asked his landlady if she had married a local man. "Oh no," came the reply. "She married an Ilminster man but wasn't happy there and brought him back to Chard." Friction was caused by the fact that the Chard and Ilminster women did their shopping after they had done their household cleaning while the Londoners, having only one or two rooms to look after, shopped first and picked up any scarce commodities before the local women emerged from their houses.

John had particularly good lodgings in the only house in the street that had a bath. Less fortunate colleagues came round periodically for a bath at sixpence a time. Tom Jakes (one of John's technicians) and his wife were not so lucky: given the choice between two farms, they chose the one that boasted of a bath. They didn't see a bathroom but after a day or two Tom asked if they could have a bath. Agreeing, the farmer's wife said that she would heat the water for it. While this was being done the farmer came into the kitchen rolling a five-foot circular bath and let it down in the centre of the floor. His wife filled it from cans of water and the whole family gathered round expectantly. Tom had to explain that they felt a bit shy of being watched but the family did not seem at all offended by this peculiarity and took themselves out of the room. After they had finished, the Jakes' then wondered how to get rid of the water but once the farmer had been recalled to the room, he simply heaved up one side of the bath and tipped the entire contents out on the kitchen floor. The Jakes' then discovered that the floor was not quite horizontal; the water all ran down to a wall that had a few bricks missing at the bottom, leaving a row of holes through which the water ran out to water the kitchen garden.

Those who were in lodgings gave their ration books to their landladies who were expected to give them breakfast and an evening meal. STC had a canteen to provide lunch usually consisting of sausages with a high breadcrumb content served with mashed potatoes or a small portion of mince with lots of potatoes. Roger Hall (John's other technician) used to refuse salt and mustard with his sausages and demand jam instead on the grounds that he preferred bread and jam to bread and mustard; sometimes he was successful. From time to time a powerful brew of tea was brought round the labs, which had been made on an industrial scale: a large tin of sweetened condensed milk was poured into a five-gallon can, a bag of tea leaves was dropped on top and the whole filled to within an inch of the top with cold water. The can was put on a gas ring and stirred occasionally until it had boiled for a few minutes. The result had a flavour all of its own, but it certainly woke everyone up. The tea bags were taken out and dried, and if fresh tea failed to arrive, two or three of the old bags would be put in and boiled a bit longer. John soon found he had got used to this mixture and started to look forward to it.

John's six-day week made visiting Reinet difficult. About once a month he would work through a Sunday and the following week take a long weekend to go up to London, starting with a tedious and often delayed journey on Friday evening. John and Reinet had planned to start a family about two years after marrying, but when the war started, they had put this off. By the summer of 1941 they were both feeling that time was going on and that the war was going to last longer than they had at first thought. Once they had decided that they did want a baby, Reinet calculated a good time for John's next visit to London and shortly afterwards she found herself to be pregnant.

Reinet was given three months' maternity leave. John booked some rooms in Ilminster and Reinet joined him there for Christmas. It was bitterly cold, and their landlady didn't like them to keep a fire going all day, even when Reinet was keeping it mainly banked up with coal dust from an unused pile she had found in the shed. The landlady also complained about the waste of gas one evening when she found the pair of them sitting in the dark developing photographic films using a tiny flame to warm a solution. Reinet travelled to Taunton to buy equipment for the baby, a second-hand pram being the hardest thing to find, while John cycled over to Wellington to book her into a maternity home and located a taxi-driver who promised to drive them there at any time of day or night.

It turned out to be night. John was in bed coping with flu when Reinet's pains started late one evening. When he telephoned the maternity home he was advised to wait until morning before bringing her in because "first babies are always slow." But when the contractions became more severe, John telephoned the taxi anyway. During the fifteen mile ride, Reinet's pains came more and more frequently and John tried to remember everything he could about childbirth. They arrived safely at midnight and David Heaver was born three hours later on 7th February 1942.

All too soon Reinet had to leave John again. She found a new flat nearer her office, and started by leaving David at a crèche during the day, rushing there at lunch-time to feed him. Even after she was advised to change him to a bottle she found this hard going and after advertising in 'Nursery World' found a living-in housekeeper to look after David in the flat. John accepted that she would continue to work but others did not. A little while before David was born Heaver had written to her:
"With John now in another part of England I think you would not be shirking your duty by going to him, in fact you would be doing your duty. I wish you would consider it. Surely you could still carry on a lot of work for the A.S.W by correspondence and it would be such a help to John to have you near him."
Nine months after David's birth, John's godmother wrote to John:
"I hoped Reinet might allow herself a longer spell of leisure and make you and David her business."
One of John's glass animals
John continued to visit his wife and new baby in London about once a month, but between these visits he was free to join in the developing STC social life. On two or three evenings a week, a group from STC would play skittles in one of the local pubs. John never got to like beer, but would spin a pint of sweet cider out over an evening. He also joined the local 0.22 rifle club, which had an indoor range, and acquired a First Class Marksman certificate. He joined in the summer sports days with some verve, getting his photograph into the firm's annual newsletter as a wheelbarrow in a wheelbarrow race, and offered his services at local bazaars, using his glass-blowing skills to create animals from glass tubing to order.

Early in the war John had become interested in stereo-photography when Hank (Edward) Trent had brought some stereoscopic photographs round to the Fremlin's flat in Holborn together with a viewer that allowed the pictures to be seen in three dimensions. Having discovered that stereo cameras were not being made any more, John began to search for a second-hand one. After trailing round London during several weekends, looking in all the photographic shops he could find, he bought a camera from a little shop near St Paul's with half a dozen dark slides to take the glass plates that pre-dated photographic film and were already old-fashioned. Three days later when he went back to the shop to get some more accessories, there was a bomb crater where the shop had been but he was able to make use of several other second-hand shops he had found during his search for the camera. STC employees were allowed the run of the workshops and now John drew some brass sheet from stores and made himself a stereoscopic viewer for looking at pairs of slides. This viewer was used for the rest of his life, although the lenses were replaced after the war.

Fire-watching was a less pleasant occupation and John had to be in charge of a fire-watching squad one night a week, something he was very used to from his time in London although most of the local bombing was confined to the Bristol area. Douglas Petrie was also on the rota for fire-watching but he did not want to leave his wife alone in the isolated country cottage they had bought and renovated. He asked John if he would go and stay the night with Irene each time he was on duty. John offered to take over his duty instead, but Douglas insisted, and so John had a night on a mattress in front of the Petries' sitting room fire once a week after a meal so enormous that he regularly knocked back a teaspoonful of dry sodium bicarbonate to quell the resulting heartburn.

Still with some marginal time to spare, John involved himself in two educational projects. First, he was asked to give a weekly course of evening lectures on Science and Society to a social club in South Petherton, about six miles from Ilminster. Having agreed to do this, he cycled over after work to an audience of eight to ten women, mainly elderly and retired. He got on well with them and the next year was asked to do a similar course at Yeovil.

He saw the other project as more important. A number of the younger staff at STC in Woolwich had been studying elementary physics and mathematics in the evenings for City and Guilds certificates, success in which led to higher courses in electrical engineering. Considerable numbers of the staff at STC had got their qualifications by this route, which required a lot of physical stamina and great determination at a time when working days were long and getting from workplace to college could not be achieved by just hopping into a car.

Smyth (the head of the amplifier valve section) and John were concerned that many of the junior staff had had their courses interrupted. Smyth had himself taught in Woolwich and made a successful application to the appropriate Ministry to set up a new teaching establishment with John teaching physics and one of the mathematics courses, Smyth teaching the other mathematics course and electrical engineering and a teacher from the nearby girls' school offering a course in biology. The Ministry paid for a large single-storey wooden building with a laboratory and two or three small lecture rooms, everything going through surprisingly quickly. A gratifying number of students passed their examinations - including John and Smyth for they both took the biology course, Smyth because he was anxious to get into the field of applications of electricity and electromagnetism in medicine when the war ended, and John for pure interest. John must have enjoyed the course as he wrote to his father that he might be interested in finding a research job in the borderline between physics and biology after the war. This course aside, John's interest in natural history continued unabated. Walking through London when visiting Reinet he was puzzled by the mixture of species of wild flowers that had colonised bomb sites, the same ten species appearing on any untended patch of ground wherever it was. A flash of inspiration told him the common factor one day while he was counting them up: they were all plants whose seeds had fluffy parachutes and were dispersed by the wind over considerable distances.

In spite of all his evening and weekend activities, John still found time to write regularly to his father and very frequently to Reinet. Some of his letters were of a totally practical nature and others were humorous descriptions of what was happening to him at the time including such details of his work as were not secret. However, many were loving and romantic epistles in which he constantly told Reinet how lonely he was without her, how competent and beautiful she was and how much he was looking forward to their next meeting. For their wedding anniversary in 1943, he had hidden a kilner jar of peaches in a drawer and sent her a letter directing her as to where to find them. In this letter, he recalled that first separation when he had hurt his knee when they were on honeymoon "and worked out what I would do if you didn't appear again & thought of all the frightful perils which beset your path between Brendon & back in the way of tramps & motor bicycles out of control . . . It's funny how what seems like a few months with you and a few centuries without you add up to six years." As I read these letters fifty years after they were written I sighed sentimentally over the deep love that had permeated the lives of the two down-to-earth middle-aged scientists I knew, and then laughed at their ingenuity when it suddenly came to me that several recurring names I had taken at first to relate to mutual friends were in fact names they had given parts of each other's bodies in order to take the romance a little further while dodging the disapproval of any censors who looked through their letters!

Finding suitable support staff locally was a constant headache for the scientists in STC and resulted in a series of stories that John told us as children. When he first started at the Woolwich site, John had admired the dexterity of the factory girls making the valves but now Chris Foulkes' development section was making a number of pre-production valves, and he had to employ some Ilminster girls to do the evacuation and testing work. The girls were anxious to please and often turned switches in the right order but seemed to remember nothing of the meter readings needed at each stage. It turned out that the local girls, who had never seen even a wrist watch, found it quite impossible to believe that so tiny a thing as a little black needle on a manometer gauge could possibly matter. Once Foulkes had grasped the difficulty, he got a slow but reliable response but when one of the quicker employees had mastered the methods, he found that she was much better at teaching further workers than he was himself.

John's team did not want any such brilliance of intellect. They wanted a boy who could dust a bench without turning any switches on or off, could fetch cups of tea for the team when they were ready, carry messages and draw the blackout. The first local boy they got was no lazier at dusting than a Woolwich boy would have been, but either couldn't count up to eight cups of tea, or couldn't remember that this was the number that they invariably wanted. When he was given a box of mixed bolts and told to sort them into sizes, he could spot the difference between 2BA and 6BA, but could not reliably distinguish 4BA from either of these. He complained that when he was taken on he wasn't told that he would have so much brain work to do, and soon afterwards left to pick tomatoes. The next boy was much the same at first but was capable of learning, and very proud of taking part in such difficult technical work.

Then Smyth needed someone who could help shift heavy equipment and had a middle-aged man found for him by the employment office. This man shifted things alright and could count cups of tea, but couldn't tell the time on the large laboratory clock and so was liable to miss the tea. It was very difficult to replace such people; a firm getting rid of anyone would be recorded by the employment office as not needing further staff. But a new man was found; this one had been running a large wholesale fish business on the south coast and returned his application for the job very neatly written, so after checking that he could tell the time, Smyth took him on. All went well for some time until Smyth gave him a list of names and told him to go round to each lab (where names were written on the doors) with a message.

"Well I ain't no scholar sir," he told Smyth. Further investigation showed that he could not read or write and had run his fish business entirely on a good capacity for mental arithmetic and an excellent memory for prices and numbers. His application had been written by a kind girl in the employment office, whom he had asked on the grounds that he had forgotten his spectacles.

Clothes rationing started in the summer of 1940, but John had prepared even for this. When Mr Chamberlain came back from Munich proclaiming that there would be peace in our time, John, totally sceptical, had bought himself a good quality great coat although he was not immediately in need of one, and large numbers of socks (well supplemented by Christmas presents from various relatives). Before the advent of nylon, socks went into holes with alarming regularity, and a man needed a wife, sister or mother close at hand to keep his socks darned. While John was in Ilminster, he did not feel that he should present Reinet with a bag of holey socks each time he visited her in London, so he took charge of the situation himself. During the summer, he wore open sandals with no socks, an unusual practice in those days. As the autumn drew on, he would collect all last winter's well worn socks together and sort out the worst. These he cut up into small pieces and glued the bits onto the slightly better ones using rubber solution. Most of these would even get through a few washes before the patches fell off, but he had so many socks that it would be quite some time before another mending session was needed. The coat was still being worn over forty years later.

Food rationing caused the Fremlins problems as it did everyone, but they were lucky in that they had access to the fruit crops from Heavers. While they sent Heaver some of their tea ration, he would send them boxes of apples and pears from time to time, and such holidays as they did get were spent in Ryarsh picking, bottling and jamming fruit. Reinet would travel from London, carrying David and dragging boxes of empty Kilner-1- and jam jars, and would meet John at Ryarsh. Sometimes Celia and her first baby, Nicholas, would be there at the same time. Extra sugar could sometimes be obtained for these activities by foregoing the jam allowance, but when it was not available, they would bottle fruit without, and then add sugar or saccharine later. Visiting Kent did not mean an escape from the bombing as it was on the German bombers' flight path and took quite a few stray bombs together with a number of the V1 flying bombs, some of which were brought down by rows of cables held up by balloons. One day, when forty flying bombs had already exploded within hearing distance in two days, Reinet carried the oil stove outside to boil up the jam there because she felt safer. A flying bomb started coming down and while Reinet worried about getting boiling jam all over her, John was trying to photograph it from a ladder propped against the house. It actually landed a few fields away.

Early in the war, Reinet's mother (who became Mayor of Salisbury in 1942) started to send parcels of items they could not easily obtain in England, but she stopped this when Reinet wrote to her to point out that the crews of the ships carrying the goods were in such terrible danger that it was not fair to increase their work for personal advantage.

Caring for David was often difficult. Reinet had been increasingly unhappy at the way David was being cared for by the housekeeper, who eventually solved the problem of how to get rid of her by walking out in a huff. Shortly after this, David didn't seem to be very well when John visited on his first birthday and soon he developed pneumonia for which he had to go into hospital. Writing to his father, John said: "I did feel so utterly miserable when we left him at the hospital and he began to cry in a weak little way when he realised we were leaving him." He recovered (as did the Prime Minister who had pneumonia at the same time) but was away from home in a convalescent home near Aylesbury for some weeks. On a visit from his parents "he had a wonderful game with Reinet and seemed to think we were nice people to know though I'm not sure that he recognised us at all." Soon after he returned home David went down with measles while Reinet herself was recovering from a nasty attack of tonsillitis.

After David and Reinet had both recovered, Reinet moved into a flat near Kentish Town with a friend, Alma Chalkley, whose little girl Joanna was about David's age. Alma kept house and looked after both children, which turned out to be a very satisfactory arrangement. Later, when the bombing seemed to be getting worse again, the Robertshaws, who now lived near Beaconsfield, offered to have David with them. Alma took Joanna to stay at her mother's farm in Shropshire, leaving Reinet alone in the flat. She made herself a bed under David's iron cot deciding that that was safe enough to make the half-mile trek to the nearest shelter unnecessary. By September 1944, things were judged to be getting safer again, and Reinet fetched David back to London at the end of a week's lecture tour of the Midlands.

1. Kilner jars are used to safely preserve, or 'bottle', cooked fruit using simple home-cooking methods. back

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This page updated 22nd June 2012