George Wilson Remembered
by Ron Lewin and by David Davies with other memories from George’s colleagues
Anecdotal Story by Ron Lewin and Friends.
George Lyndon Wilson was born in 1930 into a wealthy family who were highly educated but had limited social skills. George mentioned that he rarely spoke to his parents and learned to talk by the time he was three; after that they had nothing to talk about. He was an only child and his father was a master brewer with a knowledge of chemistry.
George was sent to a local preparatory school and gained a scholarship to Winchester College, followed by three years at Balliol College, Oxford, where he left with a first-class degree in Chemistry. His academic interests were chemistry and mathematics while his main extracurricular interest was the study of classical music and playing the violin, viola, mandolin, piano and clavichord.
He was recommended to join Fulmer by his tutor Professor Bell who introduced George to Dr Gross.
In my view he was the most highly educated person that Fulmer ever employed. He was an overly complex personality that is best understood through anecdotes and stories. They have been chosen to try and reflect a broad range of these characteristics with the help of other colleagues who knew George well.
George was known by relatively few people during the early days of Fulmer, but stories of him are widely circulated and like good wine become better with age. I hope that this article will help to explain why people half a century later, still say when they meet,
‘Do you remember when George……’ and give a little smile.
Most of this article is written from my direct experience at the laboratory and from a common interest in music. Other anecdotes are made from discussions with Tony Bowry who worked with him over many years; thank you to Rose Stewart from the Physics Department, who kindly offered a favourite anecdote.
Mike Stuart a long-standing colleague of George contributed several anecdotes in conversation with David Davies and these are to be found in the complementary article by David Davies (see part 2 following this article.)
There are only a handful of colleagues who worked and played with George still alive and we hope you enjoy sharing our story of George.
You may have an image of how George would dress and behave as Old Wykehamist – school blazer, old school tie, cut glass accent, confident manner, a sports car, waving at the young ladies and calling out ‘Manners Makyth Man’.
The ethos of Winchester is teaching boys to think and share the love of learning with their teachers. They are encouraged to extend their knowledge beyond the curriculum and thus exploring subjects in richness and depth. The same dedication was brought to music, sports, and the arts. A Winchester education is expected to be self-motivating and rounded to encourage a culture of curiosity and exploration.
Although George did not participate in physical sports, he always took a day off to go to the Eton-Winchester cricket match that alternated between the two schools.
So as one looks through the careers of Old Wykehamists we see Members of Parliament, generals, writers, artists, arctic explorers, captains of industry, professors and so on.
We ask why he did not appear among this impressive group.
Perhaps anecdotes and stories will provide a clue, which I will try to summarise at the end of this paper.
George was easily distinguished by his apparel. Basically, it comprised his old Winchester woollen ginger jacket, grey trousers, and brown leather shoes. On wintry days he would wear his old mackintosh and helmet to keep the cold winds away. On one occasion some of the office staff complained about the state of his trousers. Mr Liddiard needed to insist that George purchased a new pair. This probably was the start of him buying a new jacket and shoes.
The shoes were no problem; they were just a replacement for the ones he had bought every year from a shop in Winchester. He would have purchased them at the beginning of the school year in September. It was possible to know the date when you looked at his shoes because by New Year the heels had fallen off and the laces replaced by string. He was keen to mention that he owned no brushes including those for teeth and hair.
He originally wore horn-rimmed glasses but over the years they were damaged and stuck together with Araldite. Eventually they were not reparable and for several years he wore a pair of his mother’s small round spectacles.
His pride and joy was a large gentleman’s silver watch attached to his breast pocket with a leather strap from which he announced the time with style.
He did have an evening dress, white shirt, and bow tie from his time at Oxford which he kept crunched up in the corner of his bedroom. By the time we used to play in an orchestra together he needed to wear his evening dress at concerts. He had put on a lot of weight; the term (’bursting out all over’) comes to mind.
He also dressed up appropriately when he took my wife Elaine and me to the Glyndebourne Opera. Also, he wore his suit and old school tie when he took me to the Sixth Centenary Celebration of Winchester College and to an evening performance of Fidelio by the School Orchestra.
A new jacket
On another occasion I remember him marching into the lab at lunchtime wearing a new jacket, from Montague’s the Tailors in Slough High Street. He was flustered and insisted I took him back to the shop immediately. I ventured to say that the jacket looked fine to me. He became enraged and said that the buttonholes were not in the right place.
I decided to say nothing about the fact that he had the wrong buttons joined up. We sat in silence down to Slough and parked outside the shop. He told me to go in and ask the elderly gentleman with the tape measure around his neck to meet him at the entrance. What started as a polite conversation ended up with George handing the coat back to the tailor who, with profuse apologies, made some perfunctory measurements with his tape measure.
A week later we returned to the shop and were greeted by the tape measure man who helped George on with the ‘new jacket’. He then carefully walked around the jacket nodding to himself that it now fitted perfectly. With an expansive gesture the tailor walked forward and did up the correct buttons. The statuesque 6ft 2inch, 20 stone client straightened himself, nodded and marched out of the shop.
No more was said.
A Musical Moment
George and I joined Fulmer at about the same time. I soon found that he was keen on music so Bob Waterhouse, a Cambridge metallurgist and musician, thought we should introduce him to some of our friends. One of these was an attaché at the Embassy in Paris and old Wykehamist.
Arriving at the house in Maidenhead, Peter and his wife Jenny greeted us. And without any acknowledgement George pushed his way between our hosts and seeing a piano just sat down and played until we were invited to sit down to supper. Before Jenny could serve everybody, George started on the meal with great gusto and finished before everyone else had been served. In a rather impatient manner, he was waiting for the apricots and cream which he could see on the sideboard. He said extraordinarily little because he was thinking about the musical evening that was soon to come. The apricots and cream were duly served, and George demolished the pudding in a trice.
By this time the remaining musicians had arrived ready for an evening of madrigals. We all stood around in a circle ready to start when George pulled out from his jacket a madrigal he had written and handed the manuscripts to the assembled musicians. His tiny handwriting and complex score caused confusion between the assembled company and George was becoming very irritated.
He suddenly gathered in the musical manuscripts, told our host that the singing was not good enough and walked out with barely any acknowledgement to the hosts. Poor Bob was mortified, and I was dreading meeting George the next day.
He never said another word!
Two dotty ladies
In the afternoon, once a week George visited two rich elderly lady friends with whom he played string trios. They were sisters and their family owned a famous drinks company. They were quite dotty and the unmarried sister who doted on George left her very expensive viola to George in her Will. The will was contested at the High Court and sadly George lost the case to her sister.
An evening of Mozart
George had big swings of mood. On one occasion he invited me to go to his flat at Eton, almost opposite where Dr Gross lived. The intention was to play some Mozart String Duets. On arrival he decided that I should play on his priceless William Hill violin and he would play the viola part on his William Hill instrument. He set up the music stands and chairs, laid out the music and with no more ado we started to play.
Five bars into the piece he abruptly stopped and accused me of incorrectly bowing a particular phrase. For the sake of not causing any friction I changed the bowing and we continued. I could detect his mood changing and five bars later he again brought me to task and insisted I change the bowing. I said we cannot continue playing under these conditions at which point he grabbed the violin from me and virtually threw the instrument onto the bed.
I stood up frightened what he might do next. He was terribly angry, went over to the door, ushered me down the stairs and slammed the door. I found myself on the pavement in the rain and immediately remembered that I had left my coat in George’s room. I pulled myself together, went up the stairs, knocked on his door not knowing how he would react. Before I could explain, he handed me my coat and shut the door.
So, I waited at the bus stop and arrived home rather earlier than anticipated. The next morning, I was working in the laboratory and I could see George heading sheepishly towards me. I said nothing and in due course he said, ‘I believe I was a little hasty yesterday evening and think it better we don’t play duets together again’ to which I replied – ‘That’s fine by me’.
The peak of his musical career
George’s peak of fame was playing the mandolin solo accompaniment to ‘Deh Vieni Alla Finestra’ from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni.
Can you imagine George, clutching his mandolin, driving up to Sadler’s Wells on his Vespa, throwing off his mackintosh, hiding behind the curtain and playing the famous love duet with mandolin accompaniment that takes three minutes with applause. He would then creep out of the Artists entrance, put on his mac and safety helmet and drive back to Windsor.
George kindly left me over one hundred musical scores, all marked up in pencil and a music bureau containing all the Beethoven and Mozart sonatas.
Fulmer had quite a few musicians and singers including Bob Waterhouse, John Cole, Rose Stewart, Ken Weller and Mike Crompton.
How to impress – Mary had a little lamb….
When we had new staff George would introduce himself in a rather eccentric way. He would inhale air into his lungs and then exhale reciting the first verse of ‘Mary had a little Lamb’. Then he would empty his lungs and refill them with hydrogen from a gas cylinder. He would again recite the first verse of ‘Mary had a little lamb’ at which point his voice would rise to falsetto. He would then inhale air again and repeat the poem once more when his voice would return to its starting point. During this demonstration, his face would go a delicate shade of purple.
The Beryllium laboratory
An existing room at the far end of the building was converted twenty years later into a laboratory to work on a hazardous element called beryllium. A large fume cupboard was installed in the centre of the lab and one wall was turned into an extractor system. The floor was covered with a continuous plastic surface that could be easily cleaned and staff wore protective clothing and masks at appropriate times.
These precautions were taken because beryllium metal and its compounds were known to be a health risk. Also, the research work was needed to meet the requirements of the sponsors, namely the NASA European Office.
The equipment was made mostly from Pyrex glass and silica tubing attached to a high vacuum system. (See photograph on beryllium measurements in The Physical Chemistry Department).
Once every few months a person from the European Office would visit us. He was not conversant with our type of specialist chemistry but had enough knowledge to assess that it met the requirements of the contract. It was more of cultural than a scientific meeting and when he had greeted Dr Gross as, ‘Hi Phil’ we were covered in embarrassment, not ever thinking that Dr Gross had a first name.
After a few courtesies we dressed up the visitor and took him into the beryllium laboratory. It was essentially to show him that the equipment existed. After a few minutes there was suddenly an unusual sound from the other side of the fume cupboard.
It was immediately clear that something was wrong. We showed no concern but quickly ushered the man from NASA back into the main part of the house. We were none too soon, within a few minutes there was a bang and much of the fume cupboard was demolished.
George was also in the room helping to detect a small leak in the equipment. Both of us were knocked to the floor but managed to get out of the room. We both had cuts on our heads and were immediately sent down to the Industrial Health Centre in Slough where Dr Coppin, the Head of the Unit, saw us.
He had no knowledge of beryllium poisoning but spoke on the telephone to Dr Gross for advice. He suggested that the cuts on our heads be washed out with dilute hydrochloric acid and the Health Centre should contact the National Chemical Emergencies Unit. George and I were quite shaken and sat in the treatment room to see if there was any immediate reaction to our injuries. Eventually we were sent back to Fulmer and in due course sent home.
The next day we cautiously returned to the beryllium laboratory to decide how to clear the room. To our delight the capsule containing the beryllium metal was intact and we had not been contaminated with beryllium! At times like this George could show some concern for which I was thankful.
Visiting the Sick
George adopted the role of Health Visitor. Colleagues who found themselves in hospital had the statutory visit from George. He arrived on his Vespa wearing his old mac and safety helmet. His attire was not characteristic of visitors who had come to see their loved ones. He appeared to be in haste and anxious to find the patient from Fulmer.
Having found the patient, he would scan the ward looking for a chair to sit on. He would then sit down with a bump and the visit would now start. He sat down at the bedside, twiddling his badly bitten fingers, and looking down in complete silence. There he would stay for a few minutes; suddenly he would get up and without saying a word leave with just a nod and looking for the exit!
To give George the benefit of the doubt he was a Catholic Convert and could be praying for their Soul.
Visit to Beaconsfield
George occasionally visited our house in Beaconsfield for supper. I would pick him up from his flat in Windsor and return him home. One evening I arranged to play some classical music on the car radio as we returned to our house. I strapped him in and put on the radio. He responded by shouting very loudly ‘Turn that music off – I cannot hear it’. For George to lose his hearing as a musician must have been devastating.
On his arrival, my wife Elaine would open the door and say ’Hello George’ and he would respond with a nod and walk into the lounge. This was no surprise to us since we knew where he was heading. Out of his pocket came his piece of string to play with our cats Florence and Higgins. Pussy cats and elderly ladies were the extent of his social circuit.
A Surprise encounter – Rose Stewart
Rose and I were talking about the experience of being interviewed during the early years of Fulmer. Rose attended Slough High School, which she left in July 1953.
Having found an advertisement in the Slough Observer for a Laboratory Technician at the Fulmer Research Institute in Stoke Poges, she applied, and was granted an interview.
This was quite an adventure, two weeks later after two bus journeys and a country walk up the lanes, she found herself walking into the driveway of a large country house!
With some trepidation she entered the quiet, oak panelled hall and explained to the receptionist that she had an appointment for an interview. She thought there must be some mistake, as the job was to be in a laboratory!
Rose was asked to wait in the library which was along the dark corridor. Suddenly, she almost fell over a large body of a man lying on the floor playing with the house cat!
The receptionist ran to her rescue saying, ‘Sorry that’s only George’.
Rose quickly regained her composure, only to be confronted by two eccentric looking gentlemen by whom she was about to be interviewed.
Well, everything went well until departure time came, Rose stood up and, in the process, tripped over her umbrella, to the great amusement of the two Physicists!
Anyway, she was soon offered the job and then spent ten very happy years with some interesting and diverse people, one of whom (Duncan) she married!
Tony Bowry anecdotes
The story of George would not be complete without a contribution from Tony Bowry who was a friend and colleague throughout George’s time at Fulmer.
Lunch takes priority
George could be very naughty. On one occasion Dr Gross came into the lab to speak to him on a problem that he had worked on during his time in Vienna. They paced up and down the room rather like fishermen do on boats, but George was not interested. When lunch time called, he would slip out as they turned through the door leaving Dr Gross talking into space. George was on his way to the canteen.
George loved his food and had a high respect for Peter Constable our Catering Manager. George would take a tray and his cutlery, eat his way to front of the queue and arrive at the counter having eaten the main course and ready for the pudding. At this point he had the chance to nod to Peter and sometimes make critical remarks about the lunch. On one occasion George took Peter to task for incorrectly spelling the vegetable on the menu- should it be, Brussels Sprouts, Brussel’s Sprouts, Brussel sprout, a Sprout, the Sprouts and so on.
Games and pastimes
Physical games were an anathema to George. But he was passionate about snooker which he played after lunch with a group of regulars including Eddie Sugars, Duncan Stewart and Peter Stevens. He disliked losing and banged his snooker cue hard on the wooden floor. The noise became intolerable and someone stuck a large rubber pad on the end of his cue.
Chess was also popular as it could be played by just opening a drawer in most of the laboratories, but it was not a happy experience playing George. For example, if he had made a move he might say ‘I’m taking that back’. You dare not say ‘you can’t do that’. On the other hand, if you made what he thought was a stupid move he would accuse you of insulting him. He never mentioned the fact that Pam Dear, in her quiet way, and school leaver Jim Bingham, County School’s Champion regularly beat him!
On one occasion George visited the annual Agars Plough Fair and family events in Eton playing fields to celebrate VE Day. George visited the stalls and ended up in the Finals of the Air Gun Competition. Tony, who had represented the UK at Rifle Shooting, had been invited as a member of Slough Rifle Club to adjudicate and was rather embarrassed to find George taking part in the Finals.
Testing the Fire hoist
Tony also mentions this anecdote which highlights another side of George’s personality –the love for his fellow man.
One area was the installation of fire doors and fire exits in laboratory areas inside an old country house. Fire exits were difficult through the small windows on the upper floor. One solution was the fitting of a rope hoist outside with a slipping clutch outside on one of the windows that could lower people to the ground.
This device needed to be tested once a year and this is where George made an annual spectacular contribution to safety. With cheering staff gathered below on the ground, other people attached the safety line to George and squeezed him out through the tiny window. The slipping clutch mechanism was then operated and his plump, 20 stone frame slowly lowered to the ground. At the time, the small room one floor below was being used by the Company auditors
You can imagine their horror and surprise when the auditors below saw a helpless rag doll with arms and legs awry passing the front of the window with George trying to remove his pullover from a nail in the wall.
He landed with a cheer, the safety belt released, and George walked away with a contented smile.
Job well done!
George in Hospital
Unexpectedly, we heard that George had been taken to hospital at Wexham. He was a sad looking soul and he just laid there in the bed. He did not wish to talk but struggled to tell me that he was anxious that he could not find his wallet. It was his special companion which he kept inside his jacket pocket. It was a bulging black leather wallet in which he kept all his significant pieces of paper. He asked me to speak to the staff about his wallet and what they were going to do with him.
Apparently, he had not been very cooperative and took the line ‘You are the medical people – you find out what’s wrong with me’
I found the wallet in a locker beside his bed and he gave me a whole raft of instructions. I knew his flat well and went there to make it ‘safe’, collect some papers and make secure some very expensive musical instruments. It transpired that his funeral was to be the responsibility of Lloyds Bank and all his possessions would go to Winchester College
On 20 August 2002 he died in Heatherwood Hospital and I took over arranging a simple funeral at Amersham Crematorium. Two elderly suited and scented gentlemen came from Winchester College and introduced themselves as being responsible for those parts of George’s Estate mentioned in his Will. They were a trifle embarrassed that the Service was to be conducted by an Old Etonian friend of mine. This sounds a bit implausible, but Robin Grayson with a gentle humour mentioned this in his address to the congregation. At the end of the Service the two Old Wykehamists shook hands with Robin with small smile.
Born into a privileged background George saw little of how most people lived and assumed that people would react to situations in the way he would consider normal.
There is no doubt that he was intellectually able but in an atmosphere such as Fulmer I have little evidence that he was academically outstanding. He was a poor communicator, a fast learner but a poor teacher.
If being eccentric is acting differently from the norm George had that in full measure.
It was a great asset that he honed that gave him space to live life on his terms.
He was passionate about music and mathematics, two subjects that demand a flare for logic, shape and discipline. His knowledge of both was of a high standard but not exceptional. He played several musical instruments at the level of a good student and had a high knowledge of classical music theory, but in the cultural and academic climate of Winchester and Oxford this would not make much of an impact.
He knew in detail how to behave and how to conform in society.
He chose not to.
He had poor social skills and covered this up by acting like a ridiculous and amusing person. This protected him from the normal cut and thrust of life and colleagues still say – ‘Do you remember the time when George ………’
I will remember George as a good friend, a nonconformer, who enjoyed making people smile which allowed him to live life as he wanted.
Firstly, thank you to David without whose suggestion we would not have written this paper. We asked a wide range of people to write anecdotes and we were pleased to have responses from colleagues who worked directly in the Physical Chemistry Department, staff from other sections of Fulmer and musical friends.
George Wilson Remembered by David Davies
Unlike Ron, who was a close friend and colleague of George, I never worked with him and didn’t know him well. However, George was a presence – everyone was aware of him. I always got on well with him and I felt somehow honoured if he sought me out to tell me some snippet of information. We had interests in common and I counted him as a friend.
George had no social skills – in fact he was arrogant and rude but hidden away somewhere behind his gruff exterior some human sensibilities were to be found.
Here are a few examples of my interactions with George.
A man of substance
George was not a small man. Often he would come to the Foundry at lunchtime to weigh himself on the metal scales that we used to weigh out the charges for alloy melts. Usually he would then leave without a word but one day he put his head round the door and announced to a group of us “I’m twenty stone!”, then he left without waiting for a reply.
Calculating skills put to good use
Sometime in the early 80’s George acquired a programmable pocket calculator. He sought me out to show me proudly a program he had written on this machine – it was to calculate the date of Easter for a given year.
George’s expertise had limits
One day I found George in the Foundry in the midst of a little knot technicians who had unwisely mentioned to him that a diffusion vacuum pump had ceased to function. George was in the process of completely dismantling this complicated electronic device. I feared the worst and sure enough the pump never recovered; it had drawn its last breath.
Tony Bowry mentioned that George appreciated Peter Constable’s lunches. My perception is slightly different. I think that George regarded eating lunch as a refuelling exercise and a waste of snooker time. The layout of the servery in the Fulmer canteen was such that one queued past the puddings to get to the main course. George had normally finished his pudding before he was served with his main course.
As explained by Ron, George continued to come to lunch on his Vespa after he had officially left Fulmer and, even after Fulmer had merged with BNF, he sometimes appeared at Wantage despite the 45 extra miles each way.
George and I shared an interest in Arthur Ransome and his novels. I had enjoyed them when I was young and was currently reading them with my children. George was an expert in them. This gave us a topic to talk about when conversation flagged. According to Mike Stuart, George had made a special expedition on his Vespa motor Scooter to the Lake District. He wanted to check the accuracy of the map in ”Swallows and Amazons” which he thought was meant to be a representation of Coniston Water.
My memories of George have been greatly supplemented by many conversations with his close colleagues Ron Lewin, Mike Stuart and Tony Bowry. Mike in particular should be credited with the following anecdotes:–
Dr Wilson I presume
George, who was a perpetual student, graduated from one of the London colleges with a PhD in mathematics. He surprised his colleagues by turning up at Fulmer one day in his full academicals. The cap and gown were something of a contrast with his normal garb.
The ether demonstration
Mike Stuart recalls how George once lay back in his chair with an ether-soaked pad over his face. After a while, Mike went over to him. removed the pad and woke him up. Mike is sure that this demonstration was for Mike’s benefit; George wouldn’t have risked it on his own.
A thousand experiments
On one occasion Dr Gross wanted George to do an effusion measurement. George carried out 1000 trials. It isn’t clear whether this huge number of repeats was planned from the start, perhaps to reduce the standard error of the mean, or whether George decided to extend the number of trials for his own reasons. The results are recorded in George’s experimental notebook, page after page of numbers with hardly any writing except for an occasional date or words such as – ‘I wish my readers a Happy Christmas!’
When the thousandth trial was complete, George invited a dozen of the Physical Chemistry Department to a celebration dinner at a Hotel in Windsor with Dr Gross as the guest of honour. The menu included Chateaubriand accompanied by Beaune. This evening became known as ‘the night of a thousand experiments’.
George resigns and retires
Dr Gross always felt the need to have a discussion colleague to exchange ideas with. When Dr Levi resigned, this role often fell to George who didn’t always welcome it. Mike Stuart recalls that on one occasion George declared to his colleagues “If he calls me in again, I shall resign!” George was as good as his word. He wrote his resignation in his tiny writing on a corner torn from a piece of paper and handed it to the managing director Mr Liddiard.
Mr Liddiard, who had little time for George, gave the scrap of paper to his secretary Miss Duckett and asked her to staple it to a proper piece of paper and file it.
Thus George resigned his post at Fulmer, almost on a whim, with no consultation. This was something of an embarrassment; he had undoubtedly been a useful if unmanageable member of the department and given useful advice and help to colleagues with their projects. One can only speculate about any conversation that may have taken place between Dr Gross and Mr Liddiard on the subject!
The problem was solved in a creative way. He was a very keen snooker player, so without being paid anything, he would come to Fulmer, help the staff with their mathematical problems and stay for lunch and a game of snooker.
George was shy yet he was assertive and impatient. He would sometimes walk away from a conversation saying “I’ve lost interest.” Even when he agreed with you he had a special rapid way of nodding which managed to convey both assent and impatience.
Almost the whole of George’s life was spent at three institutions: Winchester College, Balliol College Oxford and Fulmer Research Institute. He admired Winchester and was happy there. He was critical of Balliol and of Oxford teaching. I think that at Fulmer he had enough freedom to establish a role for himself as the eccentric wise jester. Mike Stuart agrees that a lot of George’s antics were done for effect.
Despite all, I counted him a friend and he added a certain spice or zest to the Fulmer community, which would have been much the poorer without him.
FRHG Ref: V870