By W H Dodds, 17 December 1953
J Bower was the original Chief Chemist at the beginning of the factory but was only temporarily at Umbogintwini, having left his wife and family in England. He was succeeded as Chief Chemist by W E Martin from Arklow. Mr Bower came to this country again during the 1914-18 war to establish and take charge of the guncotton plant. He was a most friendly and companionable person, and would have liked to live in this country permanently, but, unfortunately, the poor health of his wife, who was also a charming person, prevented him from doing so. Mr Bower was, for many years, employed by the British Cellulose Company, at Derby.
Mr & Mrs W E Martin’s lawn tennis parties at their home in Belle Vue Road, Durban, soon became highly appreciated social events. They were made the more eventful at times by their eldest son, Allen, who in his younger days was a striking example of an “enfant terrible”. When he insisted on encroaching on the court during play, as frequently happened, many an apparently wild service or volley was, in reality, aimed at Allen. A few years later he developed the charming personality he has today.
Mr Martin succeeded Mr Bower as Chief Chemist and was later promoted to the post of Explosives Works Manager. After his retirement, he became for some years Consulting Analytical Chemist to a group of Natal collieries, and made his home at Kloof.
Thomas Arthur Warner, originally a surveyor, was one of the very first to be employed at the factory, in fact, before building operations began. He came from Australia and was at Umbogintwini for many years, where he became the Native Labour Manager. Eventually he left to become a sugarcane planter and later a member of the Union Government Land Board and a director of the Umfolosi Co-operative Sugar Planters’ Association. He has now retired but is still extremely active for his age; he now lives at Umhloti Beach. He had a charming wife and bevy of three handsome daughters who were of much social importance in Umbogintwini at a comparatively early period.
A Robinson was in Natal for only a short time during the construction of war-time extensions in 1915. He was most ingenious and very well informed in all branches of engineering and was thus a great help at a difficult time.
On the first day of his arrival at Umbogintwini, he was accommodated at the Staff House and joined in the somewhat elaborate afternoon tea we used to have in those days after finishing work. Later in the evening he was nowhere to be seen and at dinner time was found to have retired to his room and was fast asleep in bed; he was very surprised to be told that another meal was waiting.
F W Hinchley came to Umbogintwini as Secretary and, during the absence of Mr J P Udal, General Manager, in England during wartime; he deputised for the manager in certain duties and was Chairman of the local Management Committee of senior staff who decided the general policy for the factory.
He was a great practical joker which sometimes made him appear inconsiderate, although he was not so in reality. He met with an unfortunate end by drowning on Amanzimtoti beach.
His wife once asked him to write for her the regular weekly letter home to her mother in Britain; he did so and stated in the letter that his wife was unable to write, having been severely bitten in the hand by a marauding monkey in the garden. This was entirely without foundation but it took several months to clear up the matter in those days long before airmails.
W Ivan Taylor was a brilliant young man who came a year or so after the opening of the factory to introduce the Mannheim plant for making fuming sulphuric acid, and remained for some years as General Chemical Works Manager.
Mr and Mrs Taylor revisited Natal in 1953 for the first time since they left about 1921. In the meantime, Mr Taylor had been employed in industrial research with the British Cellulose Co., at Derby until his recent retirement. Like several others who were formerly on the staff at Umbogintwini, he continues, after his retirement, to do technical consulting work.
William Vanken Blewett was one of the part of four factory chemists who accompanied Mr J Bower on his journey from Southampton to Umbogintwini in November 1908, the others being G Firth, M A Troy and the writer.
Mr Blewett remainined for many years first as Chemical Works Chemist. He succeeded Mr Taylor as Manager of the Chemical Works, and in 1922, after the departure of Mr Helcke, the successor to Mr Udal, became General Manager.
Later he was transferred to the London offices of the ICI Limited, and had a number of special technical missions, mainly connected with fertilizer propaganda, and later with insect control, in many parts of the world including Australia, China and many other countries.
Although retired from ICI Limited, Mr Blewett still spends his time in similar foreign tours for various technical interests. His wife visited Durban and Umbogintwini again in 1953.
Clement Stanley Heaven was Chief Engineer for many years and was one of the first Europeans to be employed during the construction of the factory early in 1908. He was one of a group of four members of the staff, who were joined at one period by the writer, who occupied one of the very few beach cottages that existed at Amanzimtoti in those days. The others of the group were Soutter and Cheesman, draughtsman, and Hoffe, foreman of the Explosives Cartridging Department.
Mr Heaven was married twice, first to Miss A Troy, sister of one of the factory chemists, and secondly to Mrs Gordon, widow of the first medical officer at the factory.
Charles Scorer was for many years foreman of the sulphuric acid plant, an occupation calling for never-ending watchfulness over the continuous lead chamber process that was used in those days.
He was nicknamed by the native labourers “Beka-pesu” meaning “look upwards”. This was not a reference to his earnest religious nature, but to the fact that he almost continually kept an eye on the exhaust pipe exit at the top of the sulphuric acid chamber, about 50 feet above the ground. It was essential that the exhaust gases should betray no tinge of brown fumes, indicating a loss of nitrogen in the form of its oxides which were vital to the process; on the other hand, a white fog would indicate a loss of sulphuric acid.
Mr Scorer had three daughters, two of whom worked in the office; the elder Miss Dorrie Scorer, for 38½ years. She was the first woman to be employed at the factory.
George Firth was one of the original party of chemists and factory operatives from Arklow to travel to Umbogintwini in October 1908, in the old “Kildonan Castle”. He came originally from Birmingham, where he was employed with Messrs Albright and Wilson, manufacturers of phosphorus and its compounds. He, thus, had excellent experience with dangerous materials before becoming acquainted with the even more potentially hazardous manufacture of nitro-glycerine. He has a very fine personality, calm and self-possessed, and was never known to be excited, whatever the emergency.
When the company under new management began to attribute much more importance than previously to academic qualifications of members of the staff, Mr Firth gained the degree of B.Sc., solely as a result of spare time study and attending evening lectures in Durban. This was a great achievement for one with the responsible, full-time duties of Chief Chemist and of mature age. He is now retired and lives at Montclair, Durban.
Archibald Terry Scurr was not among the earliest members of the staff to arrive at Umbogintwini, but was transferred a year or two later from the factory at Kynochtown on the Thames marshes, to become one of the three shift chemists to take alternate periods in control of the continuous operation of the nitro-glycerine manufacturing plant and the mixing of explosives.
After the closing down of the manufacture of explosives at Umbogintwini, Mr Scurr was transferred for about 2½ years to the explosives factory at Modderfontein, after which he returned to Umbogintwini.
He has now retired and is living in Pietermaritzburg. He is a very fine character of a somewhat retiring nature. His son, Robin, is following his father’s profession, and is a chemist engaged in sulphuric acid manufacture for the extraction of uranium at some of the gold mines in the Transvaal.
M A Troy. While the great majority of the factory operatives came originally from Arklow and were of Irish descent, Mr Troy was one of the few of the supervisory staff to be also of Irish birth and descent. He was one of the early arrivals at Umbogintwini and brought with him his sister, Miss A Troy.
Mr Troy was one of the shift chemists in charge of the nitro-glycerine plant, having become thoroughly experienced in that work at Arklow. Besides his excellent technical and personal qualities, he had the gift of imagination and considerable literary talent. Unfortunately his health was poor and he died at a comparatively early age.
Edgar Charles Rees was another outstanding personality. He came from Birmingham University, were he was the private assistant of Professor Frankland, after the Umbogintwini factory had been opened a few years.
One of his first assignments was to determine experimentally the optimum composition of the residual acid resulting from the manufacture of nitro-glycerine, the so-called “waste” acid, although it was by no means wasted. This acid consisted mainly of a mixture of sulphuric acid, nitric acid, water and a certain amount of dissolved nitro-glycerine. The principal aim was, of course, to reduce the loss of nitro-glycerine in this way to a minimum by discovering the composition of the acids and water mixture that had the least solubility for nitro-glycerine. This was successfully determined by Mr Rees; the information had important economic results by indicating the most profitable composition of the original mixed sulphuric and nitric acid for nitrating glycerine, and the best proportion of this mixture of acids per unit of glycerine.
However, Mr Rees did not have the opportunity to continue chemical research for which he had very definite talents. He was transferred to the chemical works where he became Assistant Manager and, after the departure of Mr Blewett, he succeeded him as General Works Manager.
Later, Mr Rees was transferred to the General Managership of the Somerset West Factory of the African Explosives and Chemical Industries, a position he occupied until his retirement a year or two ago. During this period of his career he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Science of the University of South Africa and became a director of African Explosives and Chemical Industries Limited.
Among his varied social talents, he is a very fine baritone singer. Dr and Mrs Rees still reside near Somerset West, Strand.
George Ingham is a most interesting character. He was appointed Chemist in the main analytical laboratory at Umbogintwini during the 1914-18 war, having recently retired as a science master at an Orange Free State secondary school. He served the remainder of the war period and a few years later, when he retired for the second time.
During the Second World War he was yet again appointed to the factory staff and again did valuable service in the chemical laboratory, and, as before, did a few additional years of service after the war until he retired for the third time.
He must now be in his eighties, but he is still active and recently survived, without permanent injury, a severe motor car accident near Pietermaritzburg.
Mr Ingham did a good deal of chemical research at one time on the quantity of ammonia in the atmosphere and its effect on the economy of plant nutrition.
W H Dodds, the compiler of these memoranda, was one of the original party of chemists and operatives to travel from Arklow to Umbogintwini in October 1908. He hailed originally from Manchester but had been for over two years an explosives chemist at the Arklow factory. He was a nitro-glycerine factory shift chemist for the first few years at Umbogintwini, but after the promotion of Mr W E Martin from Chief Chemist to Explosives Works Manger, Mr Dodds occupied the vacancy thus created.
For many years he was secretary of the Umbogintwini lawn tennis club, and at one time occupied one of the senior staff houses jointly with another bachelor, Mr W Ivan Taylor, until the marriage of the latter.
After the closing down of the explosives factory in 1921 and in view of the general uncertain outlook at Umbogintwini about that time, Mr Dodds decided to resign and to visit the USA. He first took a course in sugar technology at Louisiana State University and them, for a year or two, became what was known at that time as a “sugar tramp”; that is to say, he took on various temporary seasonal employment on sugar estates, factories and experiment stations in Louisiana, Honduras (Central America) and Cuba (West Indies), to gain experience in various phases of cane sugar production.
He returned to South Africa in 1924 to organise and direct on behalf of the South African Sugar Association a sugar experiment station established during the following year at Mount Edgecombe on the Natal North Coast. He remained there as a director until his retirement in 1951.
He married Miss E A King, formerly a teacher at the Umbogintwini school.
In 1941 he was awarded at Pietermaritzburg the honorary degree of Dr. Sc., of the University of South Africa. Dr and Mrs Dodds now live at Durban North.
Messrs A Gregory, W W Southwood, William Charles Weller and H Williams. These are the names of four youths who were chemical laboratory assistants during the early days of the factory at Umbogintwini from about 1915. None of them had the advantage of much higher education between school-leaving age and the time they took employment, but they are worthy of note because of their remarkably successful careers, with the exception of W Weller who was handicapped by poor health and died at a comparatively early age.
When evening courses in science were established at the Natal Technical College they all enthusiastically attended them.
The Chief Chemist at the factory at that time, who happened to be the writer, was also evening lecturer and demonstrated in organic chemistry at the Technical College, and was much impressed with the keenness and capability for study of these youngsters. Incidentally, he found it to be part of his duty, as tutor to these students, to report regularly and formally on their progress to himself, as their immediate employer.
A Gregory is the only one still at Umbogintwini, where he is now Chief Superintendent of the Acids Section. He gained the degree of B.Sc., and, a few years ago, he was elected Chairman of the Natal branch of the South African Chemical Institute.
W W Southwood left to join the Royal Baking Powder Co., at Cape Town, where he eventually became General Manager and gained the degree of D.Sc.
H Williams left first to become a chemist at a sugar factory, and later joined the Epic Oil Mills Limited in Johannesburg, now the second largest manufacturer of edible oils in the Union. He also became General Manager of the company in due course.
Patrick James Cunningham was one of the early immigrants from Arklow. He was first employed on the nitric acid plant, where he eventually became foreman. He was the last of the original European personnel at the beginning of the factory to retire, which he did two or three years ago. He was allowed to remain in employment somewhat beyond the regulation age for his retirement, so that he could establish a record of 50 years’ continuous service with the company. This implies that he must have begun work at about the beginning of the century at Arklow at the age of 12 or 13.
Other employees of long standing. The only employee of any race was employed at the beginning of the factory and is still working there is Murti, an Indian office assistant. Rambrun, an Indian clerk, who recently retired, had also been working continuously since the beginning of the factory.
W Weller, foreman of the nitro-glycerine factory, was in several ways a typical Cockney. He had a strong sense of humour and plenty of shrewd and good-natured common sense. He had learned his job very thoroughly and capably at Kynochtown, where he began work in 1894. He was at his best in an emergency such as a factory explosion, when he was particularly cool, active and resourceful.
He had a son and two daughters also working at the factory.
Factory Operatives. A very good type of man had been selected, mainly from Arklow, especially for explosives work, and it was a pleasure to work with them.
Among these were R Knott, W Roche, J Smith, W Murray, D J Kavanagh, T Kavanagh, M O’Brien, E Hughes, M O’Connor, P O’Reilly, J McCall, H White, J O’Neill, E Doyle and a number of others.
M A Lee did not come direct from Arklow, although he was from there originally. He was a seaman and on one of his voyages the ship called at Durban where he found at Umbogintwini a colony of his friends and compatriots from Arklow. He was induced to give up a seafaring life and becme an explosives operator for many years. He is now retired and is living at Umbogintwini.