Robert Lewis Bickerdike – Tribute

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About 80 of us gathered with family and friends at St John’s Itchen Abbas to give thanks for the life of an amazing man and resident of Itchen Abbas – Robert Bickerdike.

Here are the tributes:

William Bickerdike (Robert’s son) said:

My father’s family was from Lancashire.  They had lived in Blackburn since the middle of the 19th century, my great grandfather having been a partner in a small chemical manufacturing firm called Bowdler and Bickerdike located at Church, near Oswaldtwistle.  It was this establishment that Grandfather Bickerdike was running as the family grew up in Lancashire between the two world wars.

In the 1930s, my father and his younger brother Bill attended Dauntsey’s School in Wiltshire as boarders.  Happily, it would appear, though the teaching was perhaps not up to today’s standards.  Of the sixth form chemistry classes, my father wrote, ‘we were left to familiarise ourselves with the subject more or less on our own … the teacher was usually sitting at his desk, busy as second master with school administration, but ready to answer questions if we had any.  This did at least teach one self-reliance … and did not seem to do any harm in the long run.’  In summer, holidays were usually spent up north, frequently at a rented house in Rockcliffe on the Solway Firth, or in the Lake District with other members of the family.  A large number of first and second cousins lived in the same area, with strong friendships forming between Bickerdikes, Birtwistles, Helmes, Applebys and my mother’s family, the Eccleses, to name but a few.

Both my father and his brother Bill were academically strong and won places at Cambridge, my father going to Caius, which was his father’s college, while Bill won an exhibition to King’s.  However, Bill was killed in Italy in 1944 and never took up his place.

Like his father and grandfather before him, my father was a scientist, developing an interest in metallurgy while he was at university.  Soon after graduating, he joined the Royal Aircraft Establishment or RAE in Farnborough, where he worked as a research scientist for his entire career.  Later on, he once remarked how extraordinary it was that such an important centre of research should have been closed down by the UK government.  My sister will talk in more detail about his work.

In the late 1940s and early 50s, he lived in lodgings near the RAE in Farnborough, but after marrying my mother in 1952 they lived in Farnham, moving to No 18 Lynch Road, with Granny Bickerdike living next door at No 20.

In the late 1960s, after my grandmother had passed on, I remember a particular Sunday when my father noticed an advertisement on the back page of The Observer describing an isolated farm house for sale in Hampshire, with distant views over barley fields and hop yards.

Perhaps as a result of his northern upbringing, and frequent visits to the Lake District, he always had a fondness for a panoramic view, and Clays Farm was the first of several houses that offered spectacular views over beautiful countryside.  At different times of year, there were sky larks, pheasants and partridge everywhere, while the hedgerows of Hampshire provided an abundance of leaves and berries for turning into home-made wine.

Glass demi-johns of nettle, elderflower, elderberry or plum were soon quietly bubbling away on the cellar steps, though not always quietly, as I seem to remember a Bulmer’s cider bottle which once exploded, after which certain bottles were always approached rather cautiously, dust bin lid in hand.  The Hampshire countryside also provided inspiration for painting – usually landscapes, but often hedgerows – and during the winter he was always to be found in the attic finishing off a canvas for a local exhibition.  He was very pleased when his paintings were accepted, even more so when one of them was sold; but he was especially chuffed when three of his pictures were accepted by the Royal Institute of Oil Painters for their annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries.

In addition to painting, he enjoyed gardening, and was especially fond of growing roses, lilies, lilacs, delphiniums and camellias.  The heavy Hampshire clay was particularly good for roses, and at the end of June the rose beds at Clays Farm were full of colour.  In the evenings, he would prefer reading to television.   He read widely and enjoyed biographies, history, cosmology and religion, but more often than not would be found re-reading the classics: Dickens, Jane Austen, Thackeray, Trollope, which, in his own words, represented a blend of escapism and safe, familiar territory.

The summer holidays always involved travel.   These holidays were meticulously planned, entailing long lists and careful packing of a seriously overloaded car.  I well remember one summer in the late 1960s, when we not only had a detailed itinerary, Michelin maps, Michelin guides, every conceivable piece of camping equipment, and a special pack of spare radiator hoses for the car, but were also equipped with a large reel to reel tape recorder, which played Beethoven’s 5th symphony and Mozart’s clarinet concerto at full blast as we raced south down the Italian autostrada at 55 miles an hour.  Later on we graduated to a caravan, and eventually to a small house in France, which meant that the camping equipment was exchanged for DIY equipment, road maps were replaced by sketches for new drainage systems, and trips to the market for paté and cheese were usually followed by more urgent visits to the local builders’ merchants.

Dad once said that if he hadn’t been a scientist, then he would have enjoyed being an architect, and he certainly seemed to have a knack for seeing the potential in even the humblest of ruins.  He was practical, and ambitious, did much of the work himself but also used the services of a certain Monsieur Cosse, the local builder.  When driving up to the house at the beginning of the holidays, there was always a feeling of suspense as one was never quite sure to what extent the slightly erratic Monsieur Cosse had taken on board the request to complete a project by a specific date.

However, it all worked out in the end and a good number of summer holidays were spent in the Dordogne, often with relatives or friends.  Dad described the landscape as follows: ‘The scene looking down from the garden in the evening – the lush valley, the old fortified town above it, the river below, the walnuts, the poplars and the patchwork of strawberry fields, tobacco, vines and maize on the valley floor – was unforgettable.  It was especially good in the autumn, when the tourists had gone and the colours were superb.  The golden maize was over six feet high, and when we walked past the tobacco sheds they smelt deliciously of cigars.’  But eventually the house at Laroque Gageac was sold and was replaced by Little Knox Cottage in Galloway, another holiday home with a great view, but in a state of disrepair.  After a short while, and the imaginative addition of another floor, Little Knox was in good working order and for a few years was an enjoyable base for walking and painting expeditions.

Dad’s long and happy retirement was spent of course here in Itchen Abbas, where he felt fortunate to have so many kind and interesting friends, neighbours and relatives close by.  He had actually been a bit apprehensive about retiring and having so much time on his hands, but he was not one to spend time idly.   One of his first projects was to delve into family history, sort out sheaves of old letters, visit numerous graveyards and consult parish records, have an expert look at the Knaresborough Court Rolls which were written in medieval abbreviated Latin, correspond with the Society of Genealogists and the Borthwick Institute in York,  and finally write up his extensive findings, producing a beautifully illustrated book called Family Records, in which he wrote in great detail about our forebears and all those related, mostly Lancashire, families.  A powerful motive for delving into the past was to investigate a possible link with a family of Catholic Bickerdikes living at a place also called Farnham, just to the north of Harrogate.  A direct link had still not been conclusively proven, but it was strong enough for my parents to take the unusual step of flying to the Vatican in 1987, to attend the beatification of the Venerable Robert Bickerdike, who had been martyred in the year 1586 for sheltering a Catholic priest.

He never lost his love of travelling, most frequently to Europe, but also further afield to the USA, Russia, and – at the age of 80 – to India and then Pakistan, where I was working at the time.  When he was 90, we went again to Italy, where he was stopped by a passport official who congratulated him on his great age.  He would usually try to plan his holidays around gardens, art galleries and operas.  He loved music, so when Grange Park opera opened its doors just down the road, he promptly signed up as a Founder Member.  He never talked much about what he had seen or heard, but he was a great thinker and the poetry he wrote gives some idea of the thoughts which preoccupied him.  His poems covered a wide range of themes, and were usually long and philosophical but sometimes unexpectedly light hearted.  We have included three of the shorter ones in today’s service.

Alexandra Holmes (Robert’s daughter) said:

When I was a child most of my friends had parents who were doctors or lawyers which was fairly straightforward, but when I said that my father was a metallurgist who had an interest in titanium, there were always quite a few blank looks because no one really knew what that meant.

Nowadays of course it is quite different.   Titanium alloys are used everywhere, and I am sure that there are some people right here in the congregation who may have encountered them in a medical or dental context, or a sporting one playing golf or tennis.

But let’s turn the clock back to the Second World War.   On graduating from Cambridge my father received a telegram asking him to report to the scientists working at The Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough.   It was at the time of the Battle of the Beams and the German bombing, and they were developing new approaches and countermeasures against the Nazi regime.   While he was there the jet plane designed by Frank Whittle arrived on their airfield, and so he and his colleagues started looking for alloys which would operate at high temperatures in gas turbines.   This was when he became interested in titanium.   Although very little was known about it at that time, he thought it might have properties which would make it a contender for a new range of alloys.

However before he got very far with this, he was sent over to France with other scientists attached to an Anglo American Unit called T force.   Their objectives were to discover what scientific advances the Germans had made, what new weapons they were developing and who the scientists involved were.   There were a number of known targets from intelligence reports, and he travelled around extensively in Germany and Austria towards the end and after the war.

Back at Farnborough in 1946, he resumed work on titanium and came to lead the UK research on it for a while.   By that summer he was making 100 grams of titanium at a time, and producing small ingots.

In 1947 a larger version of his equipment was used by a firm in Sheffield to make a few hundredweights of the metal, and he got a research institute in London to start the development of titanium alloys with it.   At Farnborough they continued working on its metallurgy and sponsored other UK labs in different ways of extracting the metal from its ores.

In 1948 a US firm went into production on an industrial scale and I.C.I and Imperial Metal Industries here in UK followed a year later.

Now without becoming completely lost in the science, I would like to mention briefly some of my father’s other work.

He and his team researched materials for use at high temperatures, for which the French presented them with the Lavoisier Medal, named after one of the fathers of modern chemistry.  They worked on alloys for gas turbines, materials for rockets, and methods of insulating very fast aircraft from aerodynamic heating.   One of his colleagues went on to develop the strong stiff carbon fibres which are used for many purposes today.

In the mid 50’s they were asked to go to the aid of a group at Harwell who were trying to develop a new nuclear reactor, and had come up against problems which they couldn’t solve.

In 1971 Sir Barnes Wallis presented a Royal Society of Arts prize for work studying the deposition of carbon from hydrocarbon gases.  This led to another process taken up by a firm in the Midlands, and used for the spark machining of turbine blades among other things.

And finally my father looked into new ways of making aluminium alloys as the standard ways had limitations particularly with regard to aluminium.   Previously the growth of fatigue cracks had led to disasters with the Comet aeroplane, and problems with strength at high temperatures had limited the speed of aircraft like Concorde.   With his team he studied the growth of metal crystals from the vapour.   The process used powerful beams of electrons generated by large electron guns which were bent by magnetic fields, and he discovered an aluminium alloy which was better in almost all respects than existing alloys.

In 1975 at a ceremony in Hamilton Place, the Duke of Kent presented the Royal Aeronautical Society’s bronze medal for this and previous work.

At the age of 62 he handed his work on to someone else, but remained as a consultant at Farnborough for a couple of years.

An amusing postscript to all this happened when my father was admitted to Basingstoke Hospital for the insertion of a pacemaker.  As the operation was done under local anaesthetic there was time to chat, so the doctor asked my father what he had done in his working life.   The answer he got was slightly more than he’d bargained for!

The following poems by Robert Bickerdike were read at the service by his grandchildren 


(After John Betjeman perhaps?)

Once I had a homburg,
But if I wore it now
In Winchester that trendy burgh
There might be quite a row.

Bowler used to be the rage,
For clubman, city gent;
But now in this less formal age
Its time is almost spent.

You hardly ever see ‘em
At the Athenaeum.
It’s quite a shame that they have sped,
They’re such protection for the head.

When togged up for a wedding,
Always wore a topper;
Father’s came in handy then
But now it’s seldom proper.

He also had an opera hat,
Quite a chic affair.
Squash it up and press it flat,
Put it anywhere.

How about a stovepipe
Which great grandpa possessed?
Chucked away when time was ripe
Along with all the rest.

The fisherman or walker,
Duke or farming hand,
Sometimes wear a deerstalker
When they’re on the land.

Or for a country lover,
In autumn, winter, spring,
A pork pie head cover
Is a comfortable thing.

A trilby indicates you sport
An interest in the horses,
Or something vaguely of the sort
To do with racing courses.

Now panama’s a stylish one,
If you’re into that;
Though on my hols I take for fun
A floppy painting hat;

Best of all a jaunty cap
For wearing in the Fall.
As it has an earflap
It’s warmest of them all.

Morning in the Allgau

Climb a mountain in the dark,
The dark before the morn,
Then tips of neighbouring peaks are fired
By rosy-fingered dawn.

Mountain ranges in the west
Are coming into sight,
And as the round earth slowly turns
They’re bathed in golden light.

Bells are clanging faintly in
The sea of cloud below;
Crocuses are pushing through
The gaps in melting snow,

And vivid blue of gentians
Amongst the snow and ice.
Bees invade the alpenrose
And starry edelweiss.

Beneath the firs and larches
There drifts a rising smoke,
Signal that the day has started
For the country folk.

The early haze evaporates;
And as the valley clears
An eagle spreads its wings
And a postal van appears.

Talking to a computer

I said to my computer
This tool which we have made,
“if your brain gets smarter
You’ll put me in the shade;

At the slightest click you can
Remember more than mortal man,
Search the whole wide world for us,
Navigate the universe”

“Even so, with our free will
We’ll do what you can’t do:
Unprompted thoughts will guide us still,
Imagination too,

My roving spirit tends to flee
To realms you’ll never find,
Ineffable my thoughts may be,
Beyond a silicon mind.”

“You’re my great facilitator,
You’re my slave,
my knowledge store;
What new powers might reach you later?
Might you be controlling more?

With continual advances
At this unremitting pace
You’ll be thinking far beyond us
Might become a master race.

As the age is gliding by
We have other feelings too,
And remember wistfully,
How we created you….

A selection of paintings by Robert Bickerdike which appeared on the service sheet

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