All posts by Graham Snowdon

A Load of Rubbish – Richard Groome — 25th April 2016

Richard’s talk was any­thing but a load of rub­bish, but that was his chosen title for a present­a­tion which showed us the state of play in the match between the envir­on­ment and the ever rising tide of house­hold waste.

Eur Ing (European Engineer) Richard Groome, BSc Hons, C Eng, FI Chem E, gradu­ated from Nottingham University with a degree in chem­ical engin­eer­ing and has worked for many national and inter­na­tional organ­isa­tions in both the public and private sector. He now runs his own busi­ness as a freel­ance con­sult­ant spe­cial­ising in waste pro­cessing.

A fellow of the Institution of Chemical Engineers, he was a founder member of their Food and Drink Group and was the UK del­eg­ate on the European Federation of Chemical Engineers. He will shortly be installed as Master of the Worshipful Company of Engineers, one of the Livery Companies of the City of London.

Richard’s present­a­tion showed us (with a very appro­pri­ate illus­tra­tion of Albert Steptoe and his son Harold) that waste pro­cessing in the UK has gone from noth­ing to hi-tech in just ten years. Some 45 per cent of house­hold waste is now recycled, com­pared with 11 per cent a decade ago.

But we still send 51 per cent of muni­cipal waste to land­fill and, while that figure com­pares favour­ably with Malta’s 95 per cent, we are still lag­ging behind the European aver­age of 40 per cent.

From the cli­mate change point of view, land­fill accounts for three per cent of all meth­ane emis­sions.

Currently, only 12 per cent of UK waste is incin­er­ated to provide heat and power, com­pared with 40 per cent in Germany.

However, we have reduced house­hold food waste by one mil­lion tonnes since 2006.

There have been big advances of the recyc­ling of metals, glass and plastics and, while not all plastics can be recycled (yoghurt car­tons, for example, con­tain poly­styrene which is not recyc­lable), less than five per cent will leave a modern ‘mater­i­als recov­ery centre’ as rub­bish, and that can be used for energy pro­duc­tion.

Cans are one of the suc­cess stor­ies of modern recyc­ling, Richard explained. “Most metals are 100 per cent recyc­lable, and food con­tain­ers are usu­ally back on the shelves within six weeks (of being dis­carded).”

Richard is con­fid­ent that the gap between the UK and the rest of Europe will close, but that we should aim at a zero-waste target. “We are chan­ging waste cul­ture,” he told us, “but ideally, in the future, there should be no land­fill, min­imum incin­er­a­tion and more recyc­lable pack­aging.”

Although his talk was primar­ily on UK waste pro­cessing, Richard — who is also qual­i­fied in local coun­cil admin­is­tra­tion — has wide exper­i­ence in other fields and has been a non-executive dir­ector of the Shropshire Health Authority as well as hold­ing senior pos­i­tions with com­pan­ies such as Express Foods Group, Müller Dairy UK, UK Elliott Group and John Laing.

He was chief exec­ut­ive from 2005 to 2008 of the Manchester, Salford and Trafford NHS LIFT Company, estab­lished to develop health, com­munity and local author­ity facil­it­ies.

Richard was there­fore well qual­i­fied to explain the intric­a­cies of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), under which private con­tract­ors pay for the con­struc­tion costs of build­ings such as hos­pit­als and schools and then rent the fin­ished pro­ject back to the public sector.


The History of Izal – Joan Jones – 7th March 2016

An Izal Toilet Roll.
An Izal Toilet Roll.

In the over­all story of the vast Newton Chambers empire, to men­tion only the firm’s Izal products would just be scratch­ing the sur­face — which the company’s toilet paper did, lit­er­ally.

But to get to the bottom of local his­tor­ian Joan Jones’s fas­cin­at­ing present­a­tion about the his­tory of the Chapeltown con­glom­er­ate, the main focus was indeed on the Izal products, from dis­in­fect­ant to coal tar soap, which became house­hold names for most of the 20th cen­tury.

And yet the Izal brand of no fewer than 137 dif­fer­ent products, used in hos­pit­als and homes through­out the world in their heyday, was in real­ity just a by-product of Newton Chambers’s more indus­trial ori­gins.

George Newton and Thomas Chambers were part­ners in the Phoenix Foundry, and along with fin­an­cier Henry Longden they signed an ini­tial 21-year lease in 1793 with Earl Fitzwilliam, the landowner, to extract coal and iron­stone from the Thorncliffe Valley. The com­pany would later expand into the pro­duc­tion of iron­ware, heavy machinery such as dragline excav­at­ors, and even mil­it­ary tanks.

It was a hun­dred years after coal pro­duc­tion began that the trade name Izal was registered. It was, basic­ally, a hugely suc­cess­ful mar­ket­ing cam­paign — orches­trated by chief sales­man Joseph Godber, who was said to pos­sess ‘a mis­sion­ary zeal’ — to sell any product that could be made from or with car­bolic acid, a by-product of the Newton Chambers coking ovens at Rockingham Colliery, five miles away near Birdwell.

The com­pany engaged an ana­lyt­ical chem­ist to explore the pos­sib­il­ity of using coal oil, which was claimed to have anti­sep­tic qual­it­ies but would not mix with water, and by adding emul­si­fi­ers they were able to dis­perse the oil. The res­ult­ing liquid was tri­alled in hos­pit­als across the land, and full page adverts were placed in pub­lic­a­tions such as The Times and London Illustrated News.

Godber trav­elled as far afield as South Africa, Canada, the USA, India, the Far East and Egypt to pro­mote the products.

W. Heath Robinson, the renowned car­toon­ist of the day who thought up laugh­ingly com­plic­ated machines for achiev­ing simple object­ives, was recruited in the 1920s and 1930s to draw a series of illus­tra­tions of vari­ous aspects of pro­duc­tion, in the form of posters and post­cards.

The scratchy toilet paper, impreg­nated with Izal dis­in­fect­ant and every sheet prin­ted with the legend ‘Now wash your hands’ (not to men­tion, in some cases, ‘Property of British Railways’ if I remem­ber cor­rectly), was at first given away to local author­it­ies who bought bulk sup­plies of hygiene products, before being mar­keted as a com­mod­ity in its own right.

During the Second World War, Izal pro­duced sheets of toilet paper over­prin­ted with car­toon illus­tra­tions of Adolf Hitler, which were pop­u­lar with cus­tom­ers but frowned upon by the gov­ern­ment because ‘it wasn’t really the British thing to do.’

Some of Izal’s health giving claims, and the dis­eases it would help pre­vent, might seem rather far fetched by today’s advert­ising stand­ards. Restrictions on the use of pois­ons, and increased com­pet­i­tion from more modern products, lessened Izal’s market dom­in­ance, although it was still a major profit maker for Newton Chambers until the 1970s.

The com­pany, which had once employed 8,000 people, was sold off and split up, although the Izal fact­ory con­tin­ued to be run until 1981 by Sterling Health, who also bought the Ronseal DIY brand which still sur­vives at Chapeltown.

But in the end, pro­duc­tion of Izal med­ic­ated toilet paper at the North Sheffield fact­ory fell victim to the account­ants’ bottom line, as the bot­toms of Britain opted for some­thing a little more com­fort­able.

Stories About Wild and Garden Plants — Patrick Harding — 25th January 2016

Dr Patrick Harding

Dr Patrick Harding soon estab­lished him­self with the audi­ence as a fun guy, but although fungi were cer­tainly on the menu this was a pot pourri of tales about the hidden qual­it­ies of all sorts (and Allsorts) of every­day plants.

And they were tales, rather than tedi­ous botan­ical descrip­tions. Green fingered I most cer­tainly am not, and the title of Patrick’s talk, A Plant Anthology (Stories about Wild and Garden Plants), hardly filled me with eager anti­cip­a­tion. But it quickly became clear that Patrick was an enter­tain­ing and gifted speaker, and he had our undi­vided atten­tion for every minute of his one-hour present­a­tion.

It was a col­lec­tion of true stor­ies about plants, to quote the pre­amble to his book Patrick’s Florilegium which formed the basis of the talk. He looked at plants in medi­cine, folk­lore, poetry, his­tory and industry. From lesser celandine and Wordsworth, to the role played by horse chest­nuts during two World Wars, the medi­cinal use of meadow saf­fron, yew and melilot and the his­toric use of sea­weed in glass­mak­ing.

And, yes, I too had to look up the word ‘florile­gium’ — an antho­logy, from the Latin floris, for flower, and legere, for gather.

Dublin-born Patrick, who turned 70 last week, is a freel­ance broad­caster, author and adult teacher. He was for 20 years a lec­turer at Sheffield University, and organ­ises the sci­ence pro­gramme for the Institute of Continuing Education at Cambridge University. He has appeared on tele­vi­sion and radio pro­grammes such as The Flying Gardener, Castle in the Country, Richard and Judy, BBC Breakfast, Britain’s Best Wildlife, Radio Four’s Up Country and Radio Two’s Chris Evans Show.

He star­ted with the big stuff – trees such as the syca­more and lime (neither of which are native to Britain) and the yew, which for hun­dreds of years has been syn­onym­ous with English church­yards but which, iron­ic­ally, pro­duced timber for the man­u­fac­ture of long­bows. “What would a church be doing, grow­ing a weapon of war?” he asked rhet­or­ic­ally.

The poet William Wordsworth’s favour­ite flower was not the daf­fodil, as widely believed, but the lesser celandine, an example of which is carved on his grave­stone at Grasmere. But in Wordsworth’s day the plant was known as the pile­wort and, per­haps because the tubers on the stem of the plant below ground looked remark­ably like haem­or­rhoids, was widely used to treat that com­plaint.

I need not have wor­ried about the over­use of Latin names for the plants Patrick was describ­ing. Arum mac­u­latum is some­times known as cuckold’s tinsel, but in the south of England is often called lords and ladies while in Yorkshire, where they call a spade a spade, it is appar­ently better known as dog’s dick.

Many plants con­tain starch, and in the Middle Ages the use of food for any­thing but eating was frowned upon so non-edible plants were used for laun­dry pur­poses.

The game of conkers was ori­gin­ally played with snails’ shells (at least, I pre­sume it was merely the shells), and it was only when spread­ing chest­nut trees star­ted to be grown in Britain’s parks and coun­try estates that the hard fruit, or seed, of the horse chest­nut became the conker as we know it today.

But conkers had homeo­pathic qual­it­ies, too, and chem­ic­als from the conker could also be con­ver­ted into acet­one which was used in the pro­duc­tion of the explos­ive cordite in both World Wars.

The melilot plant, from the Latin mel for honey and also known as yellow sweet clover, con­tains the anti­co­agu­lant toxin dicou­marol which can lead to internal haem­or­rhaging and death in cattle but is used in the pro­duc­tion of war­farin.

Next we came to wild liquorice, well known to Yorkshire folk, which is bad for blood pres­sure but which con­tains an anti-inflammatory which was used in the treat­ment of ulcers. It can also have a pur­gat­ory effect, as Spike Milligan found to his cost when work­ing as a van boy for a firm deliv­er­ing con­fec­tion­ery. “I ate so many Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts that I had the sh*ts for a week,” he was quoted in his bio­graphy.

Meadow saf­fron, which pro­duces a drug for the treat­ment of joint pain, can have a sim­ilar side effect.

The man­drake plant has a long his­tory of med­ical use and its root, which is hal­lu­cino­genic, was said to improve women’s fer­til­ity. The potion was appar­ently smeared on the shaft of witches’ besoms. Bryony, which is sim­ilar in appear­ance, was also used but was appar­ently less effi­cient – a little like some online brands of Viagra, Patrick told us.

The ash pro­duced from burn­ing sea­weed is used in glass pro­duc­tion, allow­ing sand to melt at a much lower tem­per­at­ure than the 900 deg C oth­er­wise needed. Seaweed is also used in the pro­duc­tion of sur­gical dress­ings because it absorbs blood and pus.

Camomile, a very fash­ion­able drink these days, has a calm­ing effect where almost all other bever­ages con­tain stim­u­lants. “Twenty mil­lion Germans drink cam­o­mile in the even­ing, lead­ing to a night’s rest­ful sleep, which is prob­ably why, by the time you get down to the pool, they have already put their towels on the sun­beds,” Patrick explained with a delight­ful lack of polit­ical cor­rect­ness.

Oh well, I’m sure most of the other nug­gets of inform­a­tion in Patrick’s talk had a sound sci­entific found­a­tion.

Human Happiness versus Urban Biodiversity? – Dr Helen Hoyle – 2nd November 2015

Dr Helen Hoyle gained her first degree, in geo­graphy, at Oxford University three dec­ades ago, even­tu­ally becom­ing head of geo­graphy at schools in London and Hertfordshire, but a career change brought her to our fair city where she gained an MA (Distinction) in Landscape Architecture at the University of Sheffield between 2009 and 2011.

This was where my real interest in eco­lo­gical plant­ing design was sparked,” she told us, and the title of her well illus­trated talk was also the sub­ject of her PhD Research Project: Human Happiness v urban diversity? Public per­cep­tion of designed urban plant­ing in a warm­ing cli­mate.

People have vary­ing ideas of what exactly land­scape archi­tec­ture is,” she admit­ted. “It is not about garden­ing, as some might believe, but about cre­at­ing useful public spaces for people to enjoy at all stages of their life.

But we also under­stand the import­ance of biod­iversity, and my work is trying to improve human exper­i­ence while at the same time look­ing at eco­lo­gical object­ives.

As a land­scape archi­tect I believe strongly in the import­ance of design for the ‘ordin­ary Joe or Joanne’ rather than for design elites, and for the need to recon­cile human aes­thetic pref­er­ences with the need for biod­iversity.”

Helen’s research work coin­cided nicely with the build-up to the 2012 London Olympics, and in 2010 she was invited to work on the wild­life mead­ows which became a much admired fea­ture of the land­scap­ing around the sites of the main Olympic sta­dium and velo­drome.

Her brief was to pro­duce a spec­tac­u­lar flower­ing dis­play which would be at its very best for the open­ing cere­mony of the Olympics on 27th July 2012, and early work towards this goal star­ted on an allot­ment in Walkley before moving to the Olympic Park itself.

Different types of ‘meadow mix’ of seeds were planted on nine sep­ar­ate plots around the Olympic Park, and these had to be mon­itored reg­u­larly from the summer of 2011 to see what was flower­ing and to what extent they were flower­ing. Helen trav­elled to London every Friday to carry out an on-site data col­lec­tion, giving flowers of each spe­cies a score and estab­lish­ing vari­ous cut­ting ‘regimes’ to suit the type of plant.

In December 2013, Helen was offered the oppor­tun­ity to become a research asso­ci­ate with the Urban BESS pro­ject – the ini­tials stand­ing for Biodiversity, Ecosystem Services and Sustainability – funded by the Natural Environment Research Council.

Her role was to over­see an urban exper­i­ment, involving day-to-day col­lab­or­a­tion with Bedford and Luton Borough Council Parks Departments. One aspect was to set up a ‘meadow manip­u­la­tion exper­i­ment,’ sowing areas of dif­fer­ent per­en­nial meadow mixes in the towns. These real world labor­at­or­ies would allow social sci­ent­ists to assess the human per­cep­tion of and pref­er­ence for spe­cific meadow mixes. Animal and plant sci­ent­ists would assess the soil and insect response to the same mixes. This would enable park depart­ments in the future to sow plant spe­cies which were attract­ive to the public, bene­fi­cial to wild­life, sus­tain­able and – import­antly in times of aus­ter­ity – cheaper to main­tain than amen­ity mown grass.

Reaction to the plant­ing by local res­id­ents was mixed. Some found the areas of meadow mixes attract­ive, while others described them as unsightly weeds.

As Helen her­self con­ceded: “There is some basis in the view that a weed is any plant which is grow­ing in the wrong place. Even a palm tree grow­ing in the wrong place might be regarded by some as a weed.”

I can’t speak for Bedford or Luton but, having seen the wild­flower mead­ows at the Olympic Park, I think a few weeds in the right places can be very attract­ive indeed. And if they help reverse the decline of bees and but­ter­flies, so much the better.

Vietnam: Journey of Unexpected Delights – Susan Rogers – 24th August 2015

Having vis­ited the same coun­try with my wife in February 2015, I could relate to Susan Rogers’s account of her jour­ney to Vietnam 11 years earlier. The main dif­fer­ences were the dir­ec­tion of travel (in our case, from North to South) and more import­antly the fact that, while we were on a pack­age hol­i­day, Susan trav­elled solo.

She didn’t choose to do so. “How many people will you have in the tour group?” she asked the guide who met her at the air­port in Ho Chi Minh City. “One,” he replied, “You.”

There were def­in­itely mixed feel­ings about being the only person,” she told us. “I knew that trav­el­ling by myself meant that I would have nobody to share the memor­ies of the hol­i­day after­wards, but I had expec­ted to have other people to talk to, other people to dine with and other people to share the hol­i­day exper­i­ence with.”

Her fears quickly proved to be ground­less, des­pite the fact that she arrived in Saigon on December 20 and had no trav­el­ling com­pan­ions to share the Christmas fest­iv­it­ies, with the accom­pa­ny­ing feasts of local cuisine.

I enjoyed myself so much in Vietnam that the fol­low­ing year I went to Brazil and Argentina by myself, and I have come to love trav­el­ling solo,” she explained.

Susan began her present­a­tion with some graphic foot­age of the Vietnam War – or, as the Vietnamese call it, the American War – which cul­min­ated in the North Vietnamese cap­tur­ing Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) on April 30 1975 to bring about the end of hos­til­it­ies as the last American heli­copter plucked staff from the roof of the US embassy.

She vis­ited the War Remnants Museum in Saigon where she was moved by images of gloat­ing American sol­diers hold­ing up the severed heads of Vietcong sol­diers. “I felt I wanted to ask the Vietnamese people how they could wel­come Americans back into their coun­try, but there have been two or three gen­er­a­tions since then and they seem determ­ined to look to the future rather than back.”

Susan vis­ited the pre­served Củ Chi Tunnels, a rabbit warren of under­ground com­mand posts, armour­ies, hos­pit­als, kit­chens and living quar­ters which were the Viet Cong’s oper­a­tional base for the Tết (New Year) Offensive of 1968. She showed us pho­to­graphic examples of the many dif­fer­ent types of anti-personnel traps which littered the area.

Susan learnt much about the North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, a man of simple tastes, and vis­ited the humble stilt house in the grounds of the Presidential Palace in Hanoi which were his pre­ferred living quar­ters.

Presidential Palace
The Presidential Palace — Courtesy of Graham Snowdon.
The Humble Stilt House — Courtesy of Graham Snowdon.







The more I read about him, the more I admired him,” she told us. “He was totally dif­fer­ent to many of the other com­mun­ist lead­ers, and the ideals which he tried to achieve for the ordin­ary Vietnamese people would not have looked out of place in the American con­sti­tu­tion. I came away with two main thoughts: that the Vietnam War should never have happened, and that I had a far greater respect for the Vietnamese people than I ever had before.”

The title of Susan’s talk is also that of a book she has writ­ten about her exper­i­ences.

Days of Sunshine and Rain – Ann Beedham – 8th June 2015

As a new­comer to Probus and an even newer member of the panel of blog­gers, it is coin­cid­ental — and for­tu­it­ous from my point of view — that the sub­ject matter for my maiden con­tri­bu­tion is some­thing with which I was already famil­iar.

The title of Ann Beedham’s very inter­est­ing talk is also the title of her fas­cin­at­ing book Days of Sunshine and Rain, pub­lished in 2011 as a col­lec­tion of words and pho­to­graphs from the life of George Willis Marshall. He was one of Sheffield’s pion­eer ram­blers who took part in the famous mass tres­pass on Kinder Scout on 24th April 1932, when walk­ers risked arrest and impris­on­ment for the right to roam in what is now the Peak District National Park.

This act of civil dis­obedi­ence was one of the most suc­cess­ful in British his­tory, and argu­ably led to the pas­sage of the National Parks legis­la­tion of 1949 and the estab­lish­ment of long-distance foot­paths such as the Pennine Way. Highly con­tro­ver­sial at the time, it has been described as the embod­i­ment of the work­ing class struggle for the right to roam versus the rights of the wealthy to have exclus­ive use of moor­lands to shoot grouse.

But Willis (as he was known to family and friends) Marshall was more than just one of the four or five hun­dred walk­ers from Sheffield and Manchester who took part in the tres­pass. As he grew up he developed a love not only of walk­ing but also of draw­ing and pho­to­graphy. He painstak­ingly wrote up journ­als of his walks with the Sheffield Clarion Ramblers, and these were illus­trated with sketches, maps and details of the route they took, as well as quotes from his favour­ite poems. He and his pals also took numer­ous pho­to­graphs which he care­fully placed in albums, and all the photos and sketches in Ann Beedham’s book are by Willis, or from his col­lec­tion.

He could easily, in fact, have become another Alfred Wainwright, the guide­book author and illus­trator, but appar­ently Willis had no ambi­tion for his journ­als to be seen beyond his own circle of friends.

Born in Sheffield in 1904, Willis lived from the age of eight with his family in Ranby Road, just off Endcliffe Park, and most of the walks he described star­ted from Hunters Bar or Banner Cross before head­ing out past places equally famil­iar to our mem­bers such as Forge Dam, Whiteley Woods, the Round House and Redmires.

I am myself a reg­u­lar walker and, because of my interest in the his­tory of the access struggle and the early days of ram­bling in gen­eral, I already had a copy of Ann’s book in my col­lec­tion. Her slideshow present­a­tion brought to life a world which has largely dis­ap­peared, when pipe-smoking ram­blers walked in tweed suits, col­lars and ties, with watches on chains. Her talk, like her book, was a won­der­fully evoc­at­ive piece of social his­tory.