SOUE News Issue 3

The Engineering School in the 1930s

Brigadier Douglas Henchley OBE (Keble 1930)

The attached photograph, taken in Trinity Term 1933, was taken on the roof of the then Engineering School which consisted of the existing red brick building1 in the fork of the Parks Road and the Banbury Road where there are now traffic lights - these of course did not exist in the early 30s.

The top two rows of the photo - nine men in all - took schools in 1933. The row of six men below that were men on postgraduate studies and the front row consists of the two technicians who devised and set up the equipment for our practical work (Mr Mundy and Mr Canning) the Professor's Secretary (Miss Castle) and four of the five lecturers - AM Binnie was away as he held a Rhodes Travelling Fellowship.

The course in those days lasted two years2, the men taking Schools in 1934 were not included in the photo.

In those days there were also some external tutors - mainly for men at colleges who did not have an engineer on their staff. For example my own college - Keble - only had one Science fellow and he was a chemist but he had to keep an eye on any student who was reading a Science subject. None of the lecturers3 were fellows of colleges - that status came along later. The head of the School was RV (later Sir Richard) Southwell. All the tutors were Cambridge graduates. Southwell had graduated I think early in the First World War. I was told that he was on the design staff of one of the early airships - R34 I think4 - which crashed on its maiden voyage. I was told that this blighted his career for a bit but he was elected to the Oxford professorship I think in 1929 and attached to BNC.

Southwell was a first class lecturer and attendance at his lectures was a pleasure. EB Moullin was the Reader and lectured well on electricity. He was an ambitious man and aiming for a professorship. I gather he achieved an Associate Professorship and some time after the end of the Second World War was appointed President of the Institution of Electrical Engineers - perhaps this compensated for his failure to become a professor!5 Victor Belfield (better known as Toby) was a colourful character, originally an officer in the Navy he was struck by polio and had to retire. I think he then qualified at Cambridge and in due course came to Oxford and was attached to BNC. He was referred to as the most attractive bachelor in Oxford. He had a very fast car - Alfa Romeo I think - and a powerful motorbike, a Harley Davidson. He lectured on mechanics. I saw him briefly when I dined at BNC in 1943 when the College had been taken over by the Royal Armoured Corps - and I was invited to give a lecture about my corps - the Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers which was founded in October 1942. I saw him again in the 1970s when he came up to Oxford to visit the widow of a BNC don who lived near us on Boars Hill.

The lecturer missing from the photo was AM Binnie, he was attached to Balliol, his subject was hydraulics. When I went up to Cambridge after the war to stay with Southwell, who after being director6 of Imperial College retired early as he wanted to write his book, I dined with him and Binnie at Trinity (Cambridge) where Binnie was a fellow and tutor. He told me that he had done some research work, in his field, for Bristol Aero.

Turning now to the men of my year, Wilfred Merchant - a Scholar of Corpus and ex Manchester Grammar School - obtained a first and became a professor after the war, in the North-West, possibly Manchester.

Meiler Jones - Merton - lived in Chepstow and I saw quite a bit of him in the late 30s as my wife's father was Vicar of Magor in Monmouthshire and about 10 miles from Chepstow. Sadly he was afflicted with TB and had to give up work until he had been cured. I heard that he had recovered and taught Mathematics at Christ's Hospital. Herbert Ingram got a Second and went to work on the Stock Exchange. I next saw him in 1944 when he was a Captain in the Grenadier Guards in an uninteresting administrative job. I persuaded him to transfer to REME and he was posted as a Major to the 43 Infantry Division where he did excellent work as 2ic to a friend of mine who commanded REME in the 43 Division. I heard nothing of Dennis Matthews who got a 2nd until well after the war when I was told he had gone into structural engineering and rose to considerable heights.

ADB Weigall (Dinny) went straight into the BBC on leaving Oxford and I heard of him in the 60s and 70s when I was told he was Deputy Director of Engineering at the BBC. Arthur Wrigley was my partner in the Engineering Laboratory - we dined together regularly. I understood that he was an only son and had six sisters - all of whom he had to take to commems. I heard after the war that he had been killed in a tank during the fighting in Italy.

Tom Fitton went into the technical side of the Air Force and I next met him in 1959 when I was in the Far East as Director of REME at GHQ. I found that he was my opposite number as Senior Technical Staff Officer Far East Air Force. Finally there was the most colourful character of our group George Venables Llewellyn who managed to get to lectures when he was not riding with the local hunt - the Bullingdon. He joined the Royal Engineers at the start of the war and was killed in the ill-fated attack on Norway in early 1940.

Of the post-graduates the most successful was SG Hooker who was interested in aeronautics and worked under Richard Southwell. He finished up at Bristol Aero and was the designer of the RB211 turbine - for which he got a knighthood7. He reappeared in the Engineering Department in the 70s and I met him quite often. He dined with me in Keble and I managed to persuade him to get Rolls Royce to endow a Keble fellowship in Engineering. Sadly he died early but was just able to see his autobiography in print before he did so.

Finally there were three items outside Oxford which were part of the training towards becoming an engineer. In the Hilary vacation of 1932 two of us spent the vacation at the English Steel Corporation in Sheffield. There were enormous shops with great lathes required for turning barrels for Naval guns. These were silent as there was no work for them. The furnaces for making steel and the machines for converting billets into strip were all working, as were the foundry, the blacksmiths and drop forging departments. However the lack of work made us wonder whether our choice of engineering as a profession was in fact sensible.

In the Summer vacation we had three weeks in the Cotswolds on a Survey course. Our instructors were a retired Colonel in the Royal Engineers and two lecturers - Binnie and Belfield. The weather was good and our survey work in the villages around Stow-on-the-Wold - where we lived - was very useful practically. Also in the Long Vacation two of us went across the Atlantic from Southampton to New York. We did four hours on and eight hours off and life in the engine room in a hot August was a fair trial of stamina. My partner and I were on the "Olympic" built in Belfast - with two main engines and a turbine. It was a magnificent ship and we had a most interesting time learning how a ship of that size was laid out.

I have not mentioned the tutors who were not attached to colleges. Keble had no engineering don and so I was tutored by Mr Hume-Rothery. He lived at the top of Headington Hill - I was able to get a bus in the Banbury Road near Keble which took me up to about 100 yards from his house. He was a wonderful tutor - extremely patient and prepared to go over a subject several times until I was able to say I understood. Quite early on he told me that I was to stop him if I did not understand and I was able to stop him as necessary throughout the two years when he taught me - I owe a great deal to him.

One cannot pretend that in the two years one worked at the Engineering School one reached anything like what students are achieving now8, but it was a good introduction to all aspects of Engineering and it stood me in very good stead when four years after leaving Oxford I took a Commission in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps in the spring of 1937 as an ordnance mechanical engineer - and attended a one-year course at the Military College of Science at Woolwich. There were 18 on the course all of whom were engineering graduates and I passed out sixth at the end of the course.

I look back on my three years at Oxford with much pleasure; living in College I learnt a lot about life from my peers as well as what I learnt in the Department of Engineering Science.

Boars Hill, Oxford

June 2004

(Footnotes 1-7 by Alastair Howatson)

Department photograph 1933
The final year undergraduates (back two rows), postgraduates and staff in 1933.
(Click here for enlarged picture)

H Ingram    TEJ Fitton    GW Venables-Llewelyn    DD Mathews

W Merchant    MB Jones    ADB Weigall    AEL Wrigley    DV Henchley

H Dodd    H Hallam    F Llewelyn-Smith    SG Hooker    JB Bowen    AW Backhurst

S Mundy    SE Landale    EB Moullin    RV Southwell    V Belfield    E Castle    B Canning

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