April 6, 2013

Agricultural History. King’s College 1950s Ag botany students.

Botanical memories of the Heslop Harrisons
By Clive Dalton (Kings 1952-56)

When we 1950s Agric students were doing our degrees at Kings College, Newcastle Upon Tyne, which was then a campus of the University of Durham, we didn’t know anything about John William Heslop Harrison, D.Sc. (1917), FRS. (1921), (1881-1967).

J.W. Heslop Harrison
In 1920, he left his post as Senior Science Master at Middlesbrough High School to take up a lectureship in Zoology at Armstrong College, Newcastle upon Tyne which later became King’s College of the University of Durham.

He rose to be Head of the Department of Botany in 1927 - a post which he held until his retirement in 1946.  After this he continued as Senior Research Fellow until 1949.  He died in 1967.

We saw nothing of him in our time, but he must have still been actively botanising and gardening from his home he built and named ‘Gavarnie’ in Ruskin Road, Birtley in County Durham.  Another old King’s graduate friend (Dr Pat Shannon) who left in 1947 remembers old Heslop-Harrison still giving them lectures.  Pat described him as ‘not being the most stimulating of lecturers’!   He seems to have been very active in botanising groups in Durham in his retirement where he was much revered for his knowledge and willingness to share it.

Mystery old lady
I remember in my second year (1953) regularly seeing a little old grey haired lady, always dressed in black, creeping around the Ag. Botany lab.   We never knew much about her – except that she was referred to in whispers as being famous for something to do with plant chromosomes.  She could have been a Heslop Harrison, but J.W. Heslop Harrison’s wife is recorded as having died in 1952.  Our old lady could have been her ghost!

The pure Botany Department 
Before we got into the Ag. Department, those of us who did the intermediate pure science year, did botany in the pure botany department where we met Dr W.A. (Willie) Clark.  He was a very precise Scot, and we had no problems with his botany lectures.

 He was memorable for his habit - common to many intellectual Scots, of inserting an 'aaay' between every 2-3 words in a sentence, while his brain was searching to achieve ultimate precision - which we used to mimic! For example:

'Today aaay, I would like to aaay, describe aaay, the role of the aaay, barrrl shaped parenchymatous cells.'  How could we ever forget that these cells were barrl (barrel) shaped even if we'd forgotten where they were?

His obituary in ‘The Vasculum’, Vol 69, No 1., page 1., April 1984, says that ‘he died at his home in Ryton on 19th November, 1983, aged 72. He took time to think things through and his conclusions, honestly made, were usually correct. He was generally a quiet, mild mannered man who had learned to shrug off trifling irritations, but at the same time he was not afraid to protest strongly against injustice. This he always did bluntly and never remotely underhand; with Bill Clark you knew exactly where you stood’

My italics for some words which make you wonder how he viewed his father-in-law’s professional antics.  Dolly died after a long illness just two months after William.
(A vasculum is a container used by botanists to keep field samples viable by maintaining a cool, humid environment. It is a typically flattened tin cylinder, carried horizontally on a strap to keep specimens flat, and lined with moistened cloth to keep them fresh.)

The Ag. Botany Department
Then when we got free of pure botany and started doing Ag. Botany, we met Mrs ‘Dolly’ Clark – who we then learned was the wife of Dr Willie Clark. 

We all loved Dolly and her lectures, because for one thing they had relevance to farming – even if her special interest was archaeology and ancient cereal grains (of which she was a noted authority).  We felt it was a bit over the top at times and not very important to our farming needs.

Ag. Entomology
We did Ag. Entomology, where we had Dr George Heslop Harrison, and he really was a problem.  He was tall with thinning hair, with the stance of a preying mantis.  He always wore a light blue, Harris Tweed sports jacket with all the four buttons done up. He had yellowing watery eyes and a chesty wheeze, which made him cough at regular intervals while talking.

It was tempting to feel sorry for him, but from his first lecture, he gave us the clear impression that he didn’t like any of us.  He probably soon picked up our vibes that the feelings were mutual!

He lectured almost with a vengeance, that learning things like the names of all the veins in a fly’s wings and other such trivia (in our view), was critical to our very survival in his class, and certainly was to pass his exams. 

To our general amazement, two in our class went on to do Honours in entomology with him, which we could never understand as they were good decent blokes!  They appeared to enjoy working in his Ag Zoology department, where he probably interacted with them with a bit more sympathy that with our whole mob. 

George’s widow (another Dollie) was librarian in the Ag. Department about 1967.  She was after our time so we have no memory of her.

The Rum affair book
A Rum Affair - a true Story of Botanical Fraud
By Karl Sabbagh 1999: Publ: Da Capo Press 2001
ISBN: 0-306-81060-3
Reprinted by arrangement with Farrar, Straus and Giroux

When only recently, one of our group of old ex King’s friends (Malcolm Tait) alerted us to ‘The Rum Affair’ book by Karl Sabbagh, things started not only to astound us, but to explain a few things about the Heslop-Harrisons that we knew – and tickle our fancies about things that we didn’t know!  And even if we had known at the time, it would have been life threatening to even whisper them in the Department.

For example we didn’t know that Dolly and George were old Heslop Harrison’s offspring, and that Willie Clark was Heslop Harrison’s son-in-law, and that there was another son John (Jack) (see note below).

Looking back now it all seemed a bit incestuous, but then in those days this was not uncommon in universities, where students stayed on to be lecturers, and then worked their way up to occupy chairs and be heads of departments.  It was not often though that you found so many members of the same family in one Department.

My musings after reading the book
To see the significance of my points left hanging below, you’ll need to read the book, and then the critique by Chris Goldthorpe, to see how you judge J.W. Heslop Harrison and his botanical antics on the island of Rum, to which he and his students has special access for many years.

  • Why did Heslop Harrison feel the need to use a double-barrelled surname – sometimes hyphenated and sometimes not? From the 1920s to 1937 he was simply J.W.H. Harrison. In1938 he started using J.W. Heslop Harrison, in 1942 he was still J.W. Heslop Harrison, but in 1950 he was J.W. Heslop-Harrison. 
  •  Who was he trying to impress with his name changes?  Was he embarrassed about his father being an iron foundry worker, and JW was trying to improve his social class? 
  • Why did he feel the need to alter his postal address in Birtley – with the postie’s collusion presumably? Again was it because he felt guilty about his social status?  
  • When suspicion was building about his plant fiddling on Rum, why did he write papers naming Dolly and then Willie as authors when they clearly didn’t do the work?  Did he think they would not be suspected of his funny business and perhaps to deflect suspicion from him? 
  • Why did old HH try to pull strings with the Director of the British Museum to take son George on to do a PhD, saying that he only had a pass B.Sc. at the time, but had been working on Hemiptera and had entered for a Ph.D.  George didn’t get the job and continued at Kings until 1939 when war broke out.
  •  I now feel very guilty about what we students thought of George.  According to bits from Jack’s autobiography below, George had health problems as a child.  Then after leaving Kings in 1939, he went as Director of Plant Pathology and Entomology for the Iraq government.  Iraq was not occupied by German forces but an Iraqi government which was sympathetic to the Germans came into power at that time. So for some reason in 1941, poor George instead of clearing out like everyone else, he stayed on and was not only imprisoned, but he was tortured! 

Comments (April 2013) from Sandy Main - Agriculture Lecturer during the Heslop Harrison years.
Sandy was our much loved Ag Lecturer in crop husbandry, and at time of writing is 95 years old living in South Shields.  He saw many generations of students through the old Department in his time, as well as knowing all the Heslop Harrisons.  His great love was the Kings College Agricultural Society of which he was secretary for many years. It held meetings of farmers who had been former students mixing with current students - always with a special high profile speaker.  A special event was the annual tours to different countries on the Continent.

Sandy had only recently read the Run Affair book and provided the information below in a letter to Dr Deric Charlton.
  • George Heslop Harrison (our entomology tutor) had in fact been electrically emasculated by the Nazi sympathizers in Iraq. 
  • He married a Canadian lady on his return who dedicated her life to his care, and after George's early death she returned to Canada.
  • Once when Sandy called in at their home in Low Fell to take George to Harper Adams Agricultural College where they were both external examiners, George's wife asked Sandy to take care of him.  George and Sandy shared a bedroom and Sandy remembers a very disturbed night as George had nightmares, clearly triggering memories of his prison experiences. 
  • George's wife offered to be the librarian in the Ag Department, but it was only on a part time and voluntary basis - mainly to keep an eye on George's welfare. 
  • There was no 'incestuous business' in the appointment of George and Dolly (Helena) as referred to in Sabbagh's book. George and Dolly were appointed by Prof. J.A. Hartley in 1935 and  Professor Wheldon  re appointed George after the war to lead the Ag Zoology (entomology) Department. 
  • Sandy accompanied the old J.A. Heslop Harrison and son George up to Kielder and Deadwater in the early days when the Forestry Commission were planning their first plantings. The Heslop Harrisons had the job of listing the flora and fauna of the area.  Sandy remembers the two of them in the North Tyne river shouting enthusiastically to each other at what they were finding.
  • As far as the Rum affair is concerned, Sandy is willing to give Prof Heslop Harrison the benefit of the doubt over his unproven plant fiddling, as he was such as he was such a great naturalist.
John 'Jack' Heslop-Harrison
We 1950s Ag students knew nothing of Jack Heslop-Harrison, but his autobiography tells a lot about his father.   Here’s some interesting comment from his autobiography, which Malcolm Tait found on the internet. You can see from what George writes below, that didn’t have an easy life with the old man!

John (Jack) Heslop-Harrison Autobiography: Site "Origins and Ancestry"

1930-1941: Home Life
‘Although there were many enjoyable interludes, the decade 1931-1941 was not, overall, a very happy one for me. After our move to Gavarnie in 1927, my father increasingly dominated my life in one way or another.

His own boyhood had been very hard and rough, and although he had parental encouragement, especially from his mother, the financial situation of the family was such that any advance he made through the educational system of the time had to depend primarily on his own efforts in gaining bursaries and scholarships.

He had in consequence developed a rigid mental discipline so far as work was concerned, and this he sought to impose on his children, for whom both he and my mother had high academic ambitions. My sister (Dolly) accepted the challenge, and realised some of his hopes, taking a MSc and becoming Head of the Agricultural Botany Department in King's (formerly Armstrong) College.

In my father's eyes the trouble was that she was a woman, and liable to get married; which of course she did. My brother (George), who had recurrent health problems and in addition possessed something of a rebellious nature, was less than responsive as a teenager - although he, too, eventually achieved high academic distinction with his work in applied entomology, receiving a D.Sc. for his researches on Psyllideae.

As the last of the sequence, I felt pretty continuous pressure to achieve, and anything less than first position in my class in any subject (especially in science) was regarded as tantamount to failure.

To set against this less than comfortable situation was the fact that my father made determined efforts to expand my horizons, especially by taking me on his various excursions and expeditions during the summer vacations’.

Jack’s career
His father, meeting famous botanists and entomologists, took Jack all over Europe with him when travel would have been difficult and slow before the war. 
Jack went to Kings in 1938 to do Honours in botany, zoology and chemistry, and after WW11 he joined the King’s Botany Department before accepting positions at Queen’s college, Belfast, then moved to London, Wisconsin and eventually Kew after his father’s death in 1970.  Clearly he’d kept well out of the old man’s way in his career.

In his autobiography, Jack doesn’t mention any of his fathers suspected dodgy dealings on Rum, which he must have known about.

The Heslop Harrison dynasty
The Moulder's Arms in Birtley was the home of the dynasty for 50 years.  The patriarch of the family was Cuthbert Heslop who was landlord from 1840-1868, then John Harrison (son in law) from 1868-1876, then Jane Harrison (nee Heslop who was John's widow) 1876-1890.
The pub is still in good heart today.

Thanks to Malcolm Tait for digging out much of this information.

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