Obituary - Peter Welford FIMMM

Fellows' Lounge
22 Jan 2014

Peter Welford FIMMM 1914–2013

Peter Noel McCowen Welford was born in London on Christmas day 1914. He had little formal schooling until he was 8 years old, when he went to Eversley Preparatory School in Southwold and from there to Charterhouse school on a Classical Scholarship. 

Peter read Natural Sciences at King’s College at Cambridge. During his time there he took up rowing as No.6 in the College 1st boat. At No.2 was a mathematician called Alan Turing, who later became well known for breaking the German Enigma code during the war. Peter recalled Turing as a very quiet person.

While he was at the Cavendish Laboratory, working under Professor Ernest Rutherford, there was considerable excitement when James Chadwick discovered neutrons. He also met Sir J J Thomson, who had discovered electrons, being one of a small party from the lab who called to congratulate him on his 90th birthday, so you could say he spanned the entire electronic age.

Peter’s first job was with a small, privately owned paper firm called Clyde Paper at Rutherglen, near Glasgow. At that time, the laboratories in paper mills were always staffed by chemists, but the Directors at Clyde Paper were forward-looking, and realised that many of their problems involved physics, so took him on to see what would happen, and he was able to make a few innovations.

After a couple of years World War II started and he joined the Admiralty Scientific and Technical Pool, going on to work on protection of ships against magnetic mines. He started in Southampton, later moving to London. However, many ships were sunk at their moorings and more were set on fire. After this the docks were evacuated, and the shipping used the northern ports, which were out of range of the bombers. So Peter found himself back in Glasgow. Both banks of the Clyde and the river Cart up to Paisley were full of shipyards, all building ships as fast as they could. De-Gaussing Coils were now being fitted in a permanent fashion below deck. This involved burning holes in bulkheads with an oxyacetylene flame to run the cables through, and one of the basic principles of hole-burning was never to look to see what was on the other side, so the consequences were sometimes unfortunate.

While he was in Glasgow he was detailed as part of a small mission to Portugal, to install defensive equipment to their armed forces, including protection against magnetic mines.

In the war at that time we depended on supplies coming across the Atlantic from America, and the ships travelled in convoy, protected from submarine attack by destroyers and aircraft. However there was a gap in the middle of the Atlantic that was out of reach of aircraft from either side, and here the submarines inflicted heavy losses. Portugal was neutral, but inclined to the allies, and they agreed to setting up air bases in the Azores, which allowed the central gap in air cover to be closed. The Portuguese thought the Germans might consider this an unfriendly act, and mount some kind of attack on them; so part of the agreement was that the British should supply upgrades to their armed forces, hence the mission. It was here he met his future wife, Denise, who was with the Ministry of Economic Warfare. He next moved to the Naval Ordnance Inspection Laboratory, attached to the Naval Cordite Factory at Holton Heath near Poole in Dorset. The Navy kept large amounts of cordite in store, and it had to be sampled and tested at intervals. The work was to develop physical methods of analysis that would be quicker and better than the chemical ones.

In 1946, Peter moved to BX Plastics in Brantham, Suffolk. The company wanted someone to apply physics to their problems, but who also knew chemistry and was used to working with chemists. Rather surprisingly, he was appointed Manager of Extrusions. The extruded products were made by machines comprising a rotating screw in a close-fitting heated barrel with a feed hole at the back for putting in the material and a die on the front to produce the required shape. He analysed which functions the various parts of the screw had to carry out, and arrived at a design for each. The actual dimensions needed some guesswork, but Peter got a screw made and it worked perfectly. The operators were delighted, as it made the machine much easier to work.

After a stint in Product Development, Peter took over the Physics Department, testing samples from the Research Department and factory, and some contract work. He also did various research jobs. One was to improve the weather resistance of the material used to coat steel and aluminium sheet for external cladding of buildings. His last role was on reduced density sheet. This was used for plastic paper, which had a growing market for waterproof uses such as maps.

Peter retired aged 60 in 1975, but carried on working part time for the next three years, running a research lab at Lawford Place. A young chemist who worked there at the same time as Peter was Mrs Thatcher. He thought she would go far, and he was quite right, because she later became Prime Minister. When the lab closed three years later, Peter enjoyed a long retirement, alongside some consultancy work.

On his move to Suffolk in 1946, Peter and his wife, Denise, had purchased a Victorian Rectory and lived in the house for more than 60 years. Peter was an active member of the PCC and Parish Council. He played tennis and enjoyed concerts. After Denise’s death in 2004, he showed resilience in adapting after almost 60 years of marriage. In the last few years some health problems related to ageing crept in, and he lost his ability to walk in 2009. He was greatly assisted by the use of an electric power chair for mobility in the house.

Peter died on 29 September 2013 at the age of 98. He is succeeded by his four children, Richard, Louise, Catherine and Justina.