- unless you are internet savvy
The writer of the letter in Issue 203, William Thompson of Norwich, said he worked for Smyth Brothers in Fore Street. During the years which he describes, Smyth's were on both sides of Fore Street. They operated extensively on the north side, but also with small premises on the south side next to Wells' the pork butcher. That south side shop was, I think, their glass department. Bernard Welton was Smyth's ‘glassman'. I went to school with his son.
This story is to remind us all of the dramatic changes that have occurred in towns such as ours, where shops like Smyth's that you could walk into, have largely disappeared - not really about my youthful experiences as an amateur telescope maker. But I describe the latter to highlight the former.
In around 1950, when I was aged 14, I was seized with a fascination for gazing at the heavens and astronomy. I joined the newly formed Ipswich & District Astronomical Society - at the time their youngest ever member, I was told. Several older hands took me ‘under their wing'. One in particular, Norman Whatling who worked for CEGB at Cliff Quay, was the Society's ‘practical expert'. At this time it was not possible for amateurs to buy small astronomical telescopes so he had built his own and encouraged me to have a go myself. Not only would this involve my constructing the tube and mountings but also more critically the optics, including a six inch diameter concave parabolic section mirror.
After visiting all the ships' chandlers around the Ipswich docks looking for porthole glass, I concluded that such ready-made disks were far too thin. This brought me back to Smyth Bros in Fore Street. I approached them and asked if they could get for me a seven inch square of inch-thick plate glass. I can remember the humiliation to this day, when I tried to explain what I wanted it for and how I would accurately cut out a circular disc which I would grind and polish (and silver) to precision optical standards. My recollection is that kindly Mr Welton and his colleagues ‘fell about laughing'. “A kid here who says he can cut out a circular disc from inch thick plate - it can't be done boy”.
I was crestfallen and near to tears. But I insisted, and eventually got my square of glass for seven shillings and six pence, I believe, paid for out of my choirboy's pay.
I won't relate the rest of the triumphal story, because most of that is in a three part article (‘Astronomy on a Shoestring') which I wrote for the present local Astronomical Society - where I describe the whole process. Along the way, I suffered similar humiliation and gentle mockery at the hand of Mr Wiggin the chemist (one time Pharmacist in St Matthews Street) when I attempted to buy the chemicals for silvering. Many of them were highly toxic. “This is not the sort of thing that 14 year olds do”. Telescope mirrors, to function, must be silvered on their face - although I think he suggested that all mirrors were silvered on the back. How wrong he was!
Materials such as silver nitrate, caustic potash and nitric acid were required for the job. Where now could anyone (still less a 14 year old) buy locally what I had on my shopping list. Either Health & Safety rules would intervene or perhaps firearms and explosives laws. I was told that you could easily, even by accident, make silver fulminate from silver nitrate which is much more powerful and unstable than many high-explosives. Other ingredients were sourced from Martin & Newby's, Cornell's in The Walk, Smith & Daniels in Westgate Street and Croydon's the jewellers. I think that the staff in all the shops were less than impressed when I had to reveal what I was attempting to do - especially in Smith & Daniels who had to order a whole range of optical grade Carborundum powders from America.
After about two years of spare time and exacting labour, still aged 16, I completed my mission, producing the telescope which still works - though it hasn't been out for a while. But that's a different tale.
Reminiscing about how most of the shops which were in Ipswich during my youth - both now long gone - prompts me to realise how different our town and world have become.
John Barbrook (with his eye to the telescope)