Archive | April, 2014

What did the John Innes do during the First World War?

This year’s excellent media coverage of the events and experiences of the First World War got me thinking about the John Innes and how the War had affected the men and women working here. We can’t really tell that story in photographs (how can you record an absence?), but Beatrice Bateson’s William Bateson: Naturalist (1928) was helpful in setting the scene and giving an entry into thoughts and feelings at that time, and there’s enough in the Annual Reports, staff records, letters, and other archives to tell a story.

Britain’s scientists contributed to the war effort in a number of ways from weapons development to food and medical research. The John Innes was a very young institute (it opened in 1910) and unlike in World War Two, had little to offer the government by way of plant research directly useful to the war effort. The John Innes story in 1914-18 is more about hearts and minds, the often overlooked impacts of the war on science and learning, and the sacrifice of individual careers and sometimes lives.

When War broke out William Bateson, the director of the John Innes Horticultural Institution was far away in Australia, presiding over a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Getting home involved a long sea voyage and William, his wife Beatrice and colleague Rebecca Saunders did not return to England until November 1914.


W Bateson in Australia 1914

Happier times: William and Beatrice Bateson and Rebecca Saunders on a railway platform in Australia

By this time Bateson found that the John Innes had already started to disperse. His dream of building a world leading institute for research in genetics was stalled, and he had to face the prospect of making do with meagre resources again. The young men who worked in the gardens and labs had started to go off to war, and the visiting scientists had also returned to their home countries. For example, Nikolai Vavilov, who had come to study cereal genetics with Bateson in 1913, had already packed up his rust-resistant wheat samples and rushed back to Russia by train. The books and botanical specimens he sent on by sea never reached him; the ship carrying them was sunk by a German mine. Dr Malinowski of Warsaw, who had only just arrived, also returned home a few days after the declaration of war.

William Bateson and Nikolai Vavilov

Nikolai Vavilov pictured with William Bateson

How should scientists respond to war? This is something Bateson gave quite a lot of thought to. He was amazed and shocked to find his contemporary scientists taken over by national prejudices. At first he didn’t expect international scientific relations to be affected. He regarded war as a commercial matter, perhaps mixed up with national feeling, but a lot of it ‘commerce in disguise’. He assumed that fellow scientists would feel the same; that they would bond together and rise above the international conflict.

But science was caught up in the hostilities. One of the immediate effects was the closing off of normal channels of information. Bateson found getting German scientific publications, which some regarded as ‘trading with the enemy’, suddenly difficult. He was furious that scientific reference libraries, which had stopped taking German journals, neglected to continue their sets even after the Armistice. Nor did he approve of the Government’s decision to shut the British museums to the public after 1st March 1916. Later he wrote angrily that this action had ‘gravely injured the cause of science and learning, and advertised to the world the contempt in which such Institutions are held in this country’. What, Bateson asked, would science do with the ‘succession in learning’ broken throughout Europe? Journals could eventually be replaced, but how many of the younger generation of potential or upcoming geneticists were tragically lost? (like Edinburgh University’s A. D. Darbishire, ). Only a damaged eye prevented Vavilov from being called to active service in Russia and suffering the same fate.


The John Innes Annual Reports record the destinations of Bateson’s staff after they joined up. Mr G. O. Sherrard, who had just begun a Board of Agriculture research studentship on wheat in 1914, resigned in August and returned to military service as a Captain in the Royal Garrison Artillery. James Lesley (researching gooseberries and potatoes) went into the 5th (Reserve) Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment; laboratory attendant Alfred Emarton enlisted in the Garrison Artillery where he was soon promoted to Bombardier, then Corporal. Two of the student gardeners, D. Orchard and George Butler, enlisted in the 5th Surrey. Maurice Bailey left in 1915, resigning his research studentship to accept a Commission in R.F.A. It was impossible to fill the studentships vacated, and only one male researcher returned to John Innes after the War. You can read about Bateson’s plea to the Board of Agriculture to keep one of the last members of his scientific staff (E.J. Collins) in Simon Coleman’s blog



The John Innes Garden staff  in 1912

The John Innes garden staff in 1912. M B Crane is in the middle row and J Holloway in the back row

Most of the garden staff of military age had also left by 1915. The two sub-foremen, Morley Benjamin Crane and Edward Allen, and the two remaining student gardeners (A B Thorn and A H Powell) left in the spring to enter munitions works. J. Holloway enlisted in the 1st Life Guards. By the end of the year Crane had enlisted in the Flying Corps and Thorn joined the Hampshire Regiment. Only one student gardener returned to complete his time as an ‘Exhibitioner’, after being rejected for military service on medical grounds. Bateson reported soberly ‘the work of the Institution had to be seriously cut down’. It was not only the loss of gardeners that hampered the experimental work. The Institute’s land had to be give over to vegetable growing; some of the produce was sold, but thousands of seedling vegetables were distributed free to local allotment holders.

Bateson’s women staff members were also doing their bit for the war effort. His sister-in-law Florence Durham started laboratory work at a military hospital at the end of the summer of 1915, beginning a new career with the Medical Research Committee (later Council); Miss Mitchell left to become an overseer in a munitions works. Dorothy Cayley resigned her studentship in 1916 to become a tool-setter at Vickers’ aeroplane factory. She did varied war work, including cutting bracken in Savernake Forest for Army horse bedding, and assisting with Royal Army Medical investigations on Tetanus at the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine. The women who stayed behind kept the John Innes running. After the male workforce had left on war service there were four women to every male on the depleted staff.  Women like Hilda Killby came to work in the experimental plots, so many ‘gardeners having gone off to make munitions’. By 1918 running the institute was increasingly difficult, with a scarcity of labour and materials of every kind.

The John Innes also had to manage for short periods without a Director. Bateson travelled to Rouen in France at Christmas 1916 under a scheme promoted by the Universities and the YMCA. The idea was to provide lectures to the troops to try to ‘ease their dreary lot’. Bateson’s first lecture, an introduction to the science of heredity, was not a success. Picture a long narrow room with no lighting except the lantern slide projector, Bateson wrote ‘I could never light up and see my audience … many crept away under cover of the darkness’. His later lectures went better, with a good proportion of interested hearers. He became ‘Rather sick of Preliminary Mendel’ which he regularly repeated, and looked forward to changing to Heredity of Sex, a lecture that apparently had his audience entranced and forgetting their supper! Ill-health cut Bateson’s stay in France short, but he went out again in January 1918. Though happy to contribute to raising troop morale (however odd it might be to think of genetics lectures as morale-boosting now), Bateson would not agree to the Ministry of Information’s request that he write propaganda about what Britain had been doing in genetics during the War. The idea was to counteract an impression abroad that scientific work was at a standstill in Britain. Bateson thought such chauvinism ‘incompatible with the spirit of science’.

So what happened to the John Innes staff members who had gone off to the front? Lt. Bailey and Capt. Lesley were awarded the Military Cross in 1916; Lesley was later reported as wounded and missing, but was finally located as a prisoner of war at Bad-Colberg in Germany. Lesley survived the war and returned to scientific research, but not to the John Innes. Gardeners D. Orchard and A. Lane were killed in action. Happily Sherrard, Emarton, Butler, Holloway and Crane came back safely after war ended. There was one death that was not announced in the John Innes Annual Report for 1918. To add to this year of sadness William and Beatrice’s eldest son John, age 20, was killed in October 1918, just 14 days before the Armistice. ‘He was a brave, good boy’ as Bateson wrote to a friend.

Bateson gave a public lecture on ‘Science and Nationality’ during the dark period of his grief, making his rhetorical question ‘is there a house where there is not one dead?’ especially poignant.  For him the lesson of biology was that ‘struggle and competition’ was the natural state of life, and that the vision of a war free world in the future ‘is an illusion’. He said he never doubted that it was the Government’s duty to go to war in 1914, and he accepted that in time of war ‘truth must be suppressed or garbled; history rewritten; the standards of candour and generosity suspended’. But he remained an idealist about academe: ‘We speak sometimes about science, art and letters as an international domain. More truly we should think of it as extra-national’. The full fascinating 27-page typescript of this lecture is preserved in the John Innes Historical Collections; a transcript was published by Beatrice Bateson’s book (pp. 356-370). An edited version of the address, which was given at the inaugural meeting of the Yorkshire Science Association, was published in the Edinburgh Review in 1919.

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