Fiona and I fell to talking about her Gran, our mum, on Saturday. She mentioned that she didn’t know much about what Gran did during the war, so I thought I would write down what little I know, and maybe my sisters can fill in some blanks.
Jean Stephen* was 19 when the war broke out. She lived in Falkirk, I believe at that time the family was in Forbes Road.
Having shown keen interest in the sciences at school (not so much the languages, on one occasion asking the adjudicator of a Latin exam if she should translate the French parts too…) she obtained a position in the laboratories of the “dyes” in Grangemouth. Previously Scottish Dyes, then British Dyestuffs Corporation, the company was bought by ICI in the 1920s. Mum would only ever buy Dulux paints when we were little. She was placed with a team of research chemists and wartime projects were given to them Mum worked on the problem of aircraft tyres bursting into flames on impact. The received wisdom is that she applied her tried and tested cure for everything – baking soda – which worked. The Head of the Lab got the kudos for the solution, but on an open day he apparently took Granda (Mum’s father) aside and told him that Jean had solved the issue.
Other snippets were that the technicians there were keen on photography, some tried various methods to print colour photos, and there is a lovely headshot (below) of mum with an interesting background. On closer inspection it is revealed to be scrumpled up brown paper. A couple of the men experimented with ethanol and ended up being very ill. Not an alcohol substitute, then. It was also said that the Head of the Lab had already made so much money for the company that he never needed to do anything more, but I am sure that he continued his research. He did set the entire lab on fire once, when demonstrating fire drill procedures. I believe ethanol featured again as he poured an entire bottle of it onto the bench and set it alight.
Like most people during that time, mum also worked with defence agencies, as an ARP warden. She did call out the Guard one night during thick fog which she mistook for a gas attack.
I think a lot of Mum’s war must have been quite tedious and worrying. I know she knitted a cardigan with one ply wool – how long must that have taken? There were trips to London to see sister Betty, and then there’s the story of Mum walking past a phone box in Falkirk where the phone was ringing. Mum went in and picked up, it was Betty on the other end, so they had a chat and then she went away without thinking about it until days later when she realised that they had made no arrangement to speak to each other … Holidays were cycle trips with friends. She also played hockey for ICI.
16.06.18 Alison has pointed out that Mum’s occupation would be a reserved one, which would account for that fact that she was not in the armed forces. Betty was a warrant officer, working in communications, spending a lot of time in England and latterly abroad. Older sister Joan was a nurse. Alison also recalls that Jean and Betty attended college in Glasgow, we both know that she had thoughts of becoming a doctor at one point and this may have been to obtain further exam passes?
* I don’t use her name as a security password for anything.