Archived Talks: 2021

(Most recent first. Click on the titles for fuller descriptions).

1st June 2021


Seldom out of the news is the subject of housing in all its aspects, whether cost, availability, quality or one of many other factors. This was the theme of the speaker, Club member Tony Crook who, as Emeritus Professor of Town & Regional Planning at Sheffield University, is a recognized expert in this field.


Tony had given his talk the title, ‘Housing markets and policy: from our grandparents to our grandchildren’ and he discussed the changes over these five generations that had already occurred and that, in future, may (and, indeed, should) happen. Starting with a general overview, he described how those living in the late-19th/early 20th centuries had largely rented from private landlords, whereas the following generation in the mid-20th century had opportunities to rent from their local council or to buy their own homes.


Homeownership then tended to become the norm as local authorities reduced their building programmes and housing stocks. Towards the end of the last century and into this one, there has been a decline in social rented housing coupled with higher costs of home ownership. It is to be expected that the future market will find private landlords returning on a large scale while those wishing to buy will face very high house prices compared with incomes.


With the use of graphs and other visual aids, the speaker showed these trends in housing tenure and he illustrated how and why we now find ourselves in the current situation of a housing shortage. This presents particular difficulties for people wishing to rent properties (at rapidly increasing prices), and for first-time buyers who are faced with house prices that, in some areas, are approaching ten times average earnings. To address these problems, Tony offered a number of actions that need to be taken. These include the easing of planning constraints, the construction of well-designed new towns, bigger grants for housing associations and, in order to reduce the debt burden on the young, reform of university finance by cutting fees.


As may be expected in view of the topicality of the subject, there was much input from the audience at the conclusion of this talk.


Tony Crook

18th May 2021


When the expression ‘consumer protection’ is used, we tend to think of laws or regulations that have been introduced in fairly recent times, but a system that has been in use for seven centuries was the topic of this talk given (via video conferencing) by club member, Christopher Jewitt.


In the first of a two-part presentation, the speaker discussed the history of hallmarking, which is the method by which the purity of goods made of precious metals (such as gold and silver) is certified by an independent body known as an Assay Office. With these goods being of high value (because of the metals of which they are made) but such that their purity cannot be determined by visual inspection, the need for a method of analytical verification of purity was recognised at an early date. In fact, the history of hallmarking can be traced back to the foundation of the Goldsmiths’ Company in 1327, the word ‘hallmarking’ being derived from the fact that the precious metals were officially inspected and marked at Goldsmiths’ Hall in London.


Modern law in respect of assaying and hallmarking was established by the Hallmarking Act of 1973 which made business transactions involving unmarked metals illegal. In the UK, testing and marking of these metals can only be carried out at one of the four Assay Offices in London, Edinburgh, Sheffield and Birmingham.


The speaker described how the metals are tested, and he explained the system whereby the tested items are stamped (or etched by laser) with a series of marks that identify the sponsor of the test, the material, its purity, the Assay Office and the date of testing.


Turning to the history of our local Assay Office in Sheffield, Christopher explained that this and the one in Birmingham were set up by Act of Parliament in 1773. In Sheffield, the Office has been located in a succession of premises, most recently in the state of the art Guardian’s Hall in Hillsborough. Here the Assay Office has developed an Analytical Services Division which is internationally recognised as a prestigious independent testing laboratory for metals.

4th May 2021


Coming after such a long period of international travel restrictions imposed as a result of the Covid pandemic, this talk (by video conferencing) served as a reminder of what we have all been missing. At this meeting, Club member Chris Shepley described a trip which he, in the company of one of his friends, had made in 2019 to one of the remotest parts of the planet, Antarctica.


Having flown from Heathrow, via Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, the southernmost city of Argentina, he and his travelling colleague embarked on board the purpose-built exploration cruise ship ‘MS Fram’. Here they joined 180 other passengers, representing 20 nationalities (mostly German, British and American) for a voyage that was to take them on a journey first to the Falkland Islands and then to South Georgia, the South Shetland Islands, and down through the Antarctic Peninsular before returning through Drake’s Passage to Ushuaia; a round trip of over 3,800 nautical miles. Included in the on-board crew was a team of professional ‘explorers’ who acted as lecturers and guides at the various ports and points of interest en route. These included Port Stanley on the Falklands, and a number of the sites on South Georgia and Elephant Island associated with Sir Ernest Shackleton’s famous boat journey of 1916.


With the aid of dozens of interesting photographs and video clips, the speaker showed examples of the remarkable scenery, bird and animal life of the region. As he pointed out and as was abundantly clear from the evidence of his pictures, the weather throughout most of the voyage was exceptionally calm with blue skies; not conditions that may be expected so close to the polar regions. As some members of the audience who had also visited Antarctica discussed at the end of the talk, their experiences had been very different, with the violent gales and mountainous seas more often associated with this Southern Ocean.


Chris Shepley

20th April 2021


Our programme of talks is usually arranged several months in advance of the date when the talk is to be given but it is gratifying to find a high proportion of them to be extremely topical and relevant when delivered. Such was the case at this meeting when Club member Alan Grant spoke about wood, trees and the Japanese inspired practice of forest bathing which is nowadays being recommended as an aid to relaxation and generally improved health.


The speaker described how, throughout his life, he has been inspired by trees and has devoted many hours to volunteering in projects to protect woodland. His interest has extended to his becoming a skilled wood-turner and cabinet maker. Such is his regard for the properties and versatility of wood that the basic structure of his own house, built as recently as 1995, is timber.


Reminding us of the vital part that trees can play in our attempts to control climate change, Alan compared the amount of woodland cover in the UK (13%) with other countries such as France (31%) and Germany (33%). In this country we need to increase the area of woodland by almost 50% to meet our target for net carbon zero emissions. He gave examples of efforts to improve the situation but these are still far from adequate at the current rate of planting.


Alan then explained the principles and merits of forest bathing. This is an activity in which the individual, sitting, standing or walking quietly in woodland, uses his or her senses to absorb the sounds, sights, smells, feel and even taste of his or her surroundings. The resulting benefits include lowering stress and lifting depression, reducing blood pressure, improving concentration and energy levels, and creating a general feeling of wellbeing. No doubt, these would be of help to everyone after our experiences of the past year.


Alan Grant

6th April 2021


The nineteenth century is widely recognized as an age of enormous societal change, driven in large part by the coming of the railways and their ever-expanding influence. The names of some of the engineers who designed and built them are, even today, well remembered, with Stephenson and Brunel chief among them. The achievements and successes of the Victorian engineers usually outweighed their failures, but there was one among them, Thomas Bouch, whose career was curtailed and whose reputation was completely destroyed through a single catastrophic event. The story of this engineer and the circumstances leading to his downfall were the subject of this talk, given Club member, Peter Donaldson.


The event in question was the collapse of the first Tay Bridge at Dundee which failed in a tremendous gale in December 1879, taking with it the passenger train that was crossing at the time and claiming the lives of all 75 people on board. As the speaker explained, this bridge, being almost two miles long and across the open waters of the River Tay estuary, was of unprecedented scale when its construction was proposed by Thomas Bouch. However, in the spirit of the age, Bouch was full of confidence to the extent that he gave assurance that, to build it, would be “a very ordinary undertaking”. This was to prove a serious understatement but, in spite of many difficulties encountered during construction, the bridge was finally completed in 1878 and, as intended, became the source of considerable benefit to its financial backers.


Although the shareholders may have been satisfied, many of the rail passengers who travelled across the bridge were not. They complained of a swaying motion in the structure, especially when one of the not infrequent gales in this area was blowing down the river, a foretaste of the eventual disaster of that fateful day in 1879. Because of the seriousness of the bridge’s collapse, there was a Board of Trade inquiry into all aspects of its design, construction and maintenance. This inquiry concluded that there had been failings at every stage, and that Thomas Bouch was to blame for these. This damning verdict broke the man’s spirit and, within a few months, he died. Having caught a cold, he had neither the strength nor the will to resist it. In effect, he was the 76th victim, albeit indirect, of the disaster.


Peter Donaldson

16th March 2021


For our 2021 annual debate (this year, as last, using video conferencing), the motion was that ‘This Club supports the banning of field sports’. Leading the discussions were David Webb who supported the proposition and Ainslie Kelly who opposed it, with Club Chairman Malcolm Cameron overseeing the proceedings. A preliminary vote among those present indicated a clear majority against the motion.


In his arguments favouring the banning field sports, David Webb started by defining these as blood sports which involve the killing of other species for pleasure, rather than out of necessity. In effect, by allowing such activities, society was condoning institutionalised cruelty. He acknowledged that, to the free-born British person, the word ‘ban’ is anathema, with overtones of authoritarianism. Also, with these activities very much associated in the general public’s mind with a particular group of people, any attempts to restrict field sports could be seen as ‘class warfare’.


In his view, the question is fundamentally an ethical one. Irrespective of any religious adherence, he asserted that there is a sanctity of creation in which all creatures deserve respect and should not be subjected to unnecessary physical and psychological pain inflicted in the name of ‘sport’. As he pointed out, many formerly acceptable activities are no longer carried out. Bear-baiting and cock-fighting were outlawed in the nineteenth century and the hunting of wild animals, such as hares and foxes, was banned by the 2004 Hunting Act.


In his response, Ainslie Kelly pointed out that field sports do not necessarily involve harming or killing animals, for instance, clay pigeon and target shooting are exceptions. There are benefits from the environmental, economic and social effects of most field sports. Giving examples from his particular interest, angling, he described how the environment was protected and enhanced by the fishing community, who helped to monitor pollution and invasive species in watercourses. The economic benefits include the generation of employment, very often in rural areas deprived of other job opportunities.


Turning to the social aspects of these activities, he quoted figures that demonstrated the huge numbers of people who gained pleasure, relaxation (both physical and mental), and open-air freedom when pursuing their interests. Being available to all sections of society, the resulting effects are particularly beneficial to young people who thereby learn to value and to take care of the environment.


Following these opening submissions, the debate was continued with numerous contributions from the floor. The closing vote, held among the audience, resulted in a slightly reduced majority against the motion from that held before the debate. 

2nd March 2021


Since starting to hold our meetings by video conferencing in May 2020, we have usually relied on our own members to give the regular twice-monthly talks. However, for a change, a guest speaker was invited to address this one. He was John Lambert, who was representing the Friends of the Peak District, a charitable organisation dedicated to the protection of the Peak District National Park and to campaigning against inappropriate development within the Park.


Opening his talk with a brief history of the National Park, the speaker described how, in 1924, the Sheffield Association for the Protection of Local Scenery (later to become the Sheffield, Peak District and South Yorkshire Branch of the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE)) was founded under the formidable leadership of Ethel and Gerald Haythornthwaite. With their allies, they campaigned for green belts to be designated around urban areas such as Sheffield, which was the first city to create one. The Association also raised funds to save areas of the adjacent countryside which were under threat. These included Dore Moor, Longshaw Estate, Mam Tor, Winnats Pass and Dove Dale, most of which have since been managed by the National Trust. The Haythornthwaites were central to the establishment of the Peak District as Britain’s first national park in 1951.


The speaker continued by discussing the continuing pressures upon the Peak District, not least those brought about by its own popularity. As the world’s third most visited national park it attracts an estimated 15 million visitors per year, the majority of whom are day-trippers from the surrounding cities and towns.


Now re-branded as the Friends of the Peak District, the organisation continues in its role as a guardian of the National Park by opposing unsuitable new development, such as quarrying, insensitive housing and major intrusive transport schemes but, at the same time, supporting environmentally desirable improvements to public transport and small-scale housing schemes.


With most of his audience being residents of the National Park (and many of us already members of the Friends), John’s presentation was very well received.

16 February 2021


It is probably quite rare for one family to have a record of businesses in one area for more than three centuries but Robinson & Sons of Chesterfield is one such, although the nature of its activities has evolved considerably over that period of time. The story of this company was told to us (by video conferencing) by our member, John Robinson. He described how his ancestors had been making pottery in Bolsover and Chesterfield before one of their number, William (Billy) Robinson turned his attention to the marketing of hosiery in the late eighteenth century. This business was highly successful and helped to establish Billy and his wife Ann as prominent citizens of the town.


One of their six surviving children, John Bradbury Robinson, born in 1802, was indentured to a chemist and, after completion of his apprenticeship, traded for some years as a chemist. At that time, pills and other medicines sold to the public were probably simply packed in a twist of paper – an unsatisfactory method. In 1839 he realised that a better method of packaging would be to use small boxes as containers. He sold the chemist business and started the manufacture of cardboard pillboxes. Following further box developments, in 1854 the company expanded its operations to include making lint, which was in high demand during the Crimean War (1853-56).


The speaker continued his narrative by describing the development of other packaging and cotton products made, and patents taken, by Robinsons. These included Gamgee tissue, a surgical dressing which has a thick layer of absorbent cotton wool between two layers of absorbent gauze. Invented in 1880, it is still in use today. The company was also the first manufacturer of sanitary towels in the world and later expanded its operations to include the manufacture of babies’ nappies.


Robinsons have viewed the welfare of their employees as paramount. They supported the establishment of a works council as early as 1918 and were to the fore by adopting the idea of paid holidays and pensions. They also encouraged social activities such as sports clubs and, most remarkably, to celebrate the business’s centenary, the directors organised and paid for a day trip to London in 1939 for all of their 3,704 employees.


John Robinson

2nd February 2021


The outside interests and enthusiasms of the members of our club are many and varied, as demonstrated by John Gibson, who was the speaker at this meeting (by video conferencing). John’s wife, Jan, is a member of a choir which, under normal (non-pandemic) circumstances performs in cathedrals around the country at the times when the resident choirs, many of whose members are schoolchildren, are unavailable in the school holidays. During such visits the speaker, a non-chorister himself, has been happy to accompany his wife on her travels. While she has been otherwise occupied in her choral duties, John has used his free time to explore the surrounding area.


Apart from his interest in the architecture of these cathedral buildings themselves, John has studied their histories and the cities in which they stand. In many places, he has been able to pursue another of his interests, the history of the Romans in Britain. Many cathedral cities have been built on ancient settlements, several of which can be traced back to Roman times, and even earlier.


In his talk, he described what he has learned about several of the places that he has visited. These range from the major cathedral cities such as Canterbury, Chichester and Lichfield, to the smaller ones, like Hereford and St Albans, and even to those that are not much larger than towns – Wells, Ripon and Southwell. Each of these places has its unique feature; the mediaeval map of the World (Mappa Mundi) in Hereford; the country’s only surviving mediaeval detached bell tower in Chichester; the association with Archbishop Thomas Becket, murdered in 1170 in Canterbury.


The speaker also showed pictures of non-ecclesiastical sites visited in his explorations. These included such far-flung places as Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland and the magnificent Roman palace at Fishbourne in Sussex.


In conclusion, he talked about Nice (in the south of France) where he has come across a number of memorials to the victims of the Nazis during World War II. The most poignant of these memorials records the deportation to Auschwitz of thousands of Jews, including children, after the city came under the control of the Germans in 1943.


19th January  2021


Having been told in advance by our speaker that the title of his talk was to be ‘The Adventures of an Itinerant Farm Boy’, we were expecting to hear a tale about rural life at this meeting (held by video conferencing). However, at the outset, the speaker, Club member John Winkworth-Smith, explained that although coming from a farming family (and hence having been born a ‘farm boy’) he had chosen to follow a career in the law which, as it turned out, involved him in a huge amount of travelling around the world; a somewhat itinerant lifestyle.


With that clarification, John proceeded to relate a number of stories about his experiences as a lawyer specialising in international litigation on behalf of a variety of clients, many of whom were major industrialists based in Sheffield. It was on one such commission, in Turkey, that he managed to escape an attempted kidnapping by a local businessman with whom he had been negotiating. On another occasion, he was held at gunpoint by a German border guard. (To put this particular incident in context, it happened soon after a terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, and the country was still on high alert.) The threat of violence was also present when he was involved in a case in Southern Italy where the Mafia clearly influenced the outcome.


It was not only the actions of fellow human beings that had given the speaker such alarming experiences. While visiting the factories of his various clients, there were occasions when he had narrowly avoided injury from malfunctioning processes in steelworks. At the other end of the temperature scale, he had faced a blizzard in Michigan when acting for another client.

The legal profession is not usually considered to be particularly hazardous but, for this speaker, it had often proved otherwise. Maybe it comes as no surprise that, in retirement, he occupies his time in the more gentle pursuit of sheep-farming.


John Winkworth-Smith


5th January  2021


Because of his connections with Chatsworth, the name of Joseph Paxton is very familiar to those of us living in this part of Derbyshire. It was appropriate, therefore, that Paxton was the subject of this talk (by video conferencing) given at our first meeting of 2021 by Club member, Don Naybour.


Relating the story of Paxton’s life, the speaker started by describing his subject’s early years. Born in 1803 as the seventh son of a farmer in Bedfordshire there is no record that he ever attended a school but, from evidence of his handwriting, he was clearly not an uneducated man. In his mid-teens he became a garden boy, later being employed by the Horticultural Society at their gardens in Chiswick. It was here that he met William Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, who offered Paxton, then aged only 20, the job of head gardener at Chatsworth. Having accepted the offer, Paxton oversaw a number of major schemes including the relocation of Edensor village and the construction of the Emperor fountain, and a series of greenhouses. He also met and married Sarah Boan, who proved to be skilled in managing the family finances, leaving Paxton free to pursue his creative ideas and to develop his circle of influential friends and acquaintances.


The proposed Great Exhibition of 1851 gave Paxton the opportunity to present a scheme for the building based on his existing design for the Regia Lily House at Chatsworth. It was a modular arrangement which lent itself to a method of prefabricated construction, with the result that the exhibition hall was completed in a remarkably short time. For his contribution to the success of the undertaking, Paxton was knighted.


His reputation firmly established and now a wealthy man, thanks mainly to his investments in the early railways, Paxton left Chatsworth after the Duke died in 1858. He later worked on a number of projects and, from 1854 until his death in 1865, was a Member of Parliament for Coventry.


Don concluded his talk by examining the factors that had helped Paxton rise from his humble beginnings to his success in later life. Clearly, a formal education had not been essential but support and encouragement from his family and friends had played a vital role.


Don Naybour