Remembering the Proudman Building (1975-2013)

Judith Wolf, July 2022

The Proudman Building, viewed from Bidston Observatory, watercolour, painted by Sylvia Asquith
The Proudman Building, viewed from Bidston Observatory, painted by Sylvia Asquith

I started work at IOS Bidston in March 1976. It was a beautiful hot summer and I was delighted to be taking the first step on my career as an Oceanographer. I had graduated in July 1975 with a degree in Maths and Physical Oceanography from Bangor University. In October 1975 I got married and came to live in Cheshire, to join my husband who was posted there by his employer. I looked around for work and wrote to Bidston Observatory, one of the few places in the North West where there might be work in oceanographic research. Unfortunately, there was no vacancy but they offered to keep my name on file. To occupy myself, I started on a PhD at Keele University in the Maths Department, working on semi-conductor physics, modelling a tunnel diode – something I knew nothing about and in which I was not initially very interested. Six months later, just as I started to get the hang of what I was doing, I got a letter from Bidston saying there was a vacancy for a junior scientist and was I interested. Yes I was, so I applied and got offered the job at the grade of Scientific Officer (seeing as I didn’t yet have a PhD).

I loved working at Bidston immediately, it still had a warm family feeling, although by this time there were already about 80 staff, far more than in the early days. Three of us were appointed as ‘new blood’ in 1976, towards the end of quite a period of expansion. Most of the science staff were based in the ‘new building’ as it was known (even until it was pulled down in 2013). It was officially ‘opened’ and named in 1979, as a memorial to Prof Joseph Proudman, professor of mathematics at Liverpool University, and founder and first Director of the Liverpool Tidal Institute. The Proudman Building was a modern concrete structure, nothing like the historical Observatory building, but purpose-built by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), our employer, to accommodate the burgeoning marine scientific research programme. At the time (and for most of my career) we were on Scientific Civil Service terms and conditions, the pay was not the main attraction, but there was a generous final salary pension scheme and retirement was compulsory at age 60. For me this would be in 2013 – a long way in the future, I wasn’t thinking about my pension at that point! In fact I didn’t retire that year as the age rule had been relaxed by then, but it seems somehow significant  that the building had almost the same life span as my career.

The other attraction was that there was a possibility of being able to work for a part-time PhD, registered at Liverpool University. I already recognised that, being one of the only women scientists doing research at Bidston at the time, a PhD would be essential for me to be taken seriously in marine research. Soon after I joined, I was encouraged to go to sea on the RRS Challenger to the Celtic Sea, for the experience, although my work was mainly desk-based. It was great fun and I loved being at sea, taking part in watch-keeping: I shared a cabin with another young female scientist (women weren’t allowed to go to sea without another woman at that time), recruited about the same time as myself, Julia Evans. She was a graduate in oceanography from Swansea, but didn’t stay at Bidston very long, unfortunately, moving away to support her husband’s career in the police service.

I was assigned to a shared office on the 2nd (top) floor, in the Numerical Modelling Group, which was led by Norman Heaps, renowned for his pioneering work in developing numerical models of the sea, especially to study tides and storm surges. Also on the top floor was the Director’s Office (when I joined Dr David Cartwright was in charge) and the Canteen, where people gathered for coffee at 11:00, including some who came over from the Observatory Building, notably Sylvia Asquith and Joyce Scoffield (whose reminiscences can be found elsewhere in these articles). At the time we had a small in-house computer, the IBM 1130, in the basement of the Observatory building, but most of us sent our computing work as decks of punched-cards to the Science Research Council’s mainframe computer at the Daresbury Laboratory in Cheshire, about 30 miles away. This meant you had to wait 24 hours before the printout came back, to discover you had omitted a punctuation mark, leading to a compilation error! We all punched our own cards – including the Director.

On the 1st floor there were more science offices. The ground floor was the electronics lab and the Honeywell 66/20 computer room, the mainframe computer for the whole of NERC. It was due to be installed at Bidston in early autumn 1976, but the associated air conditioning plant was delayed and the 66/20 eventually became fully operational at Bidston in January 1978. The following 10 years was probably the golden era of Bidston’s influence and maximum staff numbers. When that computer was removed in the mid-80’s, the Library was installed in part of that space, transferred from the Observatory building, and run by our excellent librarian Kathy Jones, who was so knowledgeable and provided a great extracts service tailored to all of our specialisms. In the basement was the workshop and the ‘loading bay’ where equipment for scientific sea-going expeditions, known as research ‘cruises’, was mobilised and sent to RVS Barry in South Wales, where the research vessel fleet was based. Typically, our work in marine physics/hydrodynamics involved the deployment of offshore tide gauges and current meters and taking CTD profiles at selected stations (a ‘CTD’ – conductivity/salinity, temperature and depth-profile characterised the hydrography of the sea). The place was a hive of activity. At that time, the way we got our funding was from several government departments. A lot of my work was funded by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), which was responsible for coastal defence. We would receive ‘visiting groups’ of eminent scientists (e.g. Prof Adrian Gill, Sir Herman Bondi and Sir James Lighthill) every five years, who would interrogate us about our work and write a report, generally encouraging us to carry on! We had a lot of autonomy, but our research was, in fact, mostly applied to real world problems, providing information for the shipping, fishing and coastal engineering industries and so it was relatively easy to show its value. It was much easier than in later years when it has become increasingly competitive to win research funding, leading to large amounts of time spent by senior scientists, like myself by that time, in writing research proposals.

During my PhD studies I got to work with some colleagues at IOS Taunton to help collect and access some of their data on currents in shallow seas. In 1978 I participated in the ill-fated expedition on the charter vessel Gardline Locator in the Bristol Channel during which Martyn Lees from IOS Taunton was tragically lost overboard. I came on watch at 08:00 to be told he had just fallen overboard and be sure to log all activity. There was later a NERC enquiry in London, which I had to attend along with all others on board at the time, to recount the sequence of events as far as knew it. Safety procedures were criticised and improved as a result of this terrible accident.

I finally got my PhD in 1984, around the same time as I had my first baby. I knew if I didn’t get my thesis submitted before that event I might never complete it! I had started publishing papers and attending conferences, both national and international, and got rapid promotion to Principal Scientist in my early 30’s, which was essential to be recognised as a ‘prime-mover’ (in NERC jargon), initiating my own research programme. I carved out an area of research including the coupled modelling of storms, waves, tides and surges, mainly focussing on the NW European continental shelf (with water depths less than 200m as compared with 5000m in the deep ocean). Studying waves meant I worked with an international group of wave modellers and I set up a North Atlantic wave model, which provided boundary conditions for the continental shelf model and allowed us to study wave climate. I also had to acquire wave data to validate the wave model – sadly much of the UK wave observational programme had been closed down in the early 1980’s, particularly with the closure of IOS Taunton. I was responsible for initiating work with the X-band radar system to capture waves from a ship’s navigational radar display, turning up the ‘sea clutter’ and photographing the screen. This led to my final research cruise, on which I was Principal Scientist, observing waves in the Bristol Channel in February 1991 – not glamorous, but we did get some storm winds and good-sized waves!

We were moved over to the University of Liverpool campus in December 2004 and in its latter years the Proudman Building was maintained by NERC with some of the costs being offset by the running of the building (and the Observatory) for low-cost rental accommodation by so-called ‘guardians’. It was finally decided that in order to get a sale of the site, the Proudman Building, of no historical value and purpose-built for science, should be demolished, which happened in 2013. The grassy landscaped patch of ground where it stood does not look big enough to have housed so much activity and achievement.

More information about the history and work of Bidston Observatory can be found in other articles in this series and an article by Eric Jones written for Ocean Challenge in 1999 (Vol 9, No 1, pp 29-35): See also Joyce Scoffield’s book ‘Bidston Observatory: The Place and the People”, pub. Countyvise Limited, 2006. ISBN 1-901231-68-2

Thanks to Phil Woodworth and Ian Ainslie who corrected an earlier version of this article.