Snippets of History – 2020

On February 20th 2020, members and friends of the History of Deganwy Group braved a wild and windy night to attend an evening of Snippets of History. The first speaker was marine biologist Dr Stephen Lockwood, who was director of the CEFAS facility on Benarth Road from 1986 to 1999. He gave the group a fascinating and entertaining talk about his predecessors in the post, focusing on the first man to hold the directorship – Robert William Dodgson.

Robert Dodgson was born in 1870, in West street, Wigton, Cumberland (now Cumbria). The family were of Quaker lineage and, contrary to popular mythology, there is no evidence that they were related to the family of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), who were all High-Church Anglicans.

Dodgson began his university education at Owen’s College, Manchester, (now University of Manchester) before enrolling in 1890 as a medical student at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, London. He became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1895, graduated MB a year later and was awarded a gold medal when he graduated MD in 1898. He became a member of the Royal College of Physicians in 1904.

Whilst undertaking his medical training, Dodgson developed a specialist interest in the relatively new field of bacteriology. In this connection, in 1900 the War Office commissioned him to study the efficacy of anti-typhoid inoculation of the British troops serving in South Africa. As a civilian surgeon with the army, he was awarded the Queen’s South Africa medal with campaign bars for South Africa 1901, Transvaal, Orange Free State and Cape Province. This work was followed by the directorship of the Government Research Laboratory (part of the Plague Administration) at Cape Town and in 1902 he was appointed director of the Pasteur Institute of Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) at Bulawayo.

After a bout of ill health, Dodgson returned to the UK in 1904 and practised privately until 1911. He then joined Sir Almroth Wright at the newly established department of bacteriology at St Mary’s Hospital and returned to South Africa to study epidemic pneumonia among the goldminers of Witwatersrand. Yet again he was struck by ill health and returned to the UK in 1913.

Throughout Dodgson’s life up to this time, the coastal molluscan shellfisheries of the UK had been blighted by associated outbreaks of typhoid. Indeed, “as a result of the well-merited evil repute of Conway (sic) mussels, the fishery was closed in 1911, and the position thus created brought to the notice of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries by the Conway Corporation”1. Following further pressure from Conway Corporation, the Ministry commissioned Dodgson to develop a reliable means of purifying mussels (Mytilus edulis) and, hence, eliminating the risk of contracting typhoid.

1 Dodgson, R. W. (1937). Shellfish and the public health. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine XXXI; 925–934.

Dodgson’s approach was to undertake a comprehensive study of mussel physiology coupled with appropriate bacteriological investigations. He established that if mussels were cleaned of external mud and detritus, and then held in sterile (chlorinated) seawater for 48 hours they would purge themselves of all faecal coliforms to a level that rendered them fit for human consumption. Once Dodgson was satisfied that this simple solution was both robust and reliable, he worked in partnership with the Conway Corporation borough engineer, F. A. Delamote, to build a series of tanks adjacent to Conwy Castle to purify mussels from the commercial fishery in the Conwy Estuary.1 These tanks were in continuous use until the early 1990s when they were replaced by an indoor purification unit on Conwy Quay, but they can still be seen as part of Riverside Business Park, albeit slightly modified to form the car park. An almost identical set of purification tanks were built alongside the River Exe (but are no longer there) and variations were built to adopt Dodgson’s system in North America and elsewhere in Europe.

1 Dodgson, R. W. (1928). Report on mussel purification. Ministry of Agriculture & Fisheries, Fishery Investigations. Series II, X(1). His Majesty’s Stationery Office, London.


As the system required the oversight of a bacteriologist to ensure the method was followed and to check the bacterial status of the mussels, Dodgson was appointed permanent director. This enabled him to continue his research and assess whether the technique he had devised for mussels was equally effective for other bivalve molluscs, specifically the native flat oyster (Ostrea edulis). He undertook trials in the summer months when the tanks were not required for mussels (a winter fishery) and discovered that not only did the same purification system work but that the oysters would spawn and the larvae (spat) would settle on the tank walls. From this chance observation it was but a short step for Dodgson to adopt the French limed-tile means of maximising spat settlement in a limited space (the tanks) and then transferring the tiles to Tal-y-Foel in the western Menai Strait for on-growing to a size (50 mm) suitable for passing on to the commercial oyster beds in the Thames and Fal–Helford Estuaries. What might be called Dodgson tanks were built in Brightlingsea to purify oysters in Essex but are no longer there. Nevertheless, their existence is recorded by the name Oyster Tank Road leading to the car park that has replaced them.

On his retirement in 1937, Dodgson was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to shellfish research and shellfisheries. He continued to live, a bachelor, in his Conwy home, Maldwyn, Cadnant Park, until his death in March 1952. The simple purification system he devised undoubtedly saved a great many lives, not only in the UK but throughout the world, and his early work with oysters laid the foundations that established the Fisheries Experiment Station (Fish Lab), Conwy, as a world-leading centre for both molluscan and crustacean shellfish cultivation until its closure in December 1999.

Dr Lockwood ended with the suggestion that a plaque should be erected in memory of Robert Dodgson – a suggestion which was eagerly received by the audience.



After a short break, Gwyn Hughes followed with a presentation of photographs from Woodlands School taken in the 1930s and 1940s. These had been presented to the committee by Jonathan Smith whose father was a pupil, and later, a teacher at Woodlands School. These high quality photographs showed an insight into the sports played at the school and the number of pupils and staff attending the school during this period.

Woodlands School Football team 1937

Gwyn has done many hours of research into the life and times at Woodlands including the uniform they wore, the teachers’ nicknames and the future careers of some of the pupils, including John (Peel) Ravenscroft who became a wellknown disc jockey (DJ). He has recently managed to obtain several Woodlands school magazines which were donated by an expupil together with their memories of life at the school. So, more stories of school life may be presented in the future. It is hoped that we will be able to scan these magazines and display them on our website in the near future.

Some of the school memories are already located on our website together with the photographs which were displayed this evening.

The third snippet was presented by Trefor Price who had found an interesting newspaper article from November 1909 regarding a court case where the headmaster of Woodlands School, a Mr George Field, was suing the executors of Marl Farm for the provision of milk contaminated with the typhoid virus. The newspaper went into great detail regarding the sickness of pupils and staff at the school caused by typhoid. George Field’s wife, his daughter and several pupils suffered from typhoid. Sadly his wife Emily died; the others made a recovery.

George and Emily Field

However the same could not be said for the farmer (Emmanuel Jones), one of his young farm workers and a town councillor (Richard Conway) who also died of typhoid during the same period. The common element was that they all drank milk supplied by Marl Farm.

The defendant to the case suggested that the typhoid outbreak at Woodlands was probably caused by badly maintained roads, or sewage which had drained into the River Conwy infecting the mussels in the river which had been eaten by pupils. This was a contentious theory at the time, but may explain why the court reduced the cost of damages sought by the prosecution from £2,500 to £600.

Thus the previous 2 snippet items were brought together into a common theme for the evening: Conwy Mussels and Woodlands School…!


Web Design North Wales by Indever