Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Charles Alexander Luxford (1903-59), Royal Navy and nuclear scientist

Charles Alexander Luxford was the only child of Alice Elizabeth Luxford nee Ivall (b1877), the elder sister of my grandfather George William Ivall (1880-1934). I have updated this profile with some information from his daughter, who saw the item on her father on my blog and contacted me.

Charles was born on 21st July 1903 in Kingsland, Hackney. His parents were Charles James (a builder) and Alice Elizabeth Luxford, who had married in 1901. The 1911 census shows the family living at 109 Hertford Rd, Kingsland, Hackney (the address of their building and house decorating business). Charles senior was aged 30, born in Stoke Newington. He is listed as an employer. Alice was aged 31, born in Somerstown, St Pancras. Charles was aged 7 and at school. Electoral registers show that from 1920 to 1926, the family were living at 204 Selwyn Avenue, Higham Park, London E4 (near Chingford). 

Charles senior was quite well off. In about 1927, he and his wife moved to Collingwood House, St Margaret’s at Cliffe on the Kent coast near Dover. My Aunt Marjorie remembers visiting Alice and Charles there and watching ships through a large telescope. My mother also told me how, when she was a child, she enjoyed going for holidays with Alice and Charles at St Margaret’s. 

Clockwise from top left Charles Alexander Luxford, George Ivall (his grandfather), Walter Edwin Kebbell (his uncle), Alice Eliza Ivall nee Newman (his grandmother), Winifred Rose Kebbell (his cousin), Rose Lily Kebbell nee Ivall (his aunt). Photo c 1929.

Charles junior was clever and went to university (then quite uncommon) to study science - he was awarded a BSc. The Imperial Calendar (an annual list of salaried Civil Servants) shows that he was a Scientific Officer in the Scientific Research and Experiment Department of the Admiralty in 1935. In the 1930s Charles worked as an assistant to A B Wood, one of the leading British naval scientists, on the development of the magnetostriction echo depth recorder, a device that measured the depth of water below a ship. It was later fitted not only to Navy ships but also to most sizable ships throughout the world.

In 1935, Charles married Phyllis Mary Newber at St Alban’s Church, Teddington. He was aged 31 and she was 22, born in Lambeth. Phone directories for 1935 to 1948 show Charles living at Abbots Dene, Greenways, Hinchley Wood, Esher (in SW London). Charles and Phyllis had a daughter (b1938) and a son (b1942). The family lived at 9 Carlisle Rd, Hampton (also in SW London) from 1949 to 1960.

Charles Alexander Luxford

Charles was promoted to Senior Scientific Officer in 1943. There seems to have been a re-organisation in 1949 when he is listed as Principal Scientific Officer in the Royal Navy Scientific Service. He was promoted again in 1954 when he became a Senior Principal Scientific Officer, for which the salary range was £1,500 to £1,750 (roughly equivalent to £85,000 to £100,000 now). In 1959 there were about 750 salaried staff in the Royal Naval Scientific Service – 21 at higher grades than Charles, about 90 on his grade and about 640 on lower grades. 

Following the American atomic weapon test in 1946 at Bikini Atoll, the Royal Navy decided that experiments should be carried out to determine what degree of protection a ship offered to its crew from ionizing radiation, a new hazard in future naval warfare if ever atomic weapons were used at sea. The preparation for and conduct of such experiments was the first task for a new group - initially just Charles Luxford and one other scientist. National publicity resulted from the knowledge that a naval ship, the cruiser HMS Arethusa, was to be irradiated with gamma rays. A picture of the cruiser in position in Southampton Water off the Isle of Wight appeared on the front page of The Daily Telegraph.

Charles’s daughter tells me that he was one of the UK’s top nuclear scientists and went to Monte Bello, Australia in 1952 for the first British atomic bomb tests, as the senior scientist working for Sir William Penney (who led Britain’s nuclear weapons programme). Charles worked at the Admiralty Research Laboratory in Teddington in the 1950s and used to cycle there each day from where he lived in Hampton.

Alice Luxford (Charles's mother) died in 1939 aged 62. Her husband, re-married in 1941 to Ada Constance Gay. He was aged 62, she was 40. He died in 1949 aged 70.

Charles died on January 11th 1959 aged 55 at Ashford Hospital, Stanwell, Middlesex. It seems likely that exposure to nuclear radiation contributed to his premature death.

Work at the Admiralty Research Laboratory site in Teddington ceased in 1992 and there is now a housing development there.

 Phyllis Luxford died in 2004 aged 91.

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