Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Don't Tell 'Em, Pyke!

I mentioned that a couple of the names which we spotted at Bovingdon Tank Museum last week seemed as if they might have Norfolk Connections.
Beside this vehicle, The Weasel, was an info panel explaining that it had been designed to travel across snowy, or muddy terrain and even had amphibious capabilities. Initially intended for WW2 commandos in Norway, it was later used by the Americans in the Pacific and later by the French in IndoChina/Vietnam.
And, we were informed, it had been designed by the eccentric inventor/scientist Geoffrey Nathaniel Pyke.

Ah! said Adrian - do you think he was related to Adam and Magnus? Adam Pyke was the town solicitor, in Dereham, Norfolk, when Adrian and I were growing up. In the 1970's, Adam's Uncle Magnus shot to fame, as the crazy guy determined to bring science to the masses. He waved his arms enthusiastically as he explained things on TV, and was actually a jolly clever chap. His career was diverse and eccentric - so we felt Geoffrey ought to be part of the same family. My research has revealed that yes, Magnus was Geoffrey's cousin.

Geoffrey had been a journalist in Berlin in WW1 and interned by the Germans, but he escaped. He got back to England and apologised to his editor for failing to send in reports- but was forgiven- his telegram sent from Holland, as he was almost home, had been one of the great wartime scoops for his newspaper. 
Geoffrey had a rotten childhood - so when his son was born, he turned his large home in Cambridge into a school. From 1924-1929, the Malting House School with rather radical ideas about education, was where young David had his first lessons. 
From a Jewish family, Geoffrey was incensed by Hitler's anti-Semitism, and also concerned for those affected by the Spanish Civil War. He designed sidecars for motorcycles, fitted with all sorts of medical equipment, and organised collections of moss in Britain which was sewn into muslin bags to make wound dressings [and then shipped out to Spain]
But in WW2 his biggest contribution was in regard to vehicles. As well as the Weasel, abouve, GNP also came up with Project Habbakuk. The name relates to the bible verse in Hab1;5  Behold ye among the nations, and look, and wonder marvellously; for I am working a work in your days, which ye will not believe though it be told you.
Geoffrey invented Pykrete - basically blocks made of wood shavings soaked in water and frozen. He'd been studying icebergs, and realised that if you made a ship from this material it would float well and be cheaper and just as strong as a steel ship. And the added fibre would slow the melting. He thought it would be a good way to produce aircraft carriers. He called them berg-ships.
He convinced Lord Mountbatten, who is supposed to have gone into Churchill's bathroom and flung some cubes into the PM's bath.

Churchill took this crazy idea on board, and over in Canada, men were tasked with building some prototypes. In 1943, in a remote lake in cold Alberta, they started freezing this mixture and making boats.
It proved expensive and slow, and the idea was eventually abandoned [mind you, the prototype took three years to eventually thaw and sink!]
[In 2010 some scientists tried to recreate a pykrete boat to sail across from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight, but sadly failed]
Pyke came up with various other odd ideas - often disappointed with the repsonse he received from 'the powers that be' when he made genuine attempts to solve real probems. He once said "Bad manners to new ideas … are sabotage … they are a Public Offence" Some people have even suggested that Pyke was the model for Ian Fleming's crazy inventor 'Q' in the Bond books...
Pyke wanted to build a better world - he campaigned against the Death Penalty and worked tirelessly to help establish Unicef. But MI5 suspected him of communist leanings, and investigated his life in depth. He had a mental breakdown and took his life in 1948. 
His son was 27 at the time - David went on to become a world expert in both the study of twins, and also of diabetes. He was another member of this family of scientists who packed an awful lot into one lifetime [GNP's wife, David's mother Margaret, was a family planning activist and pioneer] 
So yes- Adrian's suggestion was correct - Geoffrey was related to Magnus and Adam - although I don't know if he ever came to Norfolk. Nor do I know why Adam chose Law rather than science as his career -maybe he preferred to be as sober as a judge, rather than as nutty as a professor!


  1. You do blog about such interesting things and people. I always learn something when I come here. Thank you! :-)

  2. A melting ship? very odd. The Pike as in don't tell them Pike lives in the same village as our son in mid suffolk

  3. That was a really fascinating read. Thank you for sharing x


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