John Alexander's recollections of working at the ILFORD Factory in
Roden Street, Ilford, Essex, as a teenager in 1944

In 1944, I was offered a job as a laboratory assistant with Ilford Limited. I took it, but have regretted it since.

The job was the bottom of the "pecking order" and was tedious, as well as working half the day in the dark with only safelights to help. These safelights were tin boxes with a plate of glass in front and a small light behind. The glass was coloured so that it would not fog the emulsion we were making. The firm had been the first customer when electricity came to Ilford and some of the carbon filament bulbs were the ones originally fitted, still working after more than fifty years. Before electricity, candles were used, making the atmosphere so stuffy that employees were allowed to sleep on duty.

The emulsion laboratories, where I worked, were not involved in any sort of research. Each one (there were three) tested thirty batches of emulsion every day. The emulsion depended on variable factors. Gelatine was the carrier for the silver chemicals but also played a part in the final characteristics, together with the dyes that were used to sensitise it. The only way to get a constant product was to test it in this way with a little variation in formula throughout the thirty samples. All through the war (WW2) we used dyes from the I.G.Farben company in Germany. Enough had been put into stock before the outbreak of hostilties to last throughout the war.

In the factory, they made large glass X-Ray plates as the glass kept flat and it was some time before flexible film was made to behave. These plates were very big and feeding the coating machine in the dark was a skilled job. The output of the factory went down when one skilled operator took her annual holiday.

A special batch was made in the laboratories but coated in the factory. I got the job of taking the big earthenware jar, with its black (light tight) cover, down to the factory coating department. It got heavier and heavier and I dropped it in the end. I watched the valuable emulsion make for the nearest drain, turning from yellow to purple as it went. Because everything contained silver, the drains were hooked up to a silver recovery plant and something was rescued, but I was very unpopular.

As a sort of punishment, my job was changed to the emulsion washing room. Excess chemicals were washed out of the emulsion in sieves, each in a small wooden sink, having been shredded first. This was all done in the dark of course. It was impossible to keep dry in this place and I wore wooden clogs. Every now and again, a sieve would overflow and I had to rush to prevent the shreds going down the drain.

Another change of job location and I spent the mornings making photomicrographs of emulsion crystals. I once made them spell out "Merry Christmas" but it was not appreciated. I was by now the black sheep of the laboratories and so I was transferred to the coating department. This was under the control of a nice chap called Mr.Vincent who was also the laboratory glassblower for the manufacture of special apparatus.

Mr.Vincent knew everything about coating materials and made violins in his spare time. I liked him and he treated me well. The coating machine was a long conveyor belt that took the plates fed at one end over chilled water so that they were set by the time they reached the other end. When feeding them, they had to butt together so that emulsion did not drip between. When taking them off, they had to be put in racks which were on rails in a drying room. This all took place in the dark and accidents were frequent. I have a scar on a finger to remind me of Ilford Limited. The coating plant was also employed to coat the test batches from the emulsion laboratories. I did the coating onto paper of the new Multigrade emulsion that was being worked on at the time, using a very simple vertical coating machine.

The Americans were very interested in space exploration at this time and they investigated cosmic ray effects by sending a pack of sensitised plates up to the stratosphere under a balloon. On their return to earth, the plates were developed and the tracks of radiation particles plotted. A thick coating of emulsion was needed for this and Kodak in America could not supply plates with the thick coating needed. So Ilford, UK, got the job. Mr.Vincent sent me out to buy a pound of candles. With these he rubbed a smear of wax along each edge of the plates. The light went out and they were hand coated in the dark, being placed on a glass bed with chilled water underneath. They were packed and sent to NASA who gave the company a 'pat on the back' for such good work. (Note: John is historically incorrect here. NASA was not established until July 29th 1958. Before then, the research John refers to in 1944 took place at NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), founded March 3rd, 1915).

We sometimes made gun sights by coating them first and we also made spectacle lenses for spies. These lenses had what looked like a small speck of dust in one corner of the spectacle lens, but this dust was actually Lipmann emulsion which has practically no grain so that the image could be enlarged hundreds of times to reveal whatever had been photographed onto it. This emulsion was extremely slow, so that the usual procedure was reversed and it was coated with the lights up.

The store man of the gelatine store was a popular chap. Gelatine was made by boiling animal bones, hence the variations. The first boiling was used for photography, the second for table jellies and the third for glue. Wartime restrictions made table jelly a rare luxury, but if you had a genuine celebration, he could usually be relied upon to find enough for a jelly or two from some out of date stock.

At the very top of the buildings there was a large water tank, reached by an iron ladder. Someone persuaded me to climb the ladder to see the goldfish. I thought this a joke of the "left handled screwdriver" variety, but I went up anyway. I was amazed to find the tank full of large goldfish. It was open to the air and they kept alive on the insects that landed on the water. It was explained when I got down that someone working there had been blitzed and his house demolished, but a bowl of goldfish survived. Having no-where else to put them, he dumped them in the tank and they had flourished ever since !

Around this time I joined the Ilford Magic Circle. Soon after they were "leaned on" by the original Magic Circle to change their name to the Ilford Magic Society. The author of the Ilford Handbook of Photography, Mr.J. Mitchell, was also an amateur magician. Somehow he found out that I was interested and would come and have a chat with me. This did me no good with the other people in the laboratories, who wondered what connections I had 9with such a senior person). When he wanted to join the Society, I was the one to propose him, which was the reverse of the usual arrangement (i.e. where a junior employeee would normally be beholden to a senior).

A V-2 rocket landed on the factory one day (this site, suggests 20th February 1945). The emulsion laboratories were in an old building with windows permanently blocked out. The explosion blew the windows in and we were suddenly in the light. Soon after, a lorry left the factory for Harrow, filled with boxes and labels. Kodak was to fill our orders until we were back in business. I understand that Ilford received customer complaints for a long time as a result of this expediency whereby Kodak products were supplied in Ilford packaging. But its probable this was this not so much to do with quality but more because the products were different. As Kodak were using Ilford labels, people would not have known the need to adjust their timings and formulae (but this co-operation demonstrates the commendable war time spirit that prevailed nationally at the time, even between otherwise commercial rivals).

This page last updated: 4th March 2012