Richard Gregory South Clarke 1923-2009

Funeral oration, September 7th.

Portrait of Greg Clarke by Jenifer Ford

Richard Gregory South Clarke was born on 19th. December 1923 in Balham, London. His grandfather, Richard John Clarke, had been a civil engineer and Gregory's father, Alexander South Clarke, was a mechanical engineer who ran one of the earliest motor car garages in London. His mother, Thomasine, was from a family of mining engineers from Cornwall. This background was to influence Gregory's later choice of profession.

The name 'South' derived from the family's association with the 19th. century astronomer Sir James South, whose patronage earlier Clarkes had enjoyed. Science and engineering were in his genes.

The family lived in Abbeville Road - a name that remembers the conflict in France five years previously, during which Alexander served with the Royal Marines as a driver.

Gregory attended Emanuel School in Wandsworth. His pursuits there included rugby football and rowing on the Thames near Barnes.

Upon the outbreak of World War Two he was 'evacuated', along with several other pupils, near to the town of Petersfield in Hampshire. There he was billeted with an agricultural family and experienced a different way of life, which included scouring the land around Butser Hill for rabbits that could be shot to supplement the restricted war-time diet. He learnt (if later recollection is to be relied upon) how to play, in the town band, upon the bugle, practically every tune ever written.

The war had not finished when Gregory returned to London to pursue a career as an electronics engineer. He was involved with different companies including Philips in Croydon, and Radio Transmission Equipment Ltd. in Nightingale Lane, Balham. Before the war, RTE had made radio receivers for aircraft. Just inside the factory gates, a large underground room was constructed where vital 'frequency standards' equipment could be kept safe from the attentions of the Luftwaffe. Gregory commented, wryly, that the engineers producing the radio sets were not accorded the same protection.

When one of those aircraft was brought down, the radio was removed and brought in to be examined to discover what technical innovations the Germans had made. The British engineers were astounded by the high standards of design and construction employed by their enemy counterparts. Radios which we had built for the RAF were almost 'string and sealing wax' affairs by comparison. It was later argued that a radio delivered on time was more useful to an air force than one that could survive a crash landing, but took too long to make.

Attitudes towards health and safety were more lax than today. Gregory knew colleagues who practiced the technique of making approximate measurements of electric potential by applying a finger to some point in the circuit of interest. When this was done with the power supply of a large X-ray machine, the individual concerned remarked to him only that the 30 thousand volts involved felt "a bit strong".

Gregory later worked on very large radio frequency induction heaters - rather like outsize microwave ovens. These needed power units weighing well over a ton, and were moved around on wheels. Whilst attempting to manoeuvre one such supply down a ramp leading to the first floor of the building, it was soon realized that the brakes, which should have been partially set, had not been applied at all. The stately progress of this behemoth across the factory floor was, clearly, to be interrupted by nothing or no one, including the wall at the far side - located just above the director's car park.

Gregory realized that his career prospects needed improvement and, at his father's urging, began attending classes at night-school, this leading eventually to the qualifications he needed to achieve the status of Chartered Engineer.

Greg's family moved from Balham to Streatham Common where he lived until he got married to Daphne Smith, who lived a few streets away. They shared a house in Streatham with other newly-weds Daphne's sister Pauline and her husband. His son Richard was born there in 1956 and two years later Greg and family moved to a new estate in Merstham where he remained for the rest of his life.

A flurry of inventions in the post war period was made by a group of talented designers responsible for the introduction of RADAR. Contributions from Donald Sproule, and others, enabled Glass Developments Limited (or 'GD') in Brixton to produce early ultrasonoscopes: instruments capable of detecting hidden cracks within metal castings which, unless spotted before entering service, could cause catastrophic failure.

Gregory joined GD in 1950 and enjoyed a close working and personal relationship with several colleagues whose names became frequently heard in the Clarke household. Among these was the managing director, H.R.Thomas who, whenever he happened to see an ambulance 'en-route' to an emergency would pull his own vehicle in tight behind it and take advantage of the path thereby cleared to hightail along with it as far as he could - much to the distress of Gregory and his other passengers. The 'corner-cutting' approach carried over into business practices he deployed to keep his enterprise afloat. Gregory hinted that the results sometimes came near to public scandal. At this point an academic text would reference the report in 'Hansard' for March 1950.

In 1963 GD pioneered a product called 'microwire'. This did what it said on the tin: fifty such wires would not span a hair's width. This invention found niche markets, but, along with so many small British companies, GD was unable to recoup the heavy research costs. A trend had set in favouring multinational groups with the only pockets deep enough to afford R&D.

It was, therefore, in 1969 that Gregory began to look for another outlet for his talents. Armed with his experience in materials research and his newly acquired membership of the Institution of Electrical Engineers he approached the University of Surrey. This had not then completed its transition from being the Battersea College of Technology and much of the new campus in Guildford was a sea of mud and construction work.

He began to slot into his new post as a technical manager within the Department of Metallurgy and Materials Technology. In some respects this environment was similar to that he had left. Staff there included some of the Polish diaspora whose academic careers had been launched by the vicissitudes of the war.

These were good times for Science, and as the Apollo mission reached the moon, a feeling of optimism suffused our new universities. The steel industry in the UK still flourished and originated a good part of the work done at the University. Structural non-metals, such as carbon fibres, were finding new applications - all of which needed research facilities, and a trained pool of graduates capable of making use of them. Gregory helped manage the men and materials to make this happen.

Included in his responsibilities was the maintenance of a safe working environment. That so few experimenters obtained unexpected and unwelcome results from their crucible of molten iron, cylinder of chlorine gas or pair of heavy duty rollers may have been down to the forethought he gave the problems.

Not every scientist possesses the practical skills required to construct an experimental facility. Here, Gregory's engineering ancestry proved its worth. In particular, his knowledge of electronics could rescue a project whose originator knew not a cathode from an anode.

Being a university with a technical leaning, Surrey was naturally keen to experiment with the early computerized accounting systems. Gregory rose to this challenge as far as his abilities allowed, but freely confessed that, although he had pressed all the right buttons, they were not necessarily in the right order.

His retirement arrived in 1987 and he expressed delight that so many of his acquaintances turned up for his leaving celebration. Sadly, his health had begun to fail well before this time as arthritis began to impede his mobility. Unable to face even the walk up from the car park in the morning, he persuaded the Security Office to allow him to park just round the corner from his office. Some of us present will appreciate that this concession can have been won only by the most skilled negotiator.

With mutual help from new neighbours paths and patios were laid and a garden evolved in the uncultivated ground. Greg's favourite hobby was woodworking and the garage became a workshop accommodating his machinery and tools with which he made a pergola which was eventually crowned in the centre by a stable-style clockhouse surmounted by a weather vane. The clock could be lit up at night by a switch in the house until the maturing shrubs and trees came between the clock and the house. Among other additions to the garden were a stone trough in which he planted alpines and other low-growing plants; and a water basin on a ledge above which a small lead statue of a boy played pipes which conducted water into the basin.

One or two holidays abroad left Greg antipathetic to various aspects of foreign travel and he spent many happy holidays in his native land from the Isles of Scilly to parts of Scotland. He embarrassed his wife by declaring in Pitlochry that her porridge was much nicer; and her Yorkshire pudding superior to that in Helmsly!

Before his declining health prevented Greg from driving, even with a Blue Badge, he took Daphne to meetings in Coulsdon of the Croydon Branch of the Normandy Veterans' Association, to which he became an Associate Member and enjoyed the company of the Vets and shared Wartime reminiscences with them.

Unable to get about physically, his mind remained active and he found some solace in reading. He enjoyed a wide range of subjects, from history and biography, science and detective novels. Greg became a member of the Jane Austen Society. The story of Enigma and Bletchley Park fascinated him and he eagerly read everything written about the people involved.

Among the many tributes Greg's acquaintances have made during this week, nearly all have remarked on his kindness and good nature, his generosity and wry humour. He will be missed by so many people in all walks of life: neighbours and colleagues, friends and family. We feel sure he would be pleased to see so many of them here today. Bob Trevor speaks for most of us when he writes, "Time may be a great healer but a lifetime of memories sustains us in moments such as this."


01 'Festival March' by William Alwyn.

Gregory and Daphne were married in 1951. That year remained in their minds due also to the visit they made to the Festival of Britain exhibition on the South Bank of the Thames.


02 'The Steam Engineer' by Cornwall Songwriters.

Within Gregory's family were several mining engineers including his uncle William who studied at the Camborne School of Mines in Cornwall. His maternal grandfather, William Roberts, was a mining 'captain' who lived in Perranporth. Gregory was proud of this heritage, and remained a member of the Trevithick Society. One family holiday after another was taken in Cornwall and the trip was never complete unless he had devoured a Cornish pasty or three.


03 'Piece in the Shape of a Pear' by Eric Satie.

One of the few exceptions to Gregory's distrust of anything not British was an appreciation of the music of Eric Satie.


04 'The Elements' by Tom Lehrer.

Just one song is concerned with different materials within a university environment.

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Last modified: 2009 September 12th.