A HISTORY OF PORTON DOWN – THE EARLY YEARS

SUMMARY OF THE LECTURE BY ALLAN BENNETT ON THURSDAY 16TH NOVEMBER 2017

Allan has worked at Porton for 30 years and one of the first people he worked with was our Historical Society’s previous Archivist, Dr Keith Norris, who was “great company”.  Allan also remembered the problems with local wildlife. Nesting little owls whose young hid in hubcaps and under cars.  There were also buzzards, stoats and foxes.  His work involved the study of aerosols and the way organisms behave in the air.  Some of the equipment used in the 1950s/60s is still in use.

The site was requisitioned as a War Department Experimental Station in 1916 and became a Chemical Warfare Experimental Station in 1929.  In 1940 a separate department was established within the Chemical Defence Experimental Station, called the Biology Department Porton.  In 1951 this latter department moved to a new building further south as the Microbiological Research Department, later to become the Microbiological Research Establishment (MRE, 1957) and Public Health Laboratory Services Centre for Applied Microbiology & Research PHLS CAMR, 1979) and now Public Health England and Porton Biopharma, with the Tetricus Science Park in a brand new building.  The Chemical Defence Experimental Station later became the Chemical & Biological Defence Establishment and is now the Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (DSTL).  In the 1970’s the New Scientist had a comic strip entitled “Grimbledon Down”, produced by Bill Tidy.

Porton Down was established because of the use of gas in the First World War. Chlorine gas was used by the German Army on the Western Front at Ypres against the French Army. 6,000 cylinders were used across a 4 mile front, leaving 5,000 dead.  The gas destroyed respiratory organs, leading to death by asphyxiation.  Major Charles Howard Foulkes, an Olympic Bronze medallist, was appointed to organise the retaliation.  He worked with Porton Down scientists to produce chlorine gas, which at initial release gassed British troops as the wind was in the wrong direction.  Other gases, including phosgene, mustard and teargas were produced.  These were thought to be humane as they incapacitated and didn’t always kill.  However mustard gas has long term affects lasting 60 years. The Government brought in one thousand scientists and expanded the Porton site to release and test the gas.  Research and manufacture of a lot of gases was done in Cambridge. The gases were brought in canisters by train to Porton. If a canister was found to leak en route, it was held outside the window!

A wide range of animals were kept at Porton, for testing purposes.  On Armistice Day, everyone got drunk and the keepers released all the animals, who spent the next few weeks running around Salisbury Plain.

Between the Wars protective equipment and grenades, etc., were developed at Porton.  For WW2 two new weapons originated at Porton, the flying cow and the flying lavatory, which were able to disseminate their contents without explosives.  The former was for thickened sulphur mustard and the latter for unthickened.

Equipment and men had to be transported to Porton Down from Porton Station, so 8 miles of track were laid to carry the 5 steam locomotives and one petrol locomotive plus carriages of the Porton Light Railway.  An extension was later added to carry bricks for building the Microbiological Research Department.

The Porton Ranges have not been farmed for 120 years and support 96 species of birds, 200 species of spider, plus badgers and deer, etc.  There are 111 round barrows, Neolithic flint mines and 32 kilometres of earthworks.

Paul Fildes led biological weapons research at Porton in 1940 when “Operation Vegetarian” produced cattle cakes laced with anthrax, which were to be dropped on Germany.  These were actually not used but anthrax contained in cluster bombs was tested on sheep living on Gruinard Island in Scotland.  In the 1980s a successive team of scientists from Porton Down worked on decontaminating the site by burning off the soil and drenching the area with a mixture of formaldehyde and seawater.

After WW2 nuclear weapons and extreme chemical agents were developed and less work was done on biological weapons.

In 1947 David Henderson obtained £2.25M funding to build the Microbiological Research Establishment (MRE) at Porton.  This was then the largest brick building in the UK.  Laboratory benches were made of teak and the brightest and best scientists were employed.  Amongst other things, they worked on Aerobiology, Vaccine Production and Safety Protective Equipment.

In 1979 MRE was transferred to the Ministry of Health. PHLS CAMR played a large part in the Foot & Mouth outbreak of 2001.  Research on the dispersal of the virus carried in milk led to the fitting of filters on milk tankers.  Over 60 scientists from Porton Down volunteered to go out to West Africa in 2014 to work on the outbreak of the Ebola virus.

With Saddam Hussein using chemical weapons in the Gulf War, 1991, DSTL started to carry out this type of research again.

Recommended further reading:
A Higher Form of Killing, Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman
Porton Down, 75 years of Chemical and Biological Research, Graydon Carter