The Manhattan Project

Myfanwy Pritchard-Roberts's Interview

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Myfanwy Pritchard-Roberts worked in Rhydymwyn, Wales as a laboratory assistant in the Tube Alloys program, the British mission to create the nuclear bomb. In this interview Roberts not only explores life within Great Britain’s secret city, but also touches on what it was like to live during World War II. She discusses rationing and the tensions it created with the people she worked and lived with, as well as the experience of being away from her family for an extended amount of time. Roberts also recounts the overalls she had to wear to work each day, as well as her assignments and the other people she encountered within the laboratories.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
2003
Location of the Interview: 
Unknown
Transcript: 

[We would like to thank the Rhydymwyn Valley History Society for donating this interview. The above photograph was provided courtesy of the Rhydymwyn Valley History Society.]

Myfanwy Pritchard-Roberts: My name is Myfanwy Pritchard-Roberts.

Interviewer 1: Okay, okay.

Roberts: And, I’m from Caernarfon [Wales].

Interviewer 1: Just leave it—

Roberts: And, I worked here during the war of 1952—I beg your pardon, 1942. I signed up with the Women’s Technical Service Register as an analytical laboratory assistant, and I was sent here, as I say, in 1942. When I arrived, I was found digs in a little house in New Street. And, then to Rhydymwyn and I was introduced to everybody there.

And, then started work with, well I was, as I say, a laboratory assistant and there were about a dozen of us, I should think, laboratory assistants then. And, this big plant, P-6, I’d never been in such a building before. And, it was just divided up into offices—there was a restroom for us at the top and then there was a chemistry lab, a physics lab, running around down the right of the building, and a glass-blowing cubicle. Then there was the big plant, which housed these big machines. Our work started at nine in the morning and we were allocated different places to work with these, the doctors and the PhDs, scientists, industrial chemists, and I didn’t count quite how many there were of them, but quite a number. And, we were moved round different places, working with different ones. But, they were a lovely crowd, the lot of them. And, we didn’t know at the time, no idea what, we didn’t produce anything, so we didn’t know what the work was all about. And, we never did, we never found out until after the war.

And then in the chemistry lab, which I was there for quite a while, I worked with Ron Pearson. He seemed to be head of the lab. And, we were sort of helping in the lab itself. It was a bunch of weighing powders and sorting things out for the operators and then when something was sent up, we’d have to take readings. And, the same thing in the physics lab, where there was a Doctor Clark, he seemed to be the head of the physics lab. And, he did his own experiments, different experiments there. And, later on, there was a Doctor London. I worked in the physics lab with him, too, and he had, as I say, other experiments going on.

And, then on the plant, they had these big machines and when they started up, the noise was something terrible. But, we had work to do there, too, taking readings on the manometers or thermometers, whatever they called them, and we sort of, as I say, moved around.

But, they were a real good crowd and socially as well. I was invited to, you know, quite a lot of social occasions, the dance. They arranged a concert in Wrexham with the Manchester orchestra.

Interviewer 2: The Liverpool Phil? 

Roberts: No, not the Liverpool Phil, the—

Interviewer 2: The Hallé?

Roberts: The Hallé orchestra, and, oh, that was, that was my first big concert I went to.

Interviewer 2: Was it John Barbirolli?

Roberts: That’s right, Sir John Barbirolli, he conducted. And, I went there with a friend that I’d made, he was one of the industrial chemists. He was a Czech, and he’d be about twenty two or twenty three, and we went to this concert together. And, they played Czech music, funnily enough, and that’s when it became one of my favorite pieces to—

Interviewer 2: Dvořák?

Roberts: Dvořák, that’s right. And a lot of them stayed in Maes Alyn on the way to Rhydymwyn. Marius, this Czech, he stayed there. And, I know I was invited there for a party one time. And, then we had dances in the—what did you say it was called, that hall, on the cross there?

Interviewer 1: Assembly Hall.

Roberts: The Assembly Hall.

Interviewer 1: In Mold.

Roberts: That’s right. There used to a cinema opposite, in Mold, one time.

Interviewer 1: Savoy?

Roberts: I can’t remember. There’s only just this one cinema. And we had quite a good social life, because, as I say, they were a real good crowd, and I really, I enjoyed going a couple of years that I had here.

The first spot of digs, as I say, weren’t very clever. There was an old girl there and she, there’s only one bedroom, and then there was this big landing and that was my bedroom. And outside toilets, and I remember the first week I was there, when I got home from work at night, she’d give me a basin and sixpence or something to go to the fish and chips shop and get some chips for myself, and that would be my evening meal.

Well, I soon got fed up with this and one of the other girls, she had digs, nicer digs and she, well, she said, “I have a big double bed,” she said, “And, I’m sure if”—I forget the name of the landlady now—“I’m sure she’d let you, she’d like to have you,” she said, “and you could share my bed.”

So, that’s what happened, and we had a real good time. She was, she was such a nice girl and she’s in Bermuda now, so I lost touch with her.

Ron Pearson. Now, his wife worked as a secretary to the bosses there. And, I was invited to a party up there one night in the winter, I remember. And, we had fun, though, I think we just—was it Pantymwyn? Is it somewhere up on—

Interviewer 1: The village just on the hill.

Roberts: Yeah, I can’t remember the details of the place. And, oh, it was a lovely party there. And, another time, I went up there and there was a friend, and I think he was industrial chemist, too. And, Ron Pearson had to go away, so he asked me if I’d stay with his wife, and I think just to keep an eye on her really. So, that was another instance.

The girls there were all very nice. There was from Flint and I remember going to stay with her and we went to a dance at an RAF place near Flint.

Roberts: Well, I don’t quite know how to put this. It was just hearsay, this is just a story that went round and it was two of the—there was, this Mr. Manning and his deputy, and there was some other people as well, took a van from Rhydymwyn here, one evening to meet a plane after work there. But, where would you reckon that would be?

Interviewer 1: Well, Sealand or Hawarden.

Roberts: Yes, one of those places, to meet a plane from America, which was bringing some uranium in. And, of course, they had this big van and all these people went there for safety reasons, I suppose. And, of course, what they came away with, it just a small box and so it amused the driver very much. I don’t think he should have let it out, really, but he did. 

Interviewer 2: The oxygen canisters.

Roberts: Another, you know, small part of work was to run these machineries, were set up, to put the liquid oxygen, and they were carried in flasks. And, we used to have to go and get some—I can’t quite remember just where, but we carried them anyway to this, to wherever we were working. And, that was just to cool the, cool the systems.

But, as I say, we, we didn’t know anything, just, you know, what it was all in aid of or anything. We just did as we were told and we never asked questions, because we weren’t encouraged to find out what was going on. Anyway, we went, we were told we weren’t to talk about anything that was going on there outside, which none of us did, fair play not even between ourselves, you know? The glass blower, oh, he was quite a character. He was a real Yorkshire lad, and when he wasn’t busy, he loved to show us what he was doing and it was fascinating watching him bending these glass tubes into shapes for the chemists or the PhDs to do their experiments. And, when he wasn’t working, he’d make some little necklaces for us out of very, very thin glass, used to make little chains and different colors, and, oh, I wish I’d have kept one.

Interviewer 1: Can you remember if they had gas here at the time?

Roberts: Gas? No, no, I wouldn’t have seen that.

Interviewer 2: Gas masks?

Roberts: Oh, gas masks. Oh, yes, yes.

Interviewer 1: I was wondering, when you’re saying the glass blowing and what kind of a furnace he used for heating. Did he use a Bunsen burner or some kind of torch?

Roberts: Oh, well I can remember him, he used to heat it in a kind of a, yes, it would be a gas, of course, it would be like a Bunsen burner, and he used to make flasks as well. He’d get this big tube and blow down it and turn it, you know. You could see it coming out into a big bowl. It was quite fascinating, yes.

Interviewer 1: I was just wondering if there was gas on the site, you know, for cooking and all that.

Roberts: Yes, and I should, well, I don’t know whether it would be bottled gas. It might have been bottled gas, it probably was.

Interviewer 1: Did you have changing rooms before you, prior to starting work?

Roberts: Oh, yes, we had to have our own room, which was, you know, quite truthfully, you could actually, if you didn’t feel well, you could go and sit down in the restroom. 

Interviewer 1: Did you have to change completely before you started work?

Roberts: Oh, no. We were just allocated overalls. We, the laboratory assistants had green overalls, and well, some of the others had overalls, too, but not all of them did.

Interviewer 2: Were you issued shoes?

Roberts: No, we weren’t issued— 

Interviewer 2: Nothing, just an overall.

Roberts: That’s right, yes.

Interviewer 1: So, you went out with the same clothes?

Roberts: Oh, that’s right, yes. It was actually, we had to carry gas masks.

Interviewer 2: Did they provide you with food then?

Roberts: No, no.

Interviewer 2: You brought your own in.

Roberts: Yes, or we brought food from the canteen, you know, sundry. I can’t remember really what the food was. You know it was ration then, wasn’t it?

Interviewer 1: I’ve seen reference to a tuck shop that used to be up here. Did there used to be a tuck shop?

Roberts: No, I don’t remember that, no.

Interviewer 1: Did you ever go in the canteen that had a bit of a stage here, with curtains?

Roberts: I don’t think so. I just looked and I just can’t remember where the canteen was, whether it was attached to P-6. It couldn’t be very far, anyway.

Roberts: We had to keep separate you see. We’d see the odd person, you know, a stranger coming down with the big noises, you know. But, we didn’t see them when we were working. They might be walking down to have a look at the machinery or something like that, but we’d no idea who they were. Evidently, the big noises came from somewhere else.

Interviewer 1: And these people came down from ICI in Billingham, did they?

Roberts: I should think so, yes. As I say, we didn’t really know, but they must have been big noises, because they were made a big fuss of by the management, and we used to, they used to come down for lunch in the canteen, you see.

Roberts: As I say, the people were so very kind to me, and especially when I had these terrible digs, everybody seemed to know that I had dreadful digs. I was, must have been one of the last ones to be allocated digs. And, I suppose what happened in Mold with all these people coming and it was a much smaller place then than it is now, that all the houses that people who could take in people, they’d all been taken. And, so I was one of the last ones.

But, there was this couple, they were from Billingham, and she was a laboratory assistant and I don’t quite know what he was, actually, maybe one of the industrial chemists or, I don’t quite remember. But, they were a lovely couple. They used to ask me down and have, to have an evening meal with them, and quite often.

So, when I used to go home to Caernarfon—I lived in the country, my father kept chickens, he had a market garden, and we used to do bartering with people around. Eggs for butter, you know, that kind of thing. So, when I got home, my mother, she used to pack things for me and she gave me some butter once when I came home for the weekend, to give to these, I can’t remember their names, this kind couple.

And, I told her, “Well, I don’t know, I’ve got to smuggle it out of the house tomorrow, because this old girl wasn’t, you know, looking very pleased about this.” So, I used to take my gas mask out and hide it under the bed and put this butter in the gas mask case and bring it down to work. Which was highly illegal, of course, and that how I would slip the butter in.

Roberts: My mother cooked a chicken for me to bring over, she thought, “That’ll be a nice treat for you.” So, on the Monday, I came up from work looking forward to having this whole chicken. And, when I got to the house, my landlady, she was an old girl, she was eighty, like I am now.

And, she got her daughter and her two grandchildren there, and they were all sitting at the table, and I could see, oh, this poor chicken, all that was left of it was some wings, and she said, “Oh, I kept some chicken for you,” she said, “And, it’s lovely, too.” And she said, and she put these two wings on plate and that’s all I had. That was the last time I brought the chicken.

Interviewer 2: Did you get fined on a bike?

Roberts: Oh, yes, oh, that’s another thing, cycling without a light from, I forget where we’d been out, and it got dark before we realized it and we’d been to a dance somewhere and maybe at Buckley or something like that, I don’t know. And, we cycled back. I don’t know whether my light had failed or not, but I hadn’t got a light and we were cycling, I think it was through Buckley, and we were stopped by a policeman and I was fined.

Interviewer 2: On the spot?

Roberts: Oh no, no. He took down the particulars and all that and I was fined. It was something like five or ten shillings, but my name’s on the files, you know, criminal.

Yes, and, oh, yes, it was another place I can remember; I went with Jean, which is the daughter of the house. And, this is after—Kit left before me, she went back to Billingham because, you know, we were all invited back, the girls were, to Billingham, if we wanted to go. But, I didn’t want to go, as I said. So, I was left in the digs with Jean, the daughter. And, we went to Chester when we came and there was a dance on somewhere, and we went to this dance.

And, after the dance, we went back to the station and we missed the train. “Oh, dear, what were we going to do now?” So, we asked the stationmaster or whoever it was, the guard, whoever was on duty there, you know, “What can we do?”

So, he said, “Well, you’d better get the policemen to let you,” because they weren’t on the phone or anything like that, they wouldn’t know where we were, you see. So, we got in touch with the police station and asked them if they can send a policeman to your digs in Mold, tell them where you are. So, this policeman came along and we told him, so, we went down to the police station and phoned through to Mold, and they sent a policeman on the bike to the digs and we were stuck.

And, the stationmaster, “Right, I’ll take you to the waiting room,” he said, “and stay there, and don’t open the door at all, all night.” So, we slept there all night in this waiting room, and of course, we had a terrible row when we got home. Yeah.

Interviewer 1: Where did you stay in Mold?

Roberts: The first one was in New Street, in a little house, at the bottom of New Street on the right-hand side.

Interviewer 2: There were no houses there. There was a chapel, wasn’t there, on the left?

Roberts: Hmm?

Interviewer 2: There was a chapel on the left.

Roberts: That’s right. That was a little chapel at the bottom there somewhere. There was a row of little cottages, houses, and, as I said, outdoor toilets.

And there’s another night I can remember. I went to the dance up at this Assembly Room. And, I mean, it was all P-6, you see, everybody came from my Maes Alyn, they all came. It was a lovely evening. I think there must have been a Christmas party or something like that. And, this old girl, there was no electricity upstairs, just candles. And, she used to say to me, “I don’t want you going out at night. I don’t like to be left alone here.” She was absolutely horrible.

So, anyway, I said, “Well, I’m going to this dance tonight, yeah.”

“Well, don’t stay out late.”

So anyway I stayed to the end, I mean, being young, having a good time, and it’s just down the end of the road, anyway. So, they were this nice couple, they said, and somebody, I forget who he was now, but, three or four of them, said, “Come on, we’re going to take you down and we’ll wait, we’ll wait outside and if she won’t let you in or she doesn’t answer the door, you can come and stay with us.”

So, anyway, it was dark, knocked at the door, waited for ages, then knocked again. And, you could see the light of the door, she was coming down the stairs, oh, with a candle. And, she was absolutely furious, you know. But, anyway, she said, “Oh, come on in,” she said. So, I sort of gave the thumbs up to the others, you know, so that was all right. But, you know, that was good. And, then after that I went to stay with the Craves and, you know, everything was fine then.

Interviewer 2: Was there something up at Coed Du? There’s a hospital now, isn’t it there? That’s a road here, there’s a big house, it’s now a hospital. Did you say you went out up the hill?

Roberts: No, I remember Kit and I on a Saturday night, we went out and I was just having my taste for, you know, a little tipple then. And, you know, let’s go out and go to a pub in the country somewhere. And, I don’t know where it was. It was on Rhydymwyn road and you turned right somewhere, I don’t know where it was. And, we got there and oh, there’s a marvelous atmosphere there.

There were a lot, it was a lot of men there, you know? It was a pub and they were all singing. Kit, of course, she came from Yorkshire, she thought this Welsh singing was marvelous and they were singing, I can always remember it, “Bread of Heaven.” And, Kit was going at it and, oh, just wonderful, wonderful evening, you know, all this singing in a pub. And, then we have to walk home then. Dear, oh, dear!

Roberts: Oh, it was a very happy two years, I must say, you know. Especially, the first time away from home, you’re just so, rather nice actually, to be mixed up with, you know, all these nice people.