Col. J W Gifford: Lace Maker and Scientist

When researching the war efforts of Chard during the First World War, the surname Gifford is frequently mentioned in relation to the town.  The Gifford family owned the lace factory known as Messrs. Gifford, Fox & Co. of Chard and Nottingham. However, it was the work of Colonel J W Gifford, from his family home of ‘Oaklands’, who made a great scientific contribution to the war effort.

 Colonel J.W. Gifford, F.R.A.S.

Colonel J.W. Gifford, F.R.A.S.

Gifford had a well-equipped laboratory and an observatory at Oaklands where he pursued his interest in lenses for microscopes and telescopes. Prior to the war he became both a Fellow of the Royal Microscopical Society and the Royal Astronomical Society in recognition of his advances in this field.

His work with lenses did not escape the attention of the Admiralty, according to the Chard and Ilminster News of August 2 1919, when they reported on the creation of a submarine telescope following, ‘valuable investigations into the transparency of sea water…’  His work on telescopes was also noted in the obituary written by Harold St George Gray in the 1930 Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society:

As a valuable contribution to the Great War, Colonel Gifford had made at his own expense  and from his own calculations many hundreds of telescopes for the troops during the war, and they were admittedly the best sent out.’

Col. Gifford was unable to serve when war broke out in 1914, due to medical reasons, but this this did not prevent him from going to France.  In the obituary written for the 111th AGM of the Royal Astronomical Society in February 1931, Gifford was described as being appointed ‘as an expert in optical design’ by the Government. He was sent to France to report on the installation of giant periscopes by the Germans as the Government planned to use them for the British troops. Upon his return Gifford advised against them as they only served ‘to draw fire, and shortly after the Germans removed their instruments, thus proving the value of his advice.’  How the Germans discovered this report will remain a mystery!

Col. Gifford continued his work with optics for telescopes and spectroscopy after the war resulting in several publications including papers for the Optical Society and the Royal Society.


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