Frongoch’s Waters of Revolution


This weekend the media is dominated by accounts of the Easter Rising in Ireland which occurred 100 years ago.  This blog focuses on a shared piece of Welsh and Irish human and environmental history with a revolutionary water undercurrent.

I am sure my Irish history school books told me about Frongoch, near Bala in North Wales, where Irish rebels were interned after the Easter 1916 Rising.  But I am afraid I did not rediscover this story until I came to live in Wales to work as a freshwater ecologist.

While driving along the road between Bala and Trawsfynydd, through Frongoch and past Llyn Celyn, my colleague, Tim, told me the history of Llyn Celyn, a controversial reservoir built in the 1960’s to supply water to Liverpool.  Political analysts believe that the damming of the Afon Treyweryn to create this development, with the loss of a Welsh speaking community, lead to the evolution of the distinct Anglo-Welsh politics which continues today.  Despite protests on the streets of Liverpool, the dam was constructed. At the reservoir opening ceremony members of the illegal Free Wales Army, who would also attend the fiftieth anniversary of The Rising in Dublin, protested by parading in uniform for the first time.  The common Celtic history of oppression and protest resonated with me.

But the Frongoch area has generated other historic freshwater connections between Wales and Ireland extending back to a shared appreciation of whisky.  In the late 1880’s R.J. Lloyd Price, owner of the large local Rhiwlas Estate, saw the Afon Tryweryn and its tributary Tai’r Felin as a source of water and power to produce whisky to rival Scottish and Irish spirits.  The Welsh Whisky Distillery Company was established and a large distillery building was built at Frongoch.  The poetic publicity claimed it to be:
“….the most wonderful whisky that ever drove the skeleton from the feast, or painted landscapes in the brain of man. It is the mingled souls of peat and barley, washed white within the rivers of the Tryweryn.”  

However the whisky connoisseurs were very disappointed with the quality of the product, describing it as raw, crude and practically flavourless. In 1899 the company was wound up and the distillery building was sold.  But it has also been reported that the whisky business benefited the Tryweryn trout who were thought to have thrived on the mash of barley and hot water that was discharged into the stream.

The Frongoch distillery building was eventually bought by the government and at first used as a holding camp for captured German prisoners in 1914.  On arrival the Irish detainees compared the surrounding landscape of mountains with their homes, and were very impressed to discover the local Welsh population speaking their native language. Although a German sign, Trinke Wasser, drinking water, was still in place, signs in Irish were not allowed, but Irish and Welsh classes were subsequently incorporated into the camp curriculum.

It is difficult to read about the misery endured by the Irish prisoners in Frongoch – deep mud, extreme cold and damp in winter; trying to sleep in oppressive and suffocating heat in grain drying rooms with rats during the summer.   Despite the abundance of water, conditions were unsanitary. Food quality was very poor, mainly black bread and potatoes. The severe conditions were reflected in cases of scurvy, Sciatica, tuberculosis, a flu outbreak, and severe mental illness.  The camp medical doctors, local Welshmen Dr. David Peters and his nephew, Dr. R.J. Roberts, were caught between following camp rules and restrictions, and their duty to care for their patients. It was an absolute tragedy when Dr. Peters was found drowned in the Tryweryn.

I am relieved to say that none of my Irish family were interned in Wales but I think of my countrymen every time I drive through this area.  Their family and supporters also made considerable journeys to visit them. Notable visitors included Margaret Pearse, mother of Padraig and Willie Pearse, and her daughter Margaret, and Mary sister of Terence MacSwiney.

It was also ironic to discover that the most recent record of a transitory Irish population in this area were the labourers who helped to build Llyn Celyn Reservoir.

Remember Frongoch, Cofiwch Dryweryn, remember Ireland.
Easter 1916. Easter 2016.

Main source: Ebenezer, L. (2006). Fron-Goch and the birth of the IRA. Gwasg Carreg Gwalch.


R.M.S. “Megantic”, Ship of Science 1924



On 25th July 1924 the White Star Line Ship Megantic left Liverpool.  It carried a precious cargo of scientists with many thought to be en route to a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Toronto. Amongst the illustrious collection of distinguished gentlemen scientists was a young woman Kathleen Carpenter M.Sc. from Aberystwyth University just starting her career in freshwater ecology.

The passenger list gives addresses and occupations which were not always specific to their specialist areas.  However in many cases their careers are subsequently recorded in scientific history:

William Alexander Balfour-Browne, Highgate, Zoology Lecturer; diving beetle expert, Cambridge, Queen’s Belfast & Imperial College; later President of the Society of British Entomology; friend of Robert Lloyd Praeger.

Prof. Edward Charles Baly, Liverpool, Professor of Chemistry.

Irving Howard Cameron, London, surgeon; helped to found the medical faculty of Toronto University; founder and editor of the Canadian Journal of Medical Science.

Kathleen Carpenter, Stockton, Tees, scientific investigator; pioneering freshwater ecologist.

Sydney Chapman, Morecambe, professor; mathematician and geophysicist; in 1930 he described the photochemical mechanisms that give rise to the ozone layer.

Rev. Albert Cortie, Stoneyhurst, lecturer; Jesuit priest; astronomer who travelled to Sweden on Solar eclipse expedition of August 1914; prominent member of British Astronomical Association.

Frederick George Donnan, London, University Professor.

Reginald Fisher, Harpenden, statistician; father of modern statistics!

William Godden, Stoneywood, biochemist; livestock dietician, later Deputy Director of Rowett Research Institute.

Dr. Charles Alfred Matley, paleontologist and geologist, worked in India and Wales; later Government Geologist for Jamaica.

Wilfred McLean, University College of Wales, Bangor, lecturer.

Florence Annie Meckeridge, London, lecturer.

Prof. Edward Mellanby discovered vitamin D and the role in preventing rickets.

Sir Max Muspratt and his family, manufacturer, Liverpool; chemist and politician, director of Imperial Chemical Industries, Member of Parliament, Lord Mayor of Liverpool.

Florence Adam Randall, London, lecturer.

Donald Ward Outler, Harpenden, biologist.

Harold James Page, Harpenden, chemist;  chief chemist and head of the Chemical Department at Rothamsted Experimental Station; became director of the Rubber Research Institute of Malaya, and during the Second World War was interned in Sumatra for three and a half years.

Prof. Sidney Hugh Reynolds, Bristol, professor; geologist.

Prof. David “Thorday” Bangor University; plant physiologist.

Prof. William Ernest Turner, chemist and pioneer of scientific glass technology.

Prof. Robert George White, College Farm, Bangor University, animal breeding and farm management; bred an improved Welsh mountain sheep.

Other occupations represented on the ship included teachers, engineers, farmers, factory managers, cooks, accountants, domestic servants, housewives, advertising agent, clerks, fitters, foremen, manufacturers, land owners, telegraphist, draughtsman, golfball maker, nursery governess, veterinary surgeon, merchants, cotton buyer, carpenters, solicitor, insurance agent, school principles, upholsterer and typist.   This cross-section of occupations reflected the wide socio-economic foundation of society at that time and a high degree of global mobility.

Four years later Kathleen Carpenter would publish a book chapter entitled “The Biology of Inland Waters in Relation to Human Life” and discuss the environmental impact of the Industrial Revolution.  Her fellow passengers were players in this Revolution. But at this point in time she was about to spend several days confined to this bubble of scientists, industrialists and wider society, contemplating the next step in her developing career in freshwater ecology.  Did she get advice from any of her fellow passengers?  I think the answer is almost definitely yes. May be she was writing the book chapter?


Kathleen Carpenter – Before Kick-Sampling

Kick sampling is a standard and widely used method for sampling the invertebrates living on the bed of a stream or river. It involves placing a net in the direction of flow, with open net mouth facing upstream.  The biologist kicks the substrate in front of the net for a standard period of time and the dislodged organisms are carried into the net for counting and analysis.

This technique became established in the mid 1970’s, with organisations such as the Institute of Biology and the US Environmental Protection Agency adopting its use.  Today kick-sampling is the accepted standard around the world for collecting comparable samples from stream beds.

However working in the early part of the 1900’s Kathleen Carpenter, a pioneering freshwater ecologist in Wales, carried out an extensive survey of the rivers around Aberystwyth.  It is evident from her papers archived in the National Library of Wales that she was a very thorough fieldworker.  Here is the description of the sampling strategy she developed before kick-sampling.

“The method adopted is as follows: first , as large a number as possible of stones in the bed of the stream are turned over and any Molluscs, Insect-larvae etc. adhering to them are picked off. Next, water is squirted over the surface of the stone into a jar, to wash off any smaller forms.

Samples of mud from the bed and edges of the stream are then taken, and the roots of any submerged vegetation are well scraped with the sharp edge of a collecting- net, to dislodge individuals which may be sheltering among them.

Masses of the weed are brought away, and are subsequently well shaken in water, and, finally, weed, mud and water are looked over carefully with first a hand lens and then a binocular dissecting microscope, lest any small species should escape observation.

A small silken tow-net is also dragged along the surface of the water to collect Copepoda etc.

When all these precautions have been taken, an afternoon’s collecting may yield the harvest of a dozen species – except in one of the richest streams, that is to say! ”

Kathleen Carpenter used these samples to produce simple lists of species and to compare the differences in biodiversity between rivers polluted by metal mine water and more pristine river systems. There is no indication given in her papers that she was assisted in the field so what other practical precautions would a woman pioneering ecologist have to take when contemplating climbing into a stream?   Although after World War One women were able to adopt more practical work clothes, including trousers, we do not know what Kathleen Carpenter wore.  Clearly it would be difficult and potentially dangerous to kick sample in a long skirt!  Our early women aquatic biologists coped with some exceptional social challenges including what to wear.

You are invited to come hear more about the life of Kathleen Carpenter at my International Women’s Day public lecture at Aberystwyth University on the evening of 7th March 2016 – details here.

Carpenter’s Cannibal Salmon




Atlantic Salmon (public domain image)


War loomed large on the front page of the Northern Daily Mail on 1 Sept. 1939. Poland is complaining about being a victim of German aggression and Hitler is making provocative speeches.

The British Association for the Advancement of Science was meeting in Dundee and the anxious committee decided to cancel the remainder of the meeting.   The night trains to London and other parts of the country were simultaneous booked up with all available sleeping accommodation reserved.

Kathleen Carpenter (from Liverpool University) was lucky, because earlier in the day she got to report on one of the first detailed studies of the diet of young salmon (Vol. 110: 81-96, 1940: Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London).  She had examined hundreds of young salmon from the Welsh Dee over a two year period.

Several newspapers ran headlines on the theme of “cannibal salmon” and contained almost identical quotes from Dr. Carpenter:
“The result is to show that the young salmon are wholly opportunists in their feeding, taking greedily any sort of animal food which is available, no matter what its nature and origin.”

“The stomach contents include examples of almost all the invertebrate animals found in the streams, and also such miscellaneous items as a bird’s feather, a mole-flea, ants, spiders and millipedes, many winged insects, portions of the skeletons of fishes, and some unmistakable salmon eggs.”

“The interest of this new record of cannibalism is enhanced by the fact that one parr, which had swallowed five of these eggs, was a prematurely ripe and already spent male, and so may quite possibly have eaten his own offspring.”

The abstract of her scientific paper described the salmon as “indiscriminately carnivorous”- they ate whatever was available at the time.   She considered material from outside the river ecosystem important, especially leaf-eating tree-parasites which fall into the river in the autumn.  For this reason she thought the growth of riparian trees and vegetation desirable. Fish scale readings seemed to correspond to the seasonal cycle in feeding.  In her opinion there is no evidence of loss of appetite at any season but merely variations in opportunity.

This paper was Kathleen Carpenter’s last contribution to the scientific literature.

Three days after the aborted Dundee meeting on the 3rd Sept., Britain declared war of Germany. Presumably Kathleen Carpenter returned safely to Liverpool.  In a review of the pollution of rivers of West Wales in 1944 (which was first documented by Carpenter), Lily Newton remarks in a footnote that a complete set of scientific records were destroyed in enemy action.  There is no acknowledgement of any assistance from Kathleen Carpenter. To add to the mystery Liverpool University archives have no record of Kathleen Carpenter.

You can find out more about Kathleen Carpenter at my International Women’s Day lecture at Aberystwyth University on the evening of 7th March 2016 – details here. If you have any records for her in Liverpool during or after the Second World War please get in touch.


Kathleen Carpenter Sets Sail


Everyone remembers the international scientific conferences at the start of their careers. There is the mixture of excitement and trepidation, a presentation to prepare and the logistics of travel arrangements. You may be travelling alone across the world or taking advantage of attending a more local venue.

My father was nervous when I set off across Europe alone by train to attend the Cladocera Conference in Budapest which was still behind The Iron Curtain.  I also have very fond memories of an early morning walk from a croft in the highlands to the local station to catch a train to the Palaeolimnology Conference in the Lake District.

We can empathise with Kathleen Carpenter when she set sail on her career in freshwater ecology. She boarded the White Star Ship, Migantic, in Liverpool on 25th July 1924, en route to the British Association for the Advancement of Science Meeting in Toronto. She had just completed her M.Sc. degree at Aberystwyth University on The freshwater fauna of the Aberystwyth District of Cardiganshire and its relations to lead pollution.

She appeared to be travelling alone and described herself as a scientific investigator on the passenger list. I scanned the occupations of the other women passengers on the same page – domestic, housewife, teacher, manageress. The social history of women was in transition but Kathleen Carpenter was confident about her scientific credentials.

The passenger list was not in alphabetical order suggesting passengers were recorded as they arrived and three lines below Kathleen Carpenter another name caught my eye – William Alexander Balfour-Browne, Zoology Lecturer from Highgate. Freshwater ecologists in Ireland and the UK will recognise this famous name associated with water beetles. After studying zoology at Oxford, he went on to teach at the predecessor college to Queen’s University Belfast and lectured at Cambridge. He was a friend of the Irish naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger who wrote The Way that I Went: An Irishman in Ireland (1969).  Balfour-Browne went on to be President of the Society of British Entomology.

It was fascinating to realise that travel records have the potential to reveal scientific associations. Carpenter and Balfour-Browne may have arranged to travel together and perhaps took the opportunity to discuss their research?  Can you imagine their conversations over dinner or strolling along the deck?  Kathleen would have been a charming travelling companion as her passion for her field is clearly evident in her writing.  Perhaps they discussed their book plans, as in the following years Carpenter published A Life in Inland Waters (1928) and Balfour-Browne produced a Textbook of Practical Entomology (1932).

Are you curious to hear about the other famous scientists who were on the Migantic?  You can find out at my International Women’s Day lecture on the life of Kathleen Carpenter at Aberystwyth University on the evening of 7th March 2016 – details here.


The Poetry of Life in Inland Waters

In 1928 Kathleen E. Carpenter, a pioneering freshwater ecologist at Aberystwyth University, wrote the first freshwater ecology textbook in English.

The reviewer in the Journal of Ecology said: “Dr. Carpenter’s book is most attractively written, wide knowledge and accuracy of expression being combined with a very patent love for the scenery and inhabitants of British fresh waters.”

Kathleen Carpenter obviously tried to capture her feelings of love for the inhabitants of fresh water in the poetic author’s preface – read in this sound file.


I will be reading other extracts from “Life in Inland Waters” at my International Women’s Day lecture on the life of Kathleen Carpenter at Aberystwyth University on the evening of 7th March 2016 – details here.

Carpenter Country – a Freshwater Landscape


The rain poured down and I had to drive to Aberystwyth. Water was projecting out from between the stones making up the walls on the right-hand side of the road, turning the route into a sleek, treacherous, black river. The Dwyryd had reclaimed its floodplain in front of Plas Tan Y Bwlch. I got other brief glimpses of angry brown river torrents topped with murky white crests – riffles had turned into rages.

When you cross the Dyfi Bridge, north of Machynlleth, you are in Carpenter country. Kathleen Carpenter was a pioneering woman ecologist working at Aberystwyth University in the 1920s. She compared the mine polluted waters of the Ystwyth and Rheidol, “destitute of fish-life” with the relatively healthy Leri, Teifi and Dyfi, with “rich fisheries”.

I was on my way to the National Library Wales in Aberystwyth to consult the papers of Kathleen Carpenter. Every new research subject begins with a bibliography, a literature landscape, so I have listed her publications below.

The weather was unrelenting and I crouched against the wind and rain walking from the car park to the door of the library.  In the welcome warmth and calm of the South Reading Room I was given two slim, fragile, cardboard folders.  The faded yellow folder containing her M.Sc papers was bound by a white ribbon tied in a bow.   Who bound this folder and when was it last opened?

The bow slipped easily and revealed the type written copy of her submission letter (25 April 1923) to The Register of the University of Wales:

Dear Sir,
In enclosing copies of my Thesis for the degree of M.Sc. I beg to remind you of the special decision of the Academic Board last summer to recognise retrospectively my scheme of work on the “freshwater fauna of the Aberystwyth District of Cardiganshire  and its relation to lead pollution,” as recommended by the College for candidature this year.

I enclose cheque for the fee of £8, and also state as required by the regulation:-

(a) that the work has not been and is not being submitted for any other Academic degree.

(b) that the thesis is based upon original investigations, explicit reference being made in the text to any other work which is necessary to quote.

Yours faithfully,

Kathleen E. Carpenter

It was a slight disappointment to find the letter was unsigned but some small, neat, hand-written annotations in black ink on other pages must have been made by Kathleen.

The return journey to North Wales required a detour because the Dyfi Bridge was under water.   Carpenter country was cut-off by the river marking its boundary.

I will be attempting to cross the Dyfi again for my International Women’s Day lecture on the life of Kathleen Carpenter at Aberystwyth University on the evening of 7th March 2016 – details here.

Carpenter, K. E. 1922. The fauna of the Clarach stream (Cardiganshire) and its tributaries. Aberystwyth studies by members of the University College of Wales, 4, 251-258.

Carpenter, K. E. 1923. Distribution of Limnæa pereger and L. truncatula. Nature 112(2801), 9.

Carpenter, K.E. 1924. A study of the fauna of rivers polluted by lead mining in the Aberystwyth district of Cardiganshire.  The Annals of Applied Biology, 9(38), 1-23.

Carpenter, K.E. 1924. The freshwater fauna of the Aberystwyth district of Cardiganshire, studied with especial reference to the pollution of streams consequent on lead-mining operations.  No. 49, File F.G. 1898, Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Standing Committee on River Pollution.

Carpenter, K. E. 1925. Biological factors involved in the destruction of river-fisheries by pollution due to lead-mining. Ser. No 84, Rep. No. 77, Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Standing Committee on River Pollution.

Carpenter, K. E. 1925. On the biological factors involved in the destruction of river-fisheries by pollution due to lead-mining.  The Annals of Applied Biology, 12(44), 1-13.

Carpenter, K. E. 1926. The lead mine as an active agent in river pollution.
Annals of Applied Biology, 13(3),  395–401. 

Carpenter, K. E. 1926. A Planarian species new to Britain. Nature, 117(2946), 556.

Carpenter, K. E. 1926.  Report on the lethal action of led salts on fishes.  Ser. No. 190, Rep. No. 129, Ref. File F.G. 1655. Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Standing Committee on River Pollution.

Carpenter, K. E. 1927. The lethal action of soluble metallic salts on fishes.  

Carpenter, K. E. 1927. Faunistic ecology of some Cardiganshire streams.  Journal of Ecology 15(1), 33-54.

Carpenter, K. E. 1928. Life in Inland Waters, with especial reference to animals. Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd.

Carpenter, K. E. 1928. On the tropisms of some freshwater planarians. The British Journal of Experimental Biology, 5, 196-203.

Carpenter, K. E. 1930†. Further researches on the action of metallic salts on fishes.  Journal of Experimental Zoology, 6, 407–422. 
Contributions from the Zoölogical Laboratories of the University of Illinois, no. 376.

Carpenter, K. E. (1931). Variations in Holopedium Species. Science, 74, 550-551.

Carpenter, K. E. (1939). Food of Salmon Parr. Nature, 143, 336.

 Carpenter, K. E. 1940.  The feeding of Salmon parr in the Cheshire Dee. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, 110, 81-96.