Keith Briggs

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James Henry Awbery BSc, MA 1899–1985

A short biography by Keith Briggs, mostly based on family papers.


James Henry Awbery was born on 20 August 1899 at 18 Fassett Rd, Dalston. He was baptised at St. Matthew's church, Bethnal Green. His parents both came from families of skilled manual workers long resident in east London; his father Henry Awbery and grandfather Stephen Awbery were both iron safe makers, and his mother Emily Sarah Anna (née Orrett) came from a family which included cabinet makers and tailors. Other branches of the family included silk weavers tracing their ancestry to Huguenots who arrived in London in the early eighteenth century. In a letter of 1906, he signed himself as Jimmie. His father died in in 1921 at age 49 in consequence of blood poisoning following a trivial grazed knuckle; his mother was a teacher, qualifying in June 1895 at Maidstone St Board School, Haggerston. She died in 1945. The combined technical and academic qualities of his parents probably contributed to his eventual career as a physicist.

As a teenager, Awbery attended the Northern Polytechnic Institute (now the University of North London), and about 1915 attended his first meeting of the Physical Society, having been encouraged by his teachers. At these meetings he first encountered prominent physicists of the day, including W. H. Bragg [2]. Awbery served for two years as a private in the Royal Engineers in the first world war. In 1919 he went up to Trinity Hall in Cambridge, and graduated in physics in 1921.

In 1922 he joined the staff of the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington where he remained for twenty years, most of his work being thermodynamics and calorimetry. He started publishing scientific papers in 1922. Awbery had a driving licence from 1926, in which year he was living at 38 Victoria Park Rd, South Hackney. He married Doris Margaret Harrison in 1930, the daughter of a post office linesman from Cornwall, and then lived at 11 Carlisle Rd in Hampton, having bought the house for £100 in 1935. As with many of his generation, he had made the transition from working-class east London to middle-class south-west London. Their daughter Gillian was born in 1931; she was to be an only child. In 1936 his salary was £581. From 1942 until the end of the war he was connected with the atomic energy organization, and from 1946 he was in the technical policy section of the Ministry of Supply Division of Atomic Energy. This job required him to conform to the Official Secrets Act. He worked for the Ministry of Supply from 1948, and in 1954 he transferred from the Department of of Atomic Energy to the Ministry of Defence. He was made a Senior Principal Scientific Officer in 1955.

Awbery gave long service to the Institute of Physics and to various bodies concerned with disseminating physical knowledge. Elected to Fellowship of the Institute in 1930, he served as a member of the Committee of the London and Home Counties Branch and from 1939 to 1943 sat on the Board as a representative of the Physical Society. He was elected again to the Board as an Ordinary Member in 1949 [1]. Awbery was elected a member of the American Physical Society in 1943, and a member of the Société Française de Physique in 1946. He was interested in languages, and obtained qualifications in French and German at evening classes. He published A textbook on heat (London; New York: Longmans, Green, 1949) and A university text-book of physics Vol. 3, Heat (London: Griffin, 1952); the latter being a revision of a book by Poynting.

Awbery was for nine years Honorary Papers Secretary of the Physical Society, for about twenty years a member of the Advisory Committee of the Journal of Scientific Instruments and was a member of the Management Committee of Science Abstracts since 1932. He also represented the Institute on the National Committee for Physics. In the 1960s he was on the Symbols Committee of the Royal Society. Towards the end of his career, Awbery made a number of overseas business trips, generally by flying: to France, Belgium, and Italy in 1957, to the United States in 1957 and 1960, to Canada in 1960, Switzerland in 1958 and 1959, to Spain in 1960, and to Denmark in 1964.

Awbery retired with his wife to Kempshott in Hampshire in 1961. In 1962 he was awarded the OBE [3], and attended the investiture ceremony on 13 February 1962. In 1969 he retired from committee work for the British Standards Institute. He was still an honorary member of the Physics Society Club in 1982. He attended a Trinity Hall reunion on 25 June 1983. He died at Basingstoke District Hospital in Aldermaston on 10 January 1985 from respiratory failure. His wife Doris then moved to Adelaide to be with their daughter Gillian, who had married the physicist Basil Briggs in 1954 and emigrated to Australia.

[1] Physics Bulletin, Volume 2 (1951), number 23, page 6.

[2] Journal of Physics E: Scientific Instruments, Volume 6 (1973), number 10, page 943.

[3] Supplement to the London Gazette, 1 January 1962, page 12.

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