"That's broken that" - Prince Philip's blunt response in Sheffield to hitting wrong button that smashed machine

The day when Prince Philip visited a Sheffield research laboratory and pressed the wrong button, breaking a machine, has lived long in the memory of one witness.

Friday, 16th April 2021, 8:30 am

Dr Don Spenceley, former head of process research for British Steel, was just a junior member of staff when the Duke of Edinburgh visited Sheffield, months after the Queen’s coronation.

He recalls what happened here:

As part of the industrial recovery plan following World War Two, the Government created a number of Industrial Sectors Research Associations with the largest of these being the British Iron & Steel Research Association (BISRA) located in laboratories in Sheffield, London, Swansea and Teesside.

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Oh dear - HRH operates the emergency stop on the wire drawing machine

The Sheffield lab was the largest of these, focused on mechanical working, steelmaking and metallurgy. The research facilities were to build on redundant premises of Daniel Doncaster in Hoyle Street, utilising strong existing technical links with Sheffield University.

In the early 1950s there was intensive effort in the recruitment of highly creative scientists led by Sir Charles Goodeve who had contributed distinguished technical naval service during the war. Sir Charles was supported by a strong engineering team in the design and construction of the necessary facilities resulting in the laboratories shown in the attached photograph which unfortunately have since bitten the dust.

The new building was scheduled to be officially opened on November 19, 1953 with the Duke of Edinburgh being invited as having the ideal technical background, together, of course, with his position as Prince Consort following the coronation of the Queen earlier in the year.

The opening duly took place as planned as a very memorable event for all concerned and particularly in my case as a young recruit it was also a special day for me to reflect on, which I respectfully contribute to the archive on the death of the Duke of Edinburgh.

The Duke gets an explanation of rolling mill control system

The photograph shows the Duke of Edinburgh being presented with a penknife by Lord Dudley Gordon, the President of BISRA, to commemorate the opening of the Sheffield Laboratories. The Duke made the obligatory response of responding with the gift of a farthing coin, much to the delight of Sir Charles Goodeve smiling in the background. I thought that the amount was a bit miserly but with recognition that this was the first year of the Queen’s reign and that they were saving up!

There were many special guests and dignitaries present and it was to be a special ‘do’ involving all members of staff dressed in decent attire. As a recent recruit as a junior mathematician, I was assigned as a guide to accompany guests around the laboratory displays following the official opening and I recall starting with six guests.

At the first stop, three of the guests persisted in asking questions endlessly and since I was working to a tight time schedule I decided to leave them and progressed with the remaining three guests to the next scheduled port of call. There I left two behind because they too would not shut up, so I was left with one. He stuck to me like glue but did not ask any questions.

The opening of the Sheffield BISRA steel research laboratories by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1953

After a few stops with me asking questions I decided that I had to get rid of him, but that was not going to be easy so I thought of a new strategy.

At the next scheduled stopping point I introduced my guest to the research presenter and whilst they were talking I disappeared back to reception and said that I was ready for another group of guests.

The controller looked at me with astonishment, asking where were my allocated guests and when I said “I don’t know” the controller said that I could not have any more, so for the rest of the day I wandered round as though as a guest, particularly asking questions about my own project interests and having a wonderful day.

In the meanwhile the Duke of Edinburgh was being shown around by the BISRA top brass, as can be seen in the photographs. One of the stops shown was at a new multi-capstan wire drawing machine where it had been decided that the Duke would be invited to operate the emergency stop button, demonstrating the safety of the machine.

Staff of the Mechanical Working Division - Don Spenceley says he's on the back row with a melancholy look on his face

The Duke duly obliged without any qualms and can be seen on the photograph with his hand on the button. However, note on the photograph the reaching hand of the head of department, Dr George Wistreich, which seems to be displaying an appeal not to press the button, clearly concerned that it was a balmy idea which needed to be abandoned. But it was too late.

The Duke did the job with the result being a crashing noise of wire being spread-eagled on the inside of the safety-covered shielded capstans. The Duke calmly commented with words to the effect of “That’s broken that” but a bit stronger. The event was probably the highlight of his day at BISRA but the nightmare for Dr Wistreich.

Later in the day when the Duke and guests had departed, the research staff had their photographs taken. I am on the back row with a melancholy expression reflecting my day.

It had been two years since I got the job as a junior mathematician by answering the question “what is the integral of one over x?”

Fast forward 35 years and I would be honoured with the MBE by the Queen for inventions in steel research, some of which were conceived from studies which took place on the wire-drawing machine crash-stopped by her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh.

Some of the guests attending the opening ceremony of the British Iron & Steel Research Association Laboratories in Sheffield, performed by the Duke of Edinburgh

Footnote: When the Hoyle Street premises of BISRA were vacated the framed farthing gifted by the Duke of Edinburgh disappeared. The surviving staff of BISRA would appreciate its return for permanent display in a Sheffield museum.

If you have news of its whereabouts or indeed reflections on BISRA, please contact me on [email protected] I cannot offer a reward, other than to tell you the integral of one over x.

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