Professor John Hudson: Wartime bomb disposal officer and founding Professor of Horticulture at Nottingham University


John Pilkington Hudson, horticulturalist and bomb disposal officer: born Chapel-en-le-Frith, Derbyshire 24 July 1910; MBE (mil) 1943;George Medal 1944 and bar 1945; Lecturer in Horticulture, School of Agriculture, Nottingham University 1948-50, Head of Department of Horticulture 1950-67, Professor of Horticulture 1958-67; Professor of Horticultural Science, Bristol University 1967-75 (Emeritus), Director, Long Ashton Research Station 1967-75; CBE 1975; married 1936 Gretta Heath (died 1989; one son, and one son deceased); died Wrington, Somerset 6 December 2007.

John Hudson was a distinguished horticulturalist, teacher and research worker. Following wartime service in which his gallantry won him major awards, he went on in 1958 to become the founding Professor of Horticulture in the Nottingham University School of Agriculture. This quickly became one of Britain's leading centres of horticultural research and education.

By 1939, Hudson had already embarked on what was to be a lifelong career in horticulture. When war intervened, he volunteered to serve with the Royal Engineers and was part of the British Expeditionary Force which was sent to Normandy and was evacuated from Dunkirk in the summer of 1940. On his return from France, he attended a five-day bomb disposal course, for which he was selected because he had a science degree. That the science was horticulture was considered irrelevant. On completion of this brief training he was posted to West Yorkshire where he helped disarm 31 bombs in eight days, after which he was posted to bomb disposal HQ in London.

Because unexploded bombs could cause greater disruption than those that exploded, German scientists devised ways of making defusing difficult and hazardous. Hudson and his colleagues strove to keep ahead of the problems this caused, but were soon faced with a complicated device known as the Y-fuse, which incorporated batteries and mercury switches. Any attempt to move the bomb to which they were attached resulted in its detonation. A method was devised to freeze the whole fuse mechanism by dripping liquid oxygen on it.

Hudson was called to defuse a 500kg bomb fitted with such a fuse, near the Albert Bridge. After pouring liquid oxygen on the fuse he withdrew and waited until the casing cracked. The original plan had been to withdraw the fuse using a long line attached to it. When the line snapped Hudson returned, climbed into the trench and twisted the fuse out by hand. This outstanding act of courage led to the award of the George Medal.

When German V1 flying bombs started falling, Hudson was assigned to deal with one of the first that failed to explode. Each bomb carried three fuses, one of which was another new design. His courage in successfully completing this operation was recognised by the award of a bar to his George Medal. Whenever he and his colleagues devised a new defusing method at HQ they followed a system of trying it themselves, not once but twice. It was standard practice for them to be wired up to a phone line throughout these operations so that they could describe each step to colleagues at the other end. If the bomb did explode, the cause would be known.

Born in Chapel-en-le-Frith in Derbyshire, John was the only son of the village postmaster, William Hudson. He left school at 16, completed a one-year diploma course in horticulture, passed with distinction and went on to a degree course at Nottingham University's Sutton Bonington campus, where he was at the time the only student on the BSc Horticulture course. While there he met Gretta Heath, who was to become his wife. They married in 1936, when he was working as horticultural adviser for Sussex County Council.

When John Hudson was demobilised at the end of the war in Europe, he was suffering from breathing problems caused by exposure to bomb chemicals, so he and his young family moved to the better climate of New Zealand, where he took a post as horticulturist in the Department of Agriculture in Wellington. Within three years his contribution was such that he was made an Associate of Honour of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture.

In 1948 he returned to Britain to the Nottingham University School of Agriculture, first as a horticultural lecturer, then head of department, and in 1958 he was appointed the first Professor of Horticulture. He later served as Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture and Horticulture. Between 1961 and 1963 he spent six months of each year in the Sudan, setting up a new department of horticulture in Khartoum University.

A chair in horticulture requires ability in three fields: teaching, research and the translation of research into practice. Hudson was equally committed to all three and inspirational in all, an unusual combination. It is interesting that these three activities mirror those that he must have needed in his bomb-disposal work.

His research, and that of the team he assembled, covered the relationships between crops and their environment, particularly the effects of weather on cropping. He collaborated with colleagues in other departments, especially plant physiology and soil physics, key areas for understanding plant response to environment. His many publications gave valuable pointers on improving crop production practice, particularly by more precise irrigation methods, both in glasshouses and in arid zones.

In 1967 he was invited to take up the directorship of Long Ashton research station, in Bristol University. He received the Royal Horticultural Society's Victoria Medal of Honour in 1976.

After retirement in 1975 John and Gretta Hudson enjoyed life in the Somerset village of Wrington, where they had many friends and where John made a splendid garden. He followed a variety of interests. He became a volunteer with Weston-super-Mare Samaritans, joined the village choral society and the church choir, and became a member of a gliding club. Hillwalking was another of his interests. In addition to walks in the Grampians, we enjoyed more extended trips to Skye, Orkney and the Western Highlands. His wide-ranging knowledge and interests made him stimulating company. He was a warm and caring man, always ready to see the best in people and in situations, a gentleman in the best sense of the word.

Peter Waister

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