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Relations with Charles Husband are restored


Being sued for £1 million
Bernard Lovell Astronomer
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So Husband, at this, what should have been a very joyous time, proceeded to sue me for £1 million, and it sounds incredible, even talking about it now, this collaboration between us was reduced, this wonderful instrument, which at last was working, and there, the main partners in this were being thrown adrift. The university vice chancellor and his officers were in dismay. They summoned me to a dinner and the one trouble was: Mansfield-Cooper, although excellent, was a lawyer and was looking at all this from a legal point of view, and as the dinner closed after everything was taken apart, the conclusion was that the... the vice chancellor wanted to take contrary action to Husband, and I remember Simmons was the chairman, and he said, 'Vice chancellor, may I suggest that we do nothing'. Time is a great healer, so that saved us. No action was taken. Instead, the university, Sir Raymond Street, the treasurer and others worked very hard on Melville and the DSIR to try and get Melville to... to write to the Public Accounts Committee and... and apologise that his evidence had been incorrect.

Now, all this took a long time and those years, particularly 1958, which I will talk about later on, which should have been years of... of great, great, great relief and pleasure with the telescope working and all the press in favour, were years of... of great depression and anxiety. And what actually happened was this, that after an agonising period, Melville was persuaded to write to the clerk of the Public Accounts Committee to apologise for reasons he gave, that his evidence, which he had given on this date, was erroneous. Now, Rainford, the bursar, who had been deeply involved with us all in this, he phoned me and I said, 'Oh, good news, Rainford, that's wonderful'. He said, 'Look here, my boy, don't be too happy'. He said, 'It's true that Melville's written to the Public Accounts Committee, but there has never been any occasion as far as we know, on which the Public Accounts Committee has made a public announcement that false evidence was given to it, and Husband will not be satisfied until he can read in the press this'. And mercifully, the Public Accounts Committee, I think they must have had pressure put on them, the Public Accounts Committee did issue another White Paper containing Melville's apology.

Now, I have put both of those... both the original White Paper and the White Paper containing the apology and the... the parliamentary debates on this which... which were... were hounding the prime minister to do something about paying off the debt. All of that is now on the files. I will... I will complete this story, I think, after a break. I... I will just say this, that the university, after consultation with the Department of Science at the university, had agreed a settlement of the final debt on the telescope as being £260,000 and, incidentally, I might mention it should have been more than that, but the... the United Steel Company were... were so thrilled at getting such a marvellous press that they withdrew a subsidiary claim of something like £100,000, so the... the final settlement was agreed to be £260,000, and furthermore, the... the Department of Scientific Research, after the... this release of the trouble with the Public Accounts Committee had agreed to pay half of this and the university was left with the attempt to raise £130,000 by public appeal.

Now, again, I must remind you that that in those days is equivalent to a few million pounds today, so it was a very large sum of money and in trying to raise that money during... during the period when the telescope was constantly in the press and was doing marvellous scientific work, of which I'm going to give an account in a few moments, were years of deep anxiety during which the treasurer of the... of the university, Sir Raymond Street came to me one dark February afternoon, before, when all this was before the Public Accounts Committee and Husband was attempting to sue me, he said... came to me to warn me that the university would bear the cost of the trial but they were certain that we would lose.

Well, of course, we would lose because the... the evidence was completely against what Melville had said, so I said, 'In that case, if Husband is suing me for £1 million, I have no means of paying £1 million. What would happen?' And he said, 'Well, I'm afraid that you would have to be... go to prison', so there you are. In this great moments of the... few years of the telescope, and until this White... this contrary White Paper had been issued, I was suffering under... my... my whole family was suffering under this threat, although it was not then known generally.

Bernard Lovell (1913-2012), British radio astronomer and founder of the Jodrell Bank Observatory, received an OBE in 1946 for his work on radar, and was knighted in 1961 for his contribution to the development of radio astronomy. He obtained a PhD in 1936 at the University of Bristol. His steerable radio telescope, which tracked Sputnik across the sky, is now named the Lovell telescope.

Listeners: Megan Argo Alastair Gunn

Megan Argo is an astronomer at the University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Observatory researching supernovae and star formation in nearby starburst galaxies. As well as research, she is involved with events in the Observatory's Visitor Centre explaining both astronomy and the history of the Observatory to the public.

Alastair Gunn is an astrophysicist at Jodrell Bank Observatory, University of Manchester. He is responsible for the coordination and execution of international radio astronomical observations at the institute and his professional research concerns the extended atmospheres of highly active binary stars. Alastair has a deep interest and knowledge of the history of radio astronomy in general and of Jodrell Bank in particular. He has written extensively about Jodrell Bank's history.

Tags: Public Accounts Committee, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, United Steel Companies, Charles Husband, W Mansfield-Cooper, Raymond Street, Harry Melville

Duration: 7 minutes, 17 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2007

Date story went live: 05 September 2008