Kenneth Johnson
Died September 2015,
aged 79.
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Ken at 17 ... and 73.
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JOHNSTON. On September 28th 2015, Kenneth passed away peacefully at his home in Newbury, aged 79 years. He will be sadly missed by all family and friends. Funeral Service to be held at St John’s Church, Newbury, on Tuesday October 13th, at 2.30pm.

Family flowers only, donations if desired can be made payable to Naomi House Children’s Hospice or Miriam Dean Fund and sent to c/o Camp Hopson Funeral Directors, 90 West Street, Newbury, RG14 1HA.

Submitted by: Alistair Brown
Source: Newbury Weekly News.

The eulogies below were delivered at Ken's funeral service; the first written by Ken's children, Angus and Claire, with help from his older brother Jim, also a Morgan FP, the second by Peter Sankey with comments from brother Jim again and Malcolm Franks all AWE (Atomic Weapons Establishment) colleagues of Ken’s at some stage or another).

Dad was born in a place called Narayangunj, in what is now Bangladesh.

His first eight years, apart from a year in Dundee just before World War II, were spent in various homes in Narayangunj, Chandpur and Northbrook Mill, on the River Hoogly, North of Calcutta, while his father was engaged in buying jute and managing jute mills.

It was an idyllic, if slightly confined life with occasional parties and visits to neighbouring families and also latterly to Calcutta.

While his older brother Jim was at boarding school in Darjeeling, Dad started to educate himself with help from his parents and a ten volume edition of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia. For some reason, he took a particular interest in whales and used to lecture the family on these and other subjects – his father affectionately christened him ‘the Professor’. By regular chats with the family servants he also made himself bilingual in Hindi and English.

On return to post-war Dundee, he attended the Morgan Academy in Dundee. Dad was regularly top of his class, winning the intermediate Dux medal and later becoming School captain and winning the senior Dux medal.

On the sporting side, he was captain of the rugby team, driving it to varying degrees of success against other schools in the area. A more surprising sporting achievement was winning the mile race at the annual school sports day in the (by far) record slowest time! Apparently the runners agreed that racing for a mile required far too much effort, so they decided to jog for the first three laps and only start properly competing when the bell sounded for the last lap; Dad won by a whisker from Ron Henderson, who also went on to a distinguished scientific career.

At university (Queen’s College, Dundee, part of the University of St Andrews) Dad followed the Pure Science courses, covering maths, physics and chemistry and latterly specialising in Chemistry (lst Class Honours) in his fourth and final year. He would often tell us how his father sold the office safe to pay for one of his Advanced Chemistry textbooks – a book he had kept to this day.

After University, Dad then joined the Chemistry Division at AWRE, enjoying the rigours of accommodation at Grazeley Green Residential Club, of blessed memory, moving up after a year’s penance to the comparative luxury of Boundary Hall. It was at Boundary Hall that he designed and made a magnificent reflecting telescope, grinding the lenses in his room and making the other components with the help of a colleague, living on the Tadley estate, who had converted his shed into an impressive engineering workshop. Designed also to act as a hyper-telephoto lens for his Wrayflex camera, the telescope helped to photograph numerous ultra-close-ups, and later appeared in a talk given to the Newbury astronomical society.

In 1973 he and Mum married in Rayleigh, Essex, and in 1975, and 1978, Angus and I joined the family. As a father and husband he was the rock we all relied upon; a loving, consistent and reliable presence: always ready to sit patiently with us to help with homework, despair of our lack of interest in the sciences and entertain us with his encyclopaedic knowledge of almost anything (never more apparent than during a family game of scrabble or filling in the gaps of the Telegraph crossword). I always said that he would obviously be the friend I would ’phone if I ever appeared on a TV quiz show.

He was also the unofficial family photographer, often seen prowling about in the background of family events trying to get the best ‘natural’ shot of everyone. This gift has left us with hundreds if not thousands of happy family photographic memories for us to treasure. It also gave Claire a sixth sense about the presence of a camera lens and an impressive ability to avoid appearing in unwanted snaps.

Of course, any talk of Dad’s hobbies would not be complete without speaking about his love of carpentry. On retirement, he practically filled his double garage with sophisticated woodworking tools and started a new career in the design and construction of exquisite items of furniture; desks, tables and chairs emerging from the garage/workshop at regular intervals. I feel utterly privileged to be surrounded by so many of his beautiful creations in my own home, and I know many of you here will also have benefitted from his great talent in this respect. All of these interests and pursuits show his indefatigable enthusiasm for life, its opportunities and challenges: that enthusiasm and clear-sighted interest in understanding how things are and why will always be a source of inspiration.

Dad was the best of men. Reading through the hundreds of cards we’ve received since his passing, it has really struck us all just how well respected and liked he was amongst everyone who knew him. Described as ‘an institution’ and one of life’s true gentlemen, his wit, humour and presence will be sorely missed.

In the early days, in Frank Morgan’s group at AWRE , Ken worked on a wide range of chemical projects, including tritium and the microscopic identification of fallout particles from weapon tests. After a few years, he persuaded his superiors to support an MSc research project to get an accurate measure of the half-life of tritium, supervised by an academic from Dundee University. When successfully completed, a poetic Dundee neighbour was inspired to verse:

A writer of theses called Ken
Remarked as he laid down his pen,
‘How exceedingly odd
That not even God
Can perplex us with that one again!’

Ken was appointed Superintendent Weapons Chemistry in 1974 with a very wide range of responsibility from analysis of explosives to radio chemistry including what was known by the uninitiated as the ‘Funny Wing of B8A’.

If you know what they did, don’t tell; if you don’t know, don’t ask! They liked to consider themselves the cloak and dagger boys! Of particular note was the development, under his guidance, of equipment to detect leaks of liquid rocket propellants which was critical to the CHEVALINE programme and subsequently deployed on RN submarines.

Those old enough to remember the old grades at AWRE will note that Ken’s advancement from Scientific Officer in 1958 to Superintendent in 1974 can only be described as ‘meteoric’!

In 1977, the next stage in his career was attendance at a year long Senior Staff Defence Course at the Royal College of Defence Studies, Greenwich.

Ken found the course very broadening and stimulating, including a flight in a Harrier, which he later described as “fun”.

A transfer to the Assistant Chief Scientific Adviser (Nuclear) in London, as Director, Science (Nuclear), was followed by a move to Washington in 1979 for a two year posting as Head of the Atomic Coordination Office in the British Embassy.

Ken enjoyed his wide responsibilities for contacts with the US weapon laboratories and other establishments.

Nancy, Claire and Angus enjoyed living in the elegant suburb of McLean.

Angus even managed to pick up an American accent.

Returning to Aldermaston in 1981, Ken was appointed to be Head of the Metallurgy Division soon to be followed by another promotion to Deputy Director, Materials with responsibility for the three Materials Divisions. In 1988 he was promoted to deputy Director gaining, in addition to the above duties, responsibility for the technical programmes at Burghfield and Cardiff.

For a short period, as AWE transitioned from being an MOD establishment to a GOCO (Govenment-Owned, Contractor-Operated) Ken was Acting Director, Managing Director in modern parlance, and thereafter supported the new management team as Chief Scientist and Deputy MD.

As Chief Scientist, Ken had oversight of all the scientific work at Aldermaston and, of particular importance, the activities to ensure the safety of UK nuclear weapons.

About this time, Ken attended a ‘computer hands on course’ introducing a new business software tool. After 15 minutes of instruction and exercise on his own dedicated PC, Ken politely asked ‘which was the return key on the machine?’ Thereafter, Ken concentrated on the intent of the software, aided by one of the trainers whose role was to press the appropriate buttons! IT was not for Ken. After retirement, the tentacles of the Aldermaston/MOD octopus kept a firm hold on Ken and about five years ago I asked Ken if he would consider acting as expert witness in the judicial enquiry into the health-related claims of veterans who took part in the weapons trials in the Pacific. Thankfully, he accepted as I firmly believed he was the only person in the world who could carry out the task. The ensuing documents for this, in a dozen wine-box-sized containers, accumulated in Ken’s house as the enquiry proceeded. Ken rather enjoyed preparing technical briefs for the lawyers and also shooting down opposing arguments.

I’d like to give you a few comments from the MoD lawyer Adam Heppinstall. Ken was, by far, the best and most committed expert I have ever worked with and he is utterly irreplaceable. It was not only his professional input which kept the case going but also his incredible warmth and drive. He will be very sadly missed. We spoke most weeks and he would send me beautifully crafted hand written (remember the IT story!) updates (and pieces of Ciceronian drama and parody). We are very much poorer without his incredible intelligence, insight, wit and energy.

Most recently, Ken took part in the making of a BBC4 documentary, which will be broadcast next year, on the early years of the UK nuclear weapons programme. The Director described Ken as “the star of the show” and said that he could have been a film star if he had chosen a different career.

To close, a few words from his AWE and US colleagues.
  • Ken always had time to talk to you, he never pulled rank.
  • He was a key player in the UK/US relationship and he was a true gentleman. He was well known for his knowledge and contributions to nuclear warhead safety.
  • He was noted for his keen mind, clarity of thought and ability to translate complex problems into a brief but completely accurate message.
  • Ken was brilliant and a gentleman at heart.