Reports of Coffee Morning Guest speaker talks 2021

November: Driving under London, By John Polley

John Polley joined London Underground at the age of 40, having wanted to drive trains pretty much all his life. In his virtual talk, John recounted much of the history of the Underground and its development over the years, and included in his presentation some little-known facts, such as that there are now 11 lines and a total of 270 stations.

First developed in the 19th century, underground railways were designed to help cities cope with increasing traffic congestion on their streets. Mainline trains were not allowed into the city centre because of the noise and dirt, so London needed to get passengers from one rail terminus to another when transferring between different railway companies’ routes. Originally London Underground lines were financed and developed by US business magnates until 1933, when they were merged to form a single transport ‘board’.

John deliberately chose to work on the Northern Line because it had the unenviable nickname of ‘Misery Line’: its trains were poor, it was not well staffed, and it suffered constant problems. However, John was up for a challenge, and the Northern Line with its branch complexity and the need to make major improvements to the service certainly provided him with that.

Clearly passionate about his subject, John succeeded in captivating his u3a audience. This was evident from the questions and comments afterwards. Many of these came from people who’d lived and travelled around London earlier in their lives, but who were only now discovering many of the secrets of the London Underground’s Northern Line. (Margaret Shaw)

 John has his talk to be recorded and made available to members – find it here.  Remember that you will need to be logged in to view it.

October:  The Great Severn Estuary Flood of 1607,  by Rose Hewlett

At our October virtual coffee morning, over 60 members enjoyed this talk.

The event is remembered 400 years on, because a few pamphlets (mainly of a sensational nature) were published not long after – with suitably exaggerated illustrations for the illiterate – but very little research has been done to assess the actual impact on the area, using local records. The affected area is very large as the flood touched landscapes and communities from South Wales to North Devon, and Somerset right up to Bristol – and even beyond.

For her research Rose looked at church records, Hundreds’ records, Quarter Session records, Reen Management Boards and Courts of Sewers’ records (the latter were charged with managing natural water, not waste water.)  The records show that damage was patchy; some areas reported collapsed buildings, damaged harbours and bridges, and some deaths – while in other places, e.g. Minehead,  there are no reports of disruption.  Landscape damage is reported from the high cliffs of Glamorgan, the dune area of Merthyr Mawr and, worst of all – as might be expected – the low-lying areas of the Somerset and Gwent Levels.  In these areas the sea breached the coastal dunes, then could not retreat.

Several North Somerset coastal area churches have markers showing the height of the flood water.  So, although there was undoubtedly a notable event that night, it was not the total devastation portrayed by the pamphleteers.  Because towns were small and the rural areas largely uninhabited, deaths probably amounted to 300-500 people, plus livestock.  As for its cause?  The contemporary writers inclined to a spiritual explanation: a warning or a punishment from God.  Others propose a tsunami as the catalyst – but there is really no evidence for this theory.  The most likely explanation is an unusually high tide following a new moon, together with a very strong south westerly wind.  I think we all ended the meeting knowing a great deal more of this event than we had before.  Thank you, Rose.            Di Martin

September: Beryl Cook, by Marilyn Bishop.

** Due to technical difficulties this talk was not able to be delivered as planned. It is planned that it will be given in April 2022 (to be confirmed). 


July: How were medicines discovered?, by Mike Hollingsworth, u3a Subject Adviser for Science

At our Zoom Coffee Morning on Thursday 15 July, Mike Hollingsworth gave a presentation on the discovery of three drugs: morphine, aspirin, and penicillin. While we all probably knew that that morphine somehow comes from poppies, aspirin has some connection with willow trees and penicillin has something to do with blue mould, we learned far more from Mike.

Not found in high enough quantities in the poppies we grow in our gardens to make it a viable source, morphine is made from the seed head of the variety papaver somniferum. In 1805 a German pharmacist, Friedrich Sertürner, succeeded in isolating a pure form of morphine.

He tested a tiny amount on himself, which put him to sleep for 24 hours!

By the 1850s it had become possible to administer the drug by injection, as the hypodermic syringe had been invented.

In 1895 Bayer, then a dye company in Germany, started to use its chemical expertise to develop drugs, including heroin, which is derived from morphine – claiming that it improved breathing, which is of course far from the truth. Today medical use of morphine is probably best known for its pain relief qualities, and it is often used with a driver device that enables patients in severe pain to self-administer within controlled limits.

In Ancient Greece, some 300 years or so BCE, Hippocrates knew that there was a compound in the bark of the willow with anti-inflammatory qualities. It wasn’t until 1758 that Rev Edward Stone wrote in the proceedings of the Royal Society that fevers were common in damp areas where willow flourishes, and remedies are often found close to the cause of the illness. Some 70 years later a Swiss scientist found that salicylic acid (salix is the Latin name for willow) could also be obtained from the meadowsweet plant (spiraea ulmaria). Towards the end of the 19th century Felix Hoffmann, also working at Bayer, made acetylsalicylic acid, which was believed to affect the digestive system less adversely than salicylic acid. It was Hoffmann who came up with the name aspirin (making it up from ‘a’ for acetyl, ‘spir’ from meadowsweet in Latin, and adding ‘in’).

With the advent of WW1, supplies of aspirin from Germany became impossible, so George Nicholas in Australia developed the brand Aspro as a replacement. It wasn’t until the 1970s that John Vane discovered how aspirin works: by blocking an enzyme that leads to fever, inflammation and pain after infection or injury.

Most of us probably know that penicillin was discovered accidentally in mould, but not a great deal more about it. It was in 1928 that Alexander Fleming, then working at St Mary’s Hospital in London, left some bacteria on a plate and went on holiday, absent-mindedly leaving a nearby window open. On his return he found that the fungus that had grown was surrounded by a bacteria-free area – and of course the rest is history! Penicillin proved difficult to develop in quantity – containers used ranged from bedpans to milk churns! However, its medicinal benefits were so evident that in the 1950s semi-synthetic varieties started to be developed: originally it was necessary to administer the drug intravenously, but later variations on penicillin made oral administration possible.

Mike summed up his talk about these three medicines by highlighting the wide variety of compounds found in nature, chance (illustrated so well by Alexander Fleming’s discovery), the inspiration of talented scientists and effort – the development of each one involved huge amounts of hard work.

Before his retirement, Dr Mike Hollingsworth was Senior Lecturer in Pharmacology at Manchester University. Now, as well as being the national u3a Science Adviser, he runs a group called Science for All at his local u3a. 

June: The Ice Man: A talk  by Andrew Thompson, Historian and Archaeologist

The scene was a bare rocky landscape high in the Alps, virtually on the Austria/Italy border. In 1991 a German couple descending from a plateau at 10,000 feet noticed a brown patch on the ice and found a mummified body. Aghast, they reported their find to Austrian police and with that began prolonged efforts to hack the preserved remains out of the ice. With the discovery of an axe, the case was filed as murder! It was only on day 6 after the discovery that the first archaeologist went to examine the body, pronouncing it to be several thousand years old and from what’s called the Copper Age, which is the period between the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. 

Over time, many more artefacts were found, and an Austrian journalist gave the body the name Ötzi. It later emerged that the body had actually been found in Italy, for the border fixed after WW1 had altered as the result of glacier movement. The University of Innsbruck continued with the research until the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology opened in Bolzano. There was such controversy surrounding the case at the time that Ötzi crossed the Austria–Italy border by night under guard. 

Of course, we’re probably never going to be certain why Ötzi was up there and why he was killed, but X-rays and CT scans have proved that killed he certainly was, for there’s clearly an arrowhead, fired from behind, lodged in his chest where it severed a main artery. Experts have put forward a range of theories about Ötzi, some of them conflicting  – for instance, the copper axe indicates high status, although there’s clear evidence that Ötzi had used it as a tool. And DNA analysis indicates that he had Sardinian links as well as links with the Middle East. 

Andrew is a passionate and knowledgeable speaker, and the story he told us at the coffee morning is still exciting archaeologists today, for increasingly sophisticated technology continues to uncover new evidence in this ancient mystery. Anyone intrigued by the story of Ötzi may like to take a look at the website of the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology web page.

April: British bats

Our speaker, Edward has very kindly granted us permission to record his talk and make it available to our members as a video presentation. You must be a registered member, and logged in, to be able to see this page which contains the video.

Report. At the u3a April virtual coffee morning we were introduced to a subject that I think most of us knew very little about, when Edward Wells gave us a talk on bats. As Vice-Chairman of the Somerset Bat Group and sometime member of the Bat Conservation Trust, Edward clearly has a great depth of bat knowledge and that, along with his obvious enthusiasm for the creatures, made for a most interesting and informative session.

Bats belong to an ancient group of mammals. The bat anatomy today is very like that of the earliest fossils so far found. These were found in Germany and date from about 50 million years ago. This means that bats pre-date dinosaurs – and bats are still very much with us. Worldwide there are 1400 species, and they are found on every continent except Antarctica. Most species are found in the tropical zones, but there are 17 species in the UK – 16 of which are found in Somerset.

They are placental mammals that give birth to one or two babies (the proper name for them is ‘pups’) and then suckle them. The adults have furry bodies and wings formed from elongated and articulated finger bones with a flexible membrane between the digits. They have been nocturnal and insect eating for at least 35 million years. The species vary tremendously in size; the largest have a wingspan of 4 feet (there are none of these in Somerset!),] and the smallest are a mere 2½ inches in size. Each species eats different insects, from quite large beetles to tiny flies, so there is no food competition between species. Food needs to be plentiful, as it has been estimated that one pipistrelle eats about 3,000 insects every night – and there can be many hundreds of bats in a roost.

 Bat poo!

Pups need to be born in summer to ensure a good food supply. The bats mate in late summer then the sperm is saved within the mother and the eggs are fertilised when the time is right. The bats don’t breed often as the adults’ diet is not rich in calcium, so a female quickly depletes her calcium supply when feeding the pups. The pups are about one third of the mother’s weight when born. They grow very fast and become self-sufficient within a few weeks. Some species have been known to live 40 years.

Owing to lack of food, bats have to hibernate during the winter. They congregate in their roosts and remain there until the weather warms – they need a temperature above 10°C before they emerge. Every part of their system slows down: the heart beats very slowly, the body temperature drops and the blood supply serves only the main organs.

Bats roost in all sorts of places: under roof tiles or in attics, caves, disused buildings, tunnels and mines. All species are protected and must not be killed or disturbed, so if you’ve got them, you just have to learn to live with them! One of their main problems is habitat destruction. A lot of damage was done to bat populations when the Cornish tin mines were capped off without any thought given to the bats that used them as home. Today there is more awareness of the issue and bat access is left when premises are closed down. Insecticides are also a problem, of course, as they affect the bats’ food supply.

The seemingly uncanny ability of bats to navigate in the dark was a mystery until as recently as the 1930s – especially as it was known that their eyesight was not good. A US scientist built a machine able to detect ultrasound (outside our hearing range). Once this made it possible to hear bats, it was evident that, far from being silent flyers, they actually make lots of loud noise. In fact one species – in order not to deafen itself – has evolved the ability to dislocate its inner-ear bones while making its call, and then put them back together again in time to hear the reply! Their echo-location abilities enable them both to find food and to navigate through trees and grasses, and over open water.

To bring us right up to date, Edward explained that bats are good at resisting viruses. They carry many but don’t suffer their effects. This is because they have a poor immune system which means they don’t react. Another advantage that bats have is that they have very few natural predators – stoats and owls being their main enemies.

Edward illustrated his talk with some wonderful photographs, which helped us to appreciate these interesting creatures even more.

March: Hoaxes in the Century of Deception

At our March 2021 coffee morning, Ian Keable regaled our u3a Zoom audience with descriptions of three hoaxes from the eighteenth century, after explaining in his introduction that, before 1700, any records of hoaxes tended to be scant and unreliable.

One of the hoaxes, we heard about, centred round Mary Toft of Godalming, who claimed to have given birth to no fewer than 17 rabbits!  Even though it appeared that the rabbits were ‘born’ in kit form and had to be assembled on delivery (think IKEA here…), Mary was for quite a while treated as a celebrity, and even after eventually confessing that the whole thing had been a hoax, was never prosecuted.

Ian also described for us two more famous hoaxes of the eighteenth century.  One concerned George Psalmanazar, an unusually well educated French peasant who started his career as an imposter as an Irishman, but found that posing as a Formosan was more exotic and thus more profitable.

Then came a description of the ‘bottle conjuror’ trick, which was publicised to take place at the New Theatre in the Haymarket, London.  The hoax involved a claim that the perpetrator would not only get himself into a wine bottle, but would also perform songs to entertain the audience from inside the bottle!  Well, despite the possibility of that being absolutely nil, the theatre sold out.

Anyone who’d like to know more about these and other hoaxes of the time may want to look out for the publication in September of Ian’s book, The Century of Deception.

February: Sex, Secrets, Scandal & Salacious Gossip of the Royal Court from 1660-1830

Lady dressed in 18th century dress in plum silk

Sarah Slater, a Hampton Court guide, was our Speaker in February 2021

In mesmerising, graphic detail Sara Slater, a tour guide at Hampton Court Palace, took us on a jolly romp with her tales of Sex, Secrets, Scandal & Salacious Gossip of the Royal Court from 1660-1830.  After the downfall of Cromwell and the restoration of the monarchy, the upper classes and the aristocracy celebrated in ways which made the 1920s and 1960s appear tame.  Charles II, known as the Merry Monarch because of his hedonism, led the way.  He acknowledged 13 of his lovers (Nell Gwyn being the most famous), but there were many more and many illegitimate children.  We heard the shocking tale (true?) of one of his lovers, Barbara Villiers, having an intimate encounter with a 250 year old mummified corpse discovered after the Fire of London.  William and Mary both had lovers and Lady Churchill was thought to be Queen Anne’s long term lover.  Other monarchs, including George I, and William IV also had lovers.  In the 18th century Harris’ List gave ‘Descriptions of Ladies of Pleasure’ around Covent Garden.  (In 1791 it sold 8,000 copies!)  In 1811 The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue was published; Sara gave us some fine examples!  She went on to tell us how in the past people tried to prevent pregnancy (e.g. French letters made from sheep guts or bladders), to terminate a pregnancy (e.g. drinking the urine of a stallion), how ladies wearing long ball gowns went to the toilet (was that antique gravy boat you use really used for gravy?), and what women did before underwear or sanitary pads were invented (I’m not telling!).  There was so much more, including learning what ladies wore, from the skin outward.  It was an unforgettable coffee morning!   Report by Karen Mahony

January: Hearing dogs for the Deaf

January’s Zoom presentation on Hearing Dogs for the Deaf was fascinating, highly enjoyable and inspiring.  I am guessing that most of the audience were, like me, ignorant of the role a dog can play in the life of someone hard of hearing.  What hearing dogs do is change lives!

Margo told of her own experiences.  After having to give up work because of her deteriorating hearing, she sometimes felt like retreating inside and closing all doors to the outside world.  As she put it, ‘My hearing dog opened those doors.’  A hearing dog dispels the sense of isolation that deaf people often feel.  The dog provides companionship and boosts a deaf person’s confidence, enabling them to take a full part in society, because they feel safer.

We heard how the charity Hearing Dogs for the Deaf trains the dogs from puppyhood.  Over a period of 18 months they learn how to appropriately alert a person to important sounds, such as doorbells, the telephone, text alerts, timers and fire alarms.  The charity has centres in Yorkshire and Buckinghamshire, but their clients are spread across the entire UK.  Their success rate in matching dogs and humans is 97%.

Any of us can receive a dog, even if we live in a flat or in a busy city centre, or have little money.  Anyone can support the charity by sponsoring a dog (  I feel certain that after this inspiring talk many of our listeners will have done just that. Report by Karen Mahony

Coffee mornings 2020  |  Coffee mornings 2019