December 16, 2021, by Kathryn Steenson

Explosives: a Shaw-fire way to get students’ attention!

The Department of Chemistry has kindly entrusted over a century of records to Manuscripts and Special Collections, with thanks to Dr Samantha Tang for all her help and guidance. This fascinating collection contains a wealth of material relating to personalities within the department, the early days and development of the courses, class reunions, and lots of photographs spanning the 1890s to recent times, as Archive Assistant Rachael explains.

A huge debt of gratitude is due to Dr Harold Booth, self-styled archivist of the department, without whom a lot of material and memories would be lost. His drive to protect this collection and write down personal histories of Chemistry staff means that future historians will be able to enjoy using this invaluable resource.

One such example of the depth of the collection is the amazing Lt Col Brian Shaw, a larger-than-life figure who lived enough for several lifetimes. Born in 1898, Brian Shaw served in both World Wars, rescued a fellow soldier under fire in no-mans-land in 1917, and spent five years as a prisoner of war in World War II.

Photograph of B.D. Shaw, Lecturer in Chemistry, in army uniform; c.1928. Ref: UMP/2/4/105

His work in the Chemistry Department started in 1924 after gaining a degree at University College, Nottingham just after World War I, followed by a PhD from the University of London in 1927. An expert marksman, Brian Shaw won the King’s Medal for the best shot in the Territorial Army in 1950.

Brian is perhaps best known for his lectures on Explosives, which started in the 1930s with the purpose of showing how exciting Chemistry could be. He went on to give over 1500 of these lectures until the late 1980s, not just at universities but also at concert halls, festivals, village halls and conferences. He was invited to Berkley University, California twice in 1986 and 1988, when aged 88 and 90, and the audience at one performance included the Bay Area Police Department and the San Francisco Bomb Squad.

Poster advertising Brian Shaw’s lecture, ‘Explosives as presented on BBC TV’s Horizon’, at Malvern Festival Theatre, 6 November 1980. Ref: UAD 13/ACC 2973

Professor Alex Pines, University of California, wrote Brian Shaw a letter after one of these lectures which included these humorous lines:

“Repairs on the walls of our buildings are now well under way and a small plaque with your names is being placed near the hole in the ceiling. I understand from the Oakland Psychiatric Ward that our photographer is expected to fully recover”.

Brian ended his lectures by firing his two World War I German Very pistols in the air, loaded with blank cartridges but with added aluminium or magnesium powder to produce a flash.

Photograph of Dr Brian Shaw performing an explosives experiment in a lecture theatre on University Park Campus, 1988. Ref: ACC 2973

Despite retiring in 1965, Brian continued to have birthday celebrations with his colleagues and friends in the Department of Chemistry. We have photographs and notes from his 90th and 100th birthdays, with cards signed by lots of his friends from the department. For his 100th birthday he held interviews with various reporters and cameramen, talking about his long career. He also visited the Worcestershire and Sherwood Regiment at Chilwell Barracks, and his Guard of Honour included the mascot ram called Private Derby. Just after his 100th birthday in 1998, Brian Shaw was decorated with the Medal, The Légion d’Honneur, which was awarded to surviving WWI veterans who fought in France.

The history of the Department of Chemistry, and records and memorabilia about its staff and students, is now available to be viewed in our Reading Room.  To see the original archives and rare books, please contact Manuscripts and Special Collections on to make an appointment to visit the Reading Room.

Posted in University archives