Man of Poole – Bernard Dyer
David Burnett looks at the life and work of Bernard Dyer
Published in April ’13
World War 2 had been raging for nearly three years when Poole’s air-raid sirens sounded in the early cloudless and moonlit hours of 4 June 1942. Fifty bombers were approaching from the west. Their target, on the edge of Poole Harbour, was the Royal Naval Cordite Factory at Holton Heath, where a 22-year-old graduate chemist, Bernard Dyer, was supervising the night shift making nitro-glycerine. Had a bomb landed on the factory that night there is little doubt he would not have lived to tell the tale.
Bernard was born in Parkstone in 1919, educated at Poole Grammar School and graduated from London University, with a 1st Class Honours Degree in Chemistry and Physics, when still only twenty. He subsequently attended the International Management Institute at the University of Geneva. On the outbreak of war and eager to fly, he tried to join the RAF, but his skill as a chemist made him too valuable. Before long he found himself attached to the Admiralty and part of the 4000-strong workforce who every day risked life and limb producing cordite at Holton Heath for naval ordnance.
Bernard’s home is on the edge of Poole Harbour – the harbour whose heritage and future are causes close to his heart. He may be well into his nineties, but his memory of that warm wartime night in 1942 is still fresh. His job was to make sure the plant was operating correctly and shut it down at the start of any raid within a 30-mile radius. Nitro-glycerine is highly unstable. Bernard’s predecessor was one of ten people killed when a neighbouring plant exploded a few years earlier. Even the noise and vibration of anti-aircraft fire or nearby bombs falling could have caused an explosion and it soon became apparent that the cordite factory was the target. Searchlights criss-crossed the night sky as Bernard and his team carefully set about the hazardous task of shutting down the plant. Such was the concentration required, each shift team was divided into two and under strict orders not to work on the plant for more than an hour at a time. When the raid started, one team was in the canteen half-a-mile away. Heavy shrapnel and falling bombs made it too dangerous to return, which meant that Bernard and his team had to remain at their posts for an unprecedented two-and-a-half hours.
After the raid Bernard became assistant to the Deputy Superintendent of the whole factory, remaining a reserve for future operations at the plant if needed. At the same time, he was granted a commission in the RAFVR and, by the end of the war, he was a Flight Lieutenant commanding a gliding school at RAF Christchurch. He had also married Nancy, then serving in the WAAF and whose father was a barrister with a house in Canford Cliffs.
Two daughters followed, one of whom is married to a doctor, the other who was, until recently, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Reading University.
Once demobbed, Bernard joined ICI – which was then one of Britain’s largest companies with over 100,000 employees – where he was to remain until he retired in 1981. Initially responsible for the planning of new plastics plants, then a booming industry, his career blossomed, bringing a growing reputation. Happily, Dorset’s attractions remained undimmed and by the 1970s he had bought the house on Poole Harbour and Melody, an X One Design class yacht for which Poole Harbour is renowned.
Where others might have been content to potter about on their boats, after retiring he joined the British Association for the Advancement of Science, now the British Science Association (BSA), originally founded in 1831 to promote scientific progress. Bernard’s task was to help it forge links with industry. He revelled in his appointment. He became a member of the Parliamentary & Scientific Committee and played a key role in establishing a nationwide ‘Science Week’ – an annual event that continues to go from strength to strength. In 2004 he was made an Honorary Fellow of the BSA, joining a club whose names are a roll-call of Britain’s most distinguished scientists.
Never was the saying ‘if you want something done, ask a busy person’ truer than in Bernard’s case. He was a founder member of the Dorset Education-Industry Partnership, founded the Wessex Branch of the British Science Association and served as the Dorset representative of the Southern Science and Technology Forum.
In 1995 he joined the Poole Maritime Trust, becoming its Chairman four years later and finally its President. The Trust’s aim is to encourage the study of maritime Poole and make it available to the public as effectively as possible. In 2000 this in turn led to his founding the Poole Harbour Heritage Project, whose achievements include the publication of the highly regarded The Book of Poole Harbour (2010), of which Bernard was co-editor.
More recently he put his hands into his pocket to help sponsor a PhD student at Bournemouth University researching the origins of the clay and pottery industries around Poole, whilst in his few free moments compiling a list of the aspects of Poole Harbour’s heritage that merit further research.
Bernard is without doubt one of the most distinguished men of Dorset. Modest, generous, a mover-and-shaker in the best sense of the phrase, only the photograph of him wearing a gown when being awarded his Honorary Doctorate and a discreetly placed Christmas card of the Queen and Prince Philip hint at a lifetime of service and all he achieved.
John Newth writes: Just as this article went to press, Bernard Dyer died in Poole Hospital at the age of 93.
In 1989, I was running Dorset Life as a one-man band and making rather a hash of it. Aware that I badly needed expert business advice, I contacted the late Peter Allsebrook, who put me on to Bernard, then recently retired from ICI. He took on the challenge with his customary enthusiasm, and when the business became a limited company the following year, he was the natural choice as Chairman, a position he occupied for the next seventeen years.
In that time, Dorset Life benefited on countless occasions from Bernard’s shrewd commercial sense and his formidable intellect. For those of us working in the business he was a model non-executive chairman: aware, interested, supportive and positive, but not interfering in the day-to-day detail. He also became a respected friend; we sometimes disagreed but never argued. I will miss him and will always be conscious of the great debt owed to him by everyone associated with Dorset Life.