James gifford 1856 - 1930
pioneer in optics and x-ray

James Gifford was the son of James Benjamin Gifford a lace maker from Nottingham.  He was born in the same year that his father moved to Chard and founded the Gifford Fox Company; they lived in Passlands House, Forton.  Educated at Chard Grammer School and Amersham Hall in Reading, he became fluent in French, German, Italian, Latin, Greek and Hebrew; he learnt the organ, the piano and the violin.  After six months in Lyons, an important centre in the French lace making industry, James returned to work in his father's factory, eventually becoming Chairman of the Board of Directors.

In 1883 he married Emma Rossiter, the daughter of a Taunton solicitor.  Emma had been educated at Dover and Bedford College, London and was proficient in mathematics.  They were a good match and had many shared interests. James paid grateful tributes to Emma in many of his academic papers.  "Oaklands", on the Crewkerne Road where the couple lived had a modern well-equipped laboratory, and an observatory, as well as a telescope on a balcony and another, larger one in the grounds. 

 

James was made a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1909 in recognition of the improvements he had made to telescopic lenses.  When Wilhelm Rontgen discovered x-rays in November 1895, James began experimenting and by January 1996 he had repeated Rontgens success by taking an "electrograph" of his son's hand.  He gave a demonstration to the Royal Photographic Society at the end of the month and the following April that year both James and Emma supplied "electrographs" for an article in the Windsor Magazine by H. Snowden-Ward. (The publisher of the Photogram)

James's main contributions to the world of science was in the field of optics. He published several papers in scientific journals and in 1927 his book Lens Computing by Trigonometrical Trance was published.  Emma had already written Natural Sines in 1914 and went on to publish three volumes of mathematical text books, Natural Tangents between 1920 and 1927 before a Table of Primes and Factors appeared in 1931.

In 1882 James had joined the 2nd Volunteer Battalion Somerset Light Infantry, eventually becoming Commanding Officer of the 5th Battalion Prince Albert's (SLI). By the outbreak of World War I he had retired from the army retaining his title of Colonel.  He was unable to serve in the War because of medical reasons, but his health did not prevent him visiting France for the War Office to report on the use of giant periscopes against Germany.  They accepted his conclusion that they would draw the enemies fire and the War Office went no further.  James had designed a short, but immensely powerful telescope and he had made and distributed many hundreds of them at his own expense. 

 

He also did work for the Navy on submarine telescopes and underwater periscopes.  Emma, meanwhile had been appointed Commandant of the Red Cross (VAD) hospital in Monmouth House, which fully opened in 1915.  The hospital specialised in treating amputees because of its proximity to the Gillingham workshops.  The most severe cases now went to Chard.  It was reported that on December 30th 1914 Chard Town station was crowded in silent tribute to the little band of 38 wounded men that had travelled from Davenport. 

 

Emma worked tirelessly throughout the War and the money raised and entertainments devised were reported weekly in the Chard and Ilminster News.  For her outstanding work, Emma was awarded an OBE. and was given the Freedom of the Borough of Chard in 1920. The first woman to be honoured in the town.

As well as their more serious occupations at this time, the couple maintained for over 30 years a district nurse for the Town at a time when there were no health visitors or clinics for people to consult.  James carried out x-rays for the local doctors in the new Chard Hospital. In 1909 he became a Justice of the Peace and a member of the Chard Literary and Scientific Society.  He was elected to Chard Town Council in 1893 and again in 1896.  In 1927/28 he was President of the Somerset Archaeological Society and in 1920 he was Vice President of the Ornithological Section. On top of this he was a Trustee and Chairman of the Board of Governors at Chard School for 30 years.

After a full life, James sadly died in October 1930.  In his will he left £4,000 to the vicar of Chard and "medical men in the town" in a Trust (The Gifford Nursing Trust) to support a nurse for the benefit of the town.  This Trust still operates today with an amended name and purpose.  His x-ray apparatus and spectroscopic equipment was bequeathed to Taunton and Somerset Hospital and the Imperial College of Science and Technology.

Emma did not survive James for very long, she died in 1936 aged 75.  She was survived by her four daughters and one son.

A modern day image of the house where James and Emma worked. It is on the Crewkerne Road.

James Gifford working in his workshop at his Oaklands house

Allegedly the first X-Ray that Gifford made was of his son's hand

Emma Gifford, a writer and highly talented mathematician

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Address: Godworthy House, High Street, Chard, TA20 1QB

Telephone: 01460 65091

Email: info@chardmuseum.co.uk

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