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KATHLEEN LONSDALE. AN EARLY NEWBRIDGE CHILDHOOD

Kathleen Lonsdale. An early Newbridge childhood.
James Durney

On the corner of Charlotte Street and Henry Street stands Charlotte House, built around 1850. It was a former post office building and the birthplace of Kathleen Lonsdale, the famous physician. Kathleen was born on 28 January 1903 to Harry and Jessie Yardley. She was the youngest of ten children, four girls and six boys. Her family were quite poor and four of her five brothers died in infancy. She once wrote: 'Perhaps, for my sake, it was as well that there was no testimony against a high birth rate in those days.'
English-born Harry Yardley married Jessie Cameron in 1889. He joined the British army through the City of London Volunteers and fought in the South African war, finally becoming regimental sergeant major. There is a family story that Harry received special commendation on his discharge for improvements he had introduced in firing techniques. He returned from the wars to Ireland to be postmaster in charge of a staff of six at Newbridge post office, then situated in Charlotte House. Here Kathleen was born and her earliest ‘and very faint’ memories were of attending the Church of Ireland service on Sunday mornings in Newbridge and the Methodist Sunday School on Sunday afternoons – which had the great advantage that the children had a very wide circle of friends. Because of the British army barracks in the town Newbridge once had a thriving Protestant community and packed services were held at St. Patrick’s Church, at Chapel Lane and Moorefield Road. Kathleen also remembered being very happy at her first school, learning to count with yellow balls.
Harry Yardley was an intelligent and very well read man and Kathleen later wrote: ‘I think that it was from him that I inherited my passion for facts.’ However, he drank at times and kept his wife chronically short of money. All the Yardley children were persuaded by their mother at an early age to ‘sign the pledge’. It was Jessie Yardley, who worried about the political state of Ireland, decided to bring the children back to England in 1908, when Kathleen was five. They settled in Seven Kings, Essex, and Kathleen attended Downshall Elementary School from 1908 to 1914, and then won a County minor scholarship which took her to the County High School for Girls at Ilford from 1914 to 1919.
Kathleen’s eldest brother, Fred, won a scholarship from school, but money was then so short in the family, his parents could not allow him to take it up. Fred had to start earning money to help keep the family going – as, indeed, did all the other four children, until Kathleen, the youngest, was reached. Fred, nevertheless, had a very successful career as one of the first wireless operators in 1910. He received the last signals from the ill-fated Titanic in 1912. He later established one of the first schools of wireless telegraphy in the north of England.
At the age of sixteen Kathleen entered Cambridge University and at the end of her first year gained a University scholarship. Against all advice she decided to change from mathematics to physics – her old headmistress warned Kathleen that she had little chance of distinguishing herself in that subject. It was a wise choice. She excelled in physics and later became a crystallographer, who corroborated the suspected planar hexagonal structure of benzene by X-ray and neutron diffraction methods.
Kathleen married a fellow research student Thomas Jackson Lonsdale in 1927. They had three children – Jane, Nancy and Stephen. Thomas and Kathleen – brought up as a strict fundamentalist Baptist – joined the Society of Friends, or Quakers. As a conscientious objector to war she failed to register both for employment and civil defence duties in 1939 and was fined £2. She refused to pay the fine on principle and was jailed in Halloway Prison for a month in February 1943. On her release she was invited to Ireland to the Institute of Advanced Studies Summer School in Dublin. The main subject was the thermal vibrations of atoms and molecules in crystals. The lectures were held under the chairmanship of Erwin SchrÅ‘dinger and were attended throughout by the Taoiseach, Eamonn de Valera. It was her first visit to Ireland since she had left twenty five years before, in 1908. After the meeting Kathleen paid a brief visit to her birthplace in Newbridge.
Kathleen Yardley died of cancer on 1 April 1971. She left very beautiful and characteristic notes of her life in her Personal Record for the Royal Society of Friends. A meeting to remember her life was held at Friends’ House, Euston Road, on 20 May 1971. It was, as her life was, very enjoyable.

 On the corner of Charlotte Street and Henry Street in Newbridge stands Charlotte House. It was a former post office building and the birthplace of Kathleen Lonsdale, the famous crystallographer.

 


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