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The Aldis Lamp Family


The Aldis Signalling Lamp was invented by Arthur Cyril Webb Aldis. It was developed and manufactured by him and his brother, Lancelot Hugh Aldis, in their business workshop, Aldis Brothers Limited, in Sparkhill, Birmingham, England. The Aldis Signalling Lamp was used by British armed forces during World War 2, the firm being officially contracted to the Admiralty, the War Office, and the Air Ministry. In June 1940 Cyril, as he was known, wrote a letter to his sister Janet Hooton in Long Stratton, Norfolk, confidently sure of Hitler's ultimate defeat. Given the desperate situation of the war at that time, Cyril's optimism seems wildly unrealistic. He writes that " Hitler has shot his bolt…that we possess superior valour and courage…I go boldly forward in the sure knowledge that Hitler and all the wickedness that he stands for will be defeated." Cyril was to be proved right, of course. But how many, in June 1940, shared his conviction and optimism?

Arthur Cyril Webb Aldis was one of nine children born to James Arthur Aldis and Frances Emily Webb, their first born being Lancelot Hugh who was Cyril's partner in Aldis Brothers Limited of Sparkhill, Birmingham. Arthur Cyril was born in 1878 in Islington, London, and educated at King Edwards School, Birmingham, before completing his studies at Trinity College Cambridge. He gained his BA in 1900, his MA in 1904, and was made a Fellow in 1901. In 1911 he married Grace Smith with whom he had four sons, and he died the 18th of August 1953, aged 75, at Blandford in Dorset. Grace survived him, dying the 8th of September 1984, aged 95, in Milford, Dorset.

Cyril's other siblings included Janet Steadman Aldis who, as Janet Hooton, wrote "The Odd Family" and, at the time of Cyril's letter to her in 1940, was living in Long Stratton in Norfolk. I wonder whether Janet was aware of the Aldis families, in earlier generations, who were prominent citizens in what was then the parishes of Stratton St. Mary and Stratton St. Michael. It seems unlikely since these Aldis families were not directly related to Janet's, except perhaps very distantly. On the other hand, it seems too much of a coincidence that she should happen to reside in this Aldis territory in rural Norfolk. Janet had two daughters, Pat and Joan.

There were also three daughters born to James and Frances while their father was Headmaster of La Martineaux School in Calcutta, India, from 1868 to 1875. Maude became a violinist, Edith Margaret a Nurse in World War 1, and Ethel, like her two sisters, remained unmarried. A fourth sister, Joy Beatrix Webb, who died in 1974, aged 87, in Pontypool also never married. Edith Margaret was one of this larger Aldis family who spent time at Minsmere on the Suffolk coast, dying there in 1922. The Aldis Clan, or The Colony as it was known, had property at Minsmere. James Arthur and Frances Emily retired to Minsmere where they died, respectively, in 1935 and 1933. James Arthur was a man of many parts. He writes, in the British scientific journal 'Nature' in 1924:

"In 1867-68, when I was Principal of La Martiniere College, Calcutta, I made some experiments on organ-pipes in conjunction with the Cathedral organist, Mr Frye, who was trying to rebuild a small organ on which to practise in his own room. His problem was how to get pedal-tones from pipes smaller than the regulation minimum, namely, 8 ft. stopped diapason, a very inconvenient size in an ordinary house. I studied his "Hopkins and Rim-bault", and became quite fascinated with the subject, chiefly on its scientific and mathematical side…" (Aldis JA. On the Vibrations of Air in Organ-Pipes of Unusual Shapes. Nature. 1924 Aug; 114 (2861):309.).

Two further sons complete this family, Arnold Mortimer and Ernest Hartley, the latter a casualty of World War 1, leaving a wife, Nora, and daughters Annie and Catherine.

James Arthur Aldis (1842-1935) was one of the nine children forming the remarkable family of John Aldis (1808-1907) and Laetitia Steadman (1806-1868). He wrote a biographical memoir of his father published in the Baptist Quarterly. Entitled " Reminiscences of the Rev. John Aldis of Maze Pond", it gives a vivid picture of family life and records John's belief that his origins lay in Norfolk/Suffolk and that the family name was Aldis or Aldous. Two of James Arthur's brothers were Cambridge Wranglers who went on to have distinguished academic careers, while he himself held senior appointments in education as well as managing Cambridge Observatory from 1914 to 1918. So Cyril's ability in mathematics and optics was there in abundance in his father and uncles. The Aldis descendants of this family in America are the children of John Aldis (1837-1900) and Elizabeth (Lizzie) Weeks (1840-1919).

William Steadman Aldis (1839-1928) who married Mary Robinson was surely one of the most distinguished mathematicians of his generation. A Senior Wrangler at Trinity College Cambridge, he was Professor of Mathematics at Durham College of Science in Newcastle before becoming Professor at Auckland College New Zealand in 1883. A renowned authority on optics and solid geometry, his outspoken views on, inter alia, women being admitted to degree courses, brought him onto conflict with the conservative educational establishment, resulting in his resignation in 1896. His position was further compromised by his forceful wife, Mary, who courted controversy with her unconventional views. Later the University acknowledged its mistaken treatment of William Steadman and established an annual lecture in his memory. It also made a regular commitment to recruit students of Maori origin to undergraduate courses. William died the 7th of March 1928, aged 89, in Kent. 'The Times' obituary of W.S. Aldis, March 13 1928 describes him as "the doyen of a noted family of mathematicians which included five high Wranglers, among them the inventor of the Aldis lens and Unit Sight. " It goes on to mention his refusal to sign a declaration that he was a bona fide member of the Church of England, a principled stand that, with others, effected the abolition of religious disabilities at both Oxford and Cambridge in 1871. He and his wife Mary were leading advocates of the higher education of women, and drew up a petition for the admission of women to examinations and degrees in the University. The outcome was that women were allowed to compete in the Tripos Examinations on the same terms as men and the results were published in the University Calendar. The obituary lists William's appointments as Professor of Mathematics at Newcastle-on-Tyne and at Auckland College, New Zealand, but draws a veil over the controversy both he and Mary provoked. For a very full and enlightened account of this period in the history of Auckland University and Auckland in general, I am indebted to the following by Garry J. Tee of the Department of Mathematics, University of Auckland, which I reproduce here in full.

Mention should also be made of Laetitia Aldis (1835-1938), the sole surviving daughter of John and Laetitia. She never married, attained the ripe old age of 103 and left a Will dated 1925 and proved 1938.


While researching the Aldis Lamp Family I have regularly come across references to 'Minsmere', 'The Colony', the 'Aldis Clan'. On the Suffolk coast near Dunwich, Minsmere seems to have been inhabited, and probably owned, by Aldis families consistently between about 1900 and 1939 when it was requisitioned by the military at the start of World War 2. So far as I am aware, it never returned to Aldis occupation, and is now an RSPB wild life sanctuary.

The Suffolk Record Office has provided much pertinent information from its archives, and I wish to record my thanks to the Archive Assistant who spent several hours trawling through documents and catalogues.

The Coastguard cottages at Minsmere seem to date from the 1850s according to a draft lease for 21 years, granted 23 November 1857 by the Dunwich Corporation to the Commissioners for executing the office of Lord High Admiralty, of a piece of land in Dunwich for the purpose of building cottages on the coast for the Coastguard men. This was followed up in 1877 by a lease granted by Frederick Barne, Master of the Hospital Land in Dunwich, to the Commissioners for executing the office of Lord High Admiral of a piece of land in Dunwich for the use of the Coast Guard, for 21 years beginning 11 October 1878, at a rental of £2. The period of this lease takes us almost exactly to 1900 when the Coastguard cottages were relinquished by the Government and, seemingly, taken over by families of the Aldis Lamp Family.

Proof of Aldis ownership, however, is not documented conclusively prior to a lease, dated 24 January 1914, for 7 years to William Trego Webb granted by Dunwich Town Trust. Now William Trego Webb married in 1886 Isabel Mary Aldis, daughter of William Steadman Aldis and Mary Robinson. His sister, Frances Emily Webb, married James Arthur Aldis who was a brother of William Steadman Aldis. So the property ("messuages or tenements") was "in the occupation of William Trego Webb" before being formally transferred to James Arthur Aldis in 1921. A lease dated 14 November 1921 between the Trustees of the Dunwich Town Trust and James Arthur Aldis esq. conveys "messuages and premises on the Corporation Heath" from 24 January 1921 to 11 October and thence for 3 years expiring 1924 at a rent of £23. James Arthur Aldis is recorded as being "of Dunwich aforesaid Gentleman …tenant" and is granted "all those messuages or tenements with the outbuildings yards lands and appurtenances thereto belonging situate on and surrounded by the Corporation Heath in Dunwich aforesaid and containing in area (including the sites of the messuages and buildings) two roods or thereabouts formerly in the occupation of William Trego Webb." So we can see a close family connection in this arrangement.

Further evidence of this close family connection is provided by another lease dated 21 July 1932 between the Dunwich Town Trust and Miss Maud E. Aldis for 7 years at a rent of £30 for "Messuages and buildings on the Corporation Heath Dunwich". The attached sketch plan includes the Coastguard Cottages . The property this relates to is described as 'Misners Cottage'. Maud Aldis was a daughter of James Arthur Aldis and Frances Emily and sister of Arthur Cyril Webb Aldis, the Aldis Lamp inventor. She was a violinist born c. 1872 in Calcutta, India; she never married. So in 1932 Maud would have been about 60 years old and possibly looking to spend her retirement years at Minsmere.

Two further leases add to the close family picture. A lease dated 11 October 1924 for 7 years at a rent of £30 was granted by Dunwich Town Trust to James Arthur Aldis for "messuages and buildings in the Corporation Heath Dunwich" , and this was continued in a further lease dated 31 December 1931 which included a sketch plan of the Coastguard Cottages. James Arthur Aldis (1842-1935) was the father of Maud Aldis and Arthur Cyril Webb Aldis. He and his wife Frances Emily died at Minsmere in, respectively, 1935 and 1933.

The 1911 Census on Minsmere Dunwich Suffolk lists James Arthur Aldis age 69 b.1842 retired School Master of Private Means. His wife, curiously, is not named, her age is not stated, and she is described as of "unknown sex". With the couple is a servant Laura Nichols, a single female, aged 21, born Suffolk Wissett. A signed declaration by James Arthur Aldis as Head of Family throws light on this incomplete and strange Census entry. It reads: "I declare that this Schedule is correctly filled up to the best of my knowledge and belief, for all males. But I refuse to answer any questions about women residents here until the Parliamentary franchise has been endowed upon Women. If that is done this Session, I will make a complete entry …afterwards" . The return further confirms that the property consists of 12 rooms (coastguard cottages Nos. 2 & 4 also 2 health sleeping huts outside. So this very interesting entry reinforces the strong stand taken by several members of this family for the rights of Women, not only to take degrees at University but also to confirm their independent identity in all ways. James Arthur was, in this respect, very much in tune with his older brother William Steadman Aldis and sister-in-law Mary Robinson who did so much to champion Women's rights and to campaign against religious discrimination.

I am indebted for most of my additional and more personal Minsmere information to Phoebe Gane, daughter of Joan Hooton and Laurence Gane, Joan herself being one of the two daughters of Janet Steadman Aldis and Henry Hooton. Janet was sister to Arthur Cyril Webb Aldis, inventor of the Aldis Signalling Lamp. As Phoebe Johnson, she comments on an article written by her mother Joan for the Persean Magazine (Perse School for Girls in Cambridge). The article is dated March 1919 when Joan would have been about 16 years old in the School's Upper Vth, but it refers to much later events up to 1939. She describes Minsmere as "a row of little black coast-guard houses…on the edge of a cliff…on the east coast of Suffolk." She goes on to say that her 'uncle' , possibly Arthur Cyril Webb Aldis but more likely James Arthur Aldis, her great uncle, "had long wanted a country cottage in a bracing position, and had the good fortune to secure these little coast-guard houses when they were given up by the Government." There were three properties, it would seem, the first, next the sea, occupied by Cyril and family, "my grandparents (James Arthur Aldis and Frances Emily Webb) the next division, and we (Joan Hooton, Laurence Gane and their three children) the last." She claims that "it was the local farmer who named us 'The Colony'" and when everyone was present "we generally made a party of about thirty."

The Colony had its own institutions, starting "daylight savings years before the rest of England…the long evenings were so nice!" It also had "its own hockey team" which played against teams from neighbouring towns and villages. At 11 o'clock a school bell was rung loud and long" to summon everyone for the day's swim in the sea. Some swam "far out to sea, perhaps to demand fish from a fishing boat," and further exercises followed until dinner-time.

"Organised paper chases were a prominent institution" and Easter Sunday was celebrated with "Easter egg-hunts", the eggs coming from chickens kept by Emily Frances and Cyril. Highlight of the Christmas Season was the Twelfth Night festivity which involved a large cake "containing various Twelfth Night symbols." Whoever got the ring became king for the evening and chose his queen. There were also the donkey, the bachelor's button and the old maid's thimble. At the end of it all, decorations were taken down and the holly burnt "so that the Colony might be free from ghosts during the following year."

The "very wild weather" often experienced in winter brought up "no end of salvage…Collecting wood from the beach became a perfect craze," especially that "found above high water mark" which was deemed to be "private property". Wood would have been used extensively for cooking and heating, and I have seen a very grainy photo, dated February 1919, of Arthur and Emily, I believe, sawing wood on a log-trestle.

Joan concludes her account in The Persean Magazine with reference to the "military authorities" requisitioning the site in 1939. She regrets that "it can never be replaced on account of its position" but acknowledges that change occurs and that "it is best that we just keep the memory of the dear old place fresh in our minds, and think how lucky we were to have had the loveliest place in the world for the many years we did." A perfect idyll, it would seem.

Some of the elderly colonists died at Minsmere, including Cyril's parents, James Arthur in 1935 and Frances Emily in 1933, and Cyril's sister Edith Margaret in 1922, and possibly Maud Aldis who was a licensed tenant. Another interesting connection with Minsmere is the poet Edward Thomas who was killed in World War 1. According to a correspondent of my former colleague, the late Douglas Aldous, Edward Thomas's wife Helen was a "long-time friend of Janet Steadman Aldis" and her husband Harry Hooton. The poet apparently spent "about 9 weeks with the Aldis Clan in the Coastguard Cottages in 1915-16ish."

George Aldis

January- March 2020