William Joseph Dibdin
William Joseph Dibdin (1850-1925), Analytical Chemist
1908 Biographical Note 
MR. WILLIAM JOSEPH DIBDIN, whose work in connection with public health engineering is so well known, is a son of Mr. T. C. Dibdin, an artist of repute, who was a grandson of Charles Dibdin, England's sea poet.
He was born in 1850, and was educated in private schools. As a youth he studied art, which led him to take some note of photography in the early days of the collodion process. it was a happy accident for the study of the subject soon convinced him and his friends that he had a real bent for the exact sciences, and especially so as regards chemistry. He devoted his attention to this, and commenced studying under the Science and Art Department, and in 1876 became an articled pupil of Mr. F. W. Keates, then Consulting Chemist and Superintending Gas Examiner to the Metropolitan Board of Works. Mr. Dibdin soon became junior assistant to his chief, and shortly after was appointed one of the gas examiners to the Board. Two years later promotion came, the energetic young official being chosen as chief assistant to Mr. Keates.
On the death of his chief in 1882 Mr. Dibdin was appointed Chemical Assistant to the Board, an ad interim post, as he was also placed in charge of the Chemical and Gas Department. It must have been a somewhat trying ordeal, but it gave Mr. Dibdin the opportunity of showing his mettle, for at that moment important investigations were being carried out in connection with the state or the Thames water, so it devolved upon the new head of the department to work in close association with Professor (later Sir Frederick) Abel and Drs. Odling, Dupre, Voelcker, and Sorby. Moreover, he had to assume the onerous duty of leading the chemical evidence given before Lord Bramwell's Royal Commission. All this work led to his being appointed Chemist and Superintending Gas Examiner to the Board, a post which he retained under the Board's successors, the London County Council, until his resignation in 1897, when he commenced private practice as consulting chemist in Westminster.
During his arduous work under the authorities at Spring Gardens many interesting and important questions had to be dealt with. As one result of Lord Bramwell's Commission, it became evident that some means had to be adopted to purify London sewage before its discharge into the Thames and Mr. Dibdin was instructed in 1844 to carry out experiments in conjunction with the Board's Engineer, Sir Joseph Bazalgette, and Dr. Dupre. These investigations fully proved that the process suggested by Mr. Dibdin in his evidence before the Commission was the most suitable and economical. The system was therefore adopted, and has been in operation, with gratifying success, for nearly twenty years. A point not unworthy of record is that the system is estimated to have saved London something like ten millions sterling. But the change was not brought about in a day, as may be imagined. Mr. Dibdin had to devise temporary measures while the engineer and contractors were at work. He was not satisfied with chloride of lime, and decided to use permanganates, and, in order to be sure of a steady and cheap supply, he set up a manufactory at the Board's Southern Outfall Works, where he produced the material at about £8 per ton, as against the market price of £41.
Out of the study of the London sewage and its behaviour in the Thames came the conviction that purification could be carried out by natural processes, without the intervention of chemicals, and thus was evolved the biological treatment in contact beds, which system, destined to revolutionise sanitary engineering, was developed at the Northern Outfall Works at Barking Creek, and later at Sutton, Surrey, for the Sutton Urban District Council, where the first "primary" or "coarse contact" beds were laid down. As is generally known, the fundamental idea of the process is the destruction of foul matter by the action of living organisms in the presence of air, the process has been most successful, difficulties only being met with when an attempt has been made to drive the beds too hard, the spaces between the coke and clinker thereby becoming filled up. To overcome this drawback, Mr. Dibdin set to work to devise beds which would clear themselves from the accumulated residue. This he found in the very ingenious plate beds, the plates consisting of superimposed layers of slate. Such beds, for the treatment of crude sewage, are now at work at some thirty installations, among others Devizes and High Wycombe, and prove that the objects aimed at have been attained.
Important as was this work in connection with sewage, it did not by any means exhaust Mr. Dibdin's labours in Spring Gardens. He carried out most minute investigations for the control of the London water supply, and introduced a very effective micro-filter for determining the quantity of suspended matter in the water, which resulted in great improvement in the supplies. Gas, of course, occupied much of his time. This led him to study the Standards of Light question, and his recommendation for the use in gas testing of the flame of a 10-candle pentane Argand has been very generally adopted.
Mr. Dibdin has written a great deal, his principal works being on "Sewage and Water Purification," "Public Lighting by Gas and Electricity," "Lime, Mortar, and Cement," "Practical Photometry," and the editing of the fourth-volume of Churchill's "Technology." He has read papers before the Institute of Civil Engineers, the Royal Society, Royal Sanitary Institute, Society of Arts, the Society of Public Analysts, the Society of Chemical Industry, and others. He has made astronomy a special hobby, and has taken an active part in local administration at Sutton, where he was Chairman of the District Council.
Mr. Dibdin married a daughter of the late Mr. Augustino Aglio, a well-known artist, who was the last scion of the Imperial Roman family of Aelius, and has four sons and five daughters. He is now assisted in his business as a consulting chemist by his sons.
Sources of Information
- The Engineering News 1908/03/13