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Department of Physics

The Cavendish Laboratory
Southern Bell Telephone Co Employees, female switchboard operators, at work.

In February we celebrated Catherine Clifton's 40th year of service at the Cavendish Laboratory. Over the years, day in day out and coming rain or shine, she's welcomed thousands of staff and visitors and witnessed more changes than anyone else. As we are getting ready to move to our new home in the Ray Dolby Centre, Catherine reflects on 40 years in Physics, the people she's met and worked with, the good times and the more challenging ones. 


On Monday 28 February 1983, Catherine Clifton joined Fi Oakes and her team of “girls” (this is what they were called by other members of the department) in the Print Room. Catherine was four months shy of 18. The print room was a very large area all along the first floor of the Bragg building, joining the Reception and Post Room together.

“When I first started, I worked on a switchboard like the one pictured here, with lots of phone wires,” Catherine recalls. “When a call came in on your headphones you would have to test the line first before putting the caller through. To do this, you just placed the connecter in the phone extension hole. If it crackled, the person was already on a call, if clear, you could put the call through.

“I remember the person training me got in such a muddle that they pulled out all the wires. I looked at her horrified and she said ‘Don’t worry! People will just think the phones had gone down.’”

Luckily, Catherine never had to do that herself…


When she joined the department in 1983, the staff structure was widely different and 40 years later, she’s the only one remaining from that time. The Head of Department was Alan Cook, John Deakin was Secretary to the department and Shirley Fieldhouse was working as his secretary (the equivalent of today’s PA), Peter Ward was Health and Safety Officer, and Bryan Goshawk was the Lab Superintendent. “I had the honour of knowing Brian Pippard, David Tabor and Nevill Mott among many others,” Catherine muses. “All are sadly no longer with us.” 

When Fi retired in 1987, Catherine was given the role of Print Room Supervisor, which also covered the Reception and Post room areas. Over the years, she welcomed many new team members and saw some leave, either to start families or to take on different roles outside of the University.

“I have kept in contact with most,” she says. “Gloria is still part of my team, and she celebrated her 25th year last April.

“In those days when staff retired or left Andrea Leeming (Andy) would make a card for the collection to go around the whole lab and Keith Papworth, our in in-house photographer, would take photos of the party held by the department,” she remembers. “These were then made into a book, which would be sent on to the person that left later on. These were big events with all Assistant staff attending. The canteen provided a well-stocked buffet table too.” 


In 2008 Catherine celebrated her 25th years of service at Physics and was invited to attend Senate House to be presented with a certificate by the then Vice-Chancellor Alison Richard. On her 35th anniversary in 2018, she used her bonus to go towards a new iPad.

Over the years, Catherine has seen many academics and professional staff come and go across the department, including various Heads of Department. “Some of the Professors I first knew as students or junior researchers,” she muses. “We have had Royals; VIPs and various famous faces come through our doors.”


“I have had different job titles over the years but to this day on my Itent page my position states Clerk, which always makes me smile. I did not even know I was a Clerk when I first began all those years ago.”

Whatever her job title, and whatever the management her role would come under, Catherine has always prided herself in team working. “You asked me what I am proudest of in my 40 years, I would say that it’s staying in this job for so many years and still enjoying it!” she exclaims. “I have met such a wide selection of people and each day is different and brings new challenges.”


Of course, it has not always been plain sailing and there were some challenging times over the years. “The most challenging time during it all was Covid and seeing the whole building emptying in front of me in March 2020,” Catherine remembers. “I thought it would only be for a short time, but I did not return until 9 June 2020 and even then, there were only a handful of staff in. However, I am grateful myself and my family survived it as so many did not.”

As the department gets ready to move over to the Ray Dolby Centre, the idea of no longer spending most of her time in this building feels strange to Catherine. “But life moves on,” she concludes with a smile, “so watch this space and let’s see if I will be celebrating my 50th year in 2033 working for Physics!”


Images (from top to bottom)

1 - Southern Bell Telephone Co Employees, female switchboard operators, at work. Photo by Albert Barden. From the Albert Barden Collection, State Archives of North Carolina, Raleigh, NC

2 - Left: “In the old Print Room. Fi and her “girls” in 1985. The door and wall by the customer counter area was always covered in postcards from staff/students who sent them to us from their travels.” Right: “My first week with my work colleague Allison Newstead whom I am still firm friends today. In fact, her children are my godchildren. This was taken by the Stores notice board.”

3 - “When Shirley Fieldhouse retired , all the secretaries and other members of assistant staff made a throw. We all made one square with a design sewn in that would remind her of us all.  Andy then sewed them all to make the throw.  Mine was my name in the shape of a Catherine wheel.”

L-R: Pauline Brown, Kath Barton(Accounts), Tina Jost, Patty Blench, Alicia, Tracey Ingham, Judie Andrews(HoD PA), Shirley Fieldhouse, Meg, Andy Leeming, Heidi Winter, Lucy Scott, Simon, Margaret (Liberian) Karen Cambridge(Accounts). Kneeling: Pam Hicks, Pat Perrit, Myself and Gloria Oglesby

4 - "The Staff photo was for all Assistants staff and included the then Lab Superintendent, Head of Department, Secretary to the Department on the front row.  It was taken between 1987 and 1989."

5 - Left: “In the early 90s, my niece Laura came to work for me and with Keith Papworth, our in-house photographer.“ Right: “Andy Leeming, Gloria Oglesby and myself reunited for Keith Matthews' (Head of Maintenance) party in the canteen October 2015 retiring after being here for 37 years.”