Our mother’s is an extraordinary story by any standards. In 1945 Marie Killick invented and patented the sapphire stylus, which revolutionised sound reproduction on the gramophone records of the day. Decca acclaimed it as the best thing on the market and wanted to buy her British Patent rights for £750,000, which she refused.
In 1953 she sued Pye Radio for infringement of her patent rights and a legal battle began, ending with her victory in the High Courts of Chancery, London in 1957. Pye appealed to the Court of Appeal, where she was again awarded victory in 1958.
During the years of her fight, her opponents used every dirty trick in the book to prevent the case from coming to court. This resulted for us in a life on the run and we lived in a selection of houses, cottages, flats, bedsits, boarding houses, hotels, caravans, boats, houseboats and for six weeks home was a small van in a builder’s yard in Oxshott, Surrey. Tents, planes, trains and caves were the only habitat we were never forced to call home.
The kindness of strangers – basic help from the State
Often we were taken in by complete strangers who couldn’t see a woman and four children homeless. Twice in our young lives, we had to take refuge in pre-war Dickensian poor houses known as Reception Centres, where the homeless were given protection by the State from the dangers of life on the street. These establishments could only be called Dickensian, because husbands were separated from wives and children. Accommodation was in the form of a barracks, with no sheets or pillowcases; only rough army blankets were used. Hard horse-hair mattresses on steel framed beds were provided to sleep on and in the winter one blanket was quite unable to keep out the bitter cold in the unheated accommodation. Breakfast was cornflakes with a sparse amount of milk and no sugar, and a cup of unsweetened tea. After breakfast the inmates were turned out into the streets until the evening, when they were again offered refuge for the night. I believe this was limited to two nights only, then you were expected to move on. Fortunately we only stayed the one night in both places, as Mother would rather suffer the terror of the streets than suffer another night in a reception centre.
Homeless with a baby of just six weeks of age
At times we walked for hours when evicted from our lodgings. On one occasion, when my younger sister Christina was only a few weeks old, we had to obtain milk for her from the children’s ward of St George’s Hospital at Hyde Park. On another occasion, Chad Varah the founder of the Samaritans took us under his wing and although he took me into the bosom of his family for a short time, my family had to spend a night in his church while he chased around with baby Christina in a taxi, looking for somebody who would be willing to look after a small baby; in the end it was the taxi driver who offered to take Christina home to his wife and they cared for her for several weeks until Mother got back on her feet again. On at least one occasion that I can remember, Mother’s health failed her and the authorities took charge of us and placed us in state-run children’s homes until she was able to find a place where we could all be together again.
The pressure builds up – threats, assaults, anonymous phone calls and kidnap!
Anonymous phone calls, threatening letters, even intruders in the night were all part of this impossible life. Malicious intrigue plagued us so that armed police and private detectives became involved. In an attempt to intimidate, physical assaults were carried out on some people who tried to help us. One lawyer had his ear slashed and his fingers broken, others were followed and warned off the case. I received an anonymous phone call as a child of twelve when the caller asked for me by name and said “Tell your mother to drop the case – or else”.
Mother was even a victim of a kidnap, when she was snatched off the street. It hardly seems believable but I can assure you it is true. Mother was accompanying my eldest sister Dawn, who was being admitted to hospital with a suspected appendicitis, when a black car pulled up at the entrance to the hospital and bundled Mother into the back of the car. She was driven off at speed to Brookwood mental asylum, where it took three days for her solicitor to secure her release. These were some of the reasons for our nomadic lifestyle.
Mother – our rock against the traumatic and at times chaotic life we led as children
Hardship and often poverty were our companions along the way. Our mother was a rock that gave us the little security we enjoyed and the thought that one day she would die and we would be orphaned was an ominous threat to our peace of mind and too dreadful to dwell upon. Some, no doubt would be wondering where our father was in all this upheaval; he had only had a fleeting presence in our lives as their marriage failed, and though there were attempts at reconciliation they proved unsuccessful and Mother was left to bring us up on her own.
What effect, you may wonder, did this traumatic life have on us children? I believe that out of her four children I was probably the least affected by the insecurity of those embattled years, for I always felt however dire the circumstances I could depend on Mother to sort something out. The few times we were parted from her, due to illness, I did however feel very insecure and thought only of the day when we would be reunited. Fortunately, those separations were never for long. Dawn, probably more sensitive, felt the effects; being the eldest, she had the responsibility of looking after her younger brother and sisters. Nigel, shy and sensitive, hated any unpleasantness, raised voices, or people banging on doors to evict us. And although he weathered the storms of our life, it had left its mark. Christina, the baby of the family, was separated from her mother when only ten years old, by Mother’s early death. She has striven to make a normal life for her own children, tortured by the dread that something might happen to her to deprive her daughters of their mother. Of course we have all suffered from such a traumatic childhood and the loss of our mother when we were all so young. But I believe that we have inherited something of her tenaciousness and have tried to meet the challenges of life with some of her courageous spirit.
The cause of all the trouble and strife?
So what, you are probably wondering, was the reason for this unconventional and undoubtedly traumatic life? The protection of the Crown taken in the form of a Letters Patent meant nothing to the big business concerns that wanted to harvest the fruits of her idea. Her opponents were prepared to lie, defame and threaten. These were the tools used to prevent the truth from being revealed and justice from winning the day. You could say they almost succeeded, for although recognition in the highest courts in the land found them guilty of theft, the judicial system was not forceful enough in preventing the injustice that kept my mother from gaining the rightful damages due to her. Conspiracy sought to rob her of the financial fruits of her invention, and other courts in the land were used to override a judgement against her opponents: they snatched away her due reward when she was declared bankrupt and her claim to damages passed to the Official Receiver, who settled with Pye Ltd for a paltry sum in damages.
Cancer brings an end to Marie’s fighting spirit!
In 1964, three weeks before her fiftieth birthday, cancer robbed her of her life and left her children orphans and alone. The bitter twist to the story is that the High Court judge, Justice Lloyd Jacob, who awarded her victory in her legal battle with Pye Ltd for infringement of her patent, became legal guardian to my younger brother Nigel and sister Christina, overseeing and paying for their education until they became independent; something that I do not believe he would have done had he not felt that mother had suffered a great injustice and her children along with her.
Her invention, confirmed later by the High Court in Chancery, was a novel and inventive step. Before Sapphox, the trade name for her stylus, there were other styli on the market but hers was novel in that the gemstone ground to a flat tip meant improved sound reproduction and increased life of both the stylus and the record. By minimising wear, each stylus was able to be used thousands of times; the commonly used steel and thorn needles of the day only lasted for one playing and, because they were sharp at their tip, tore into the record groove, causing distortion and crackle and damaging the surface of the groove.
Musical combines at the time recognised Sapphox’s value
The music industry at the time was blossoming; the big companies, like Decca and EMI were among the established musical combines in the country. Decca, after extensive tests, recognised the value of Mother’s invention and offered her three-quarters of a million pounds for the rights to her British Patent. She refused, for two reasons: she wanted to continue building up her growing business selling Sapphox; and she was advised to refuse the offer, as purchase tax at the time was levied at 19 shillings and sixpence in the pound — there were twenty shillings in the pound. Unaware that others were intending to exploit her patented idea, she concentrated on building the business’ capacity to produce more Sapphox, to enable her to fulfil her growing orders as her styli were selling like hot cakes.
Mother meets the challenges of life
Mother’s life can only be described as a challenging adventure; as surely as though she had set out to climb Everest, she struggled against the elements and the storms along her path. Maybe the difficulties she had to cope with in her own childhood helped her to weather the opposition she encountered when her journey took her into the business world of men. What was her inspiration? What gave her the courage to proceed when warned by her father of the hostility she would encounter along the way?
Music: music was her inspiration, the purity of the musical note and the genius of composers who could make the air dance with wondrous sounds. To capture the musical note on a cylinder and later a disc and replay it at a time of your choice was groundbreaking. Earlier, Edison had achieved this in a raw unpolished form but those early methods in recording could not capture the beauty, the purity of the performance of the piano, orchestra or violin recital; when played back, distortion of the note and the crackle of the surface of the medium jarred on the ear. Yet it seemed a marvel at the time, applauded and much desired; for to capture great music out of the air for the waiting world seemed no less than magical.
Mother had been determined to build on this technology and improve for the world the reproduction of recorded sound. From her improvement sprang a huge industry and others have now brought the world CDs, mp3 players and music streaming. Who knows where the story of recorded sound will end? Truly an extraordinary story.