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Elspeth Bobbs’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Elspeth Bobbs grew up in England. During World War II, she relocated to Santa Fe. There she became friends with Joseph Rotblat, a Polish-born physicist who was part of the British Mission at Los Alamos. Bobbs recalls her friendship with Rotblat, his personality, and how pleased she was to learn that he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonproliferation work in 1995. She also describes her love of Santa Fe and gardening.

Date of Interview:
October 12, 2017
Location of the Interview:


Cindy Kelly: I am Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation. It is October 12, 2017, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I am with Elspeth Bobbs, who has some very interesting stories. But first, I want Elspeth to say her name and spell it.

Elspeth Bobbs: Elspeth. It’s Scottish. E-L-S-P-E-T-H.

Kelly: Your married name, last name, Bobbs? 

Bobbs: That was my husband’s name. He was Pennsylvania Dutch, and he had a horrible name when I met him. A horrible name. B-O-P-F-T, Bopft. And I thought, “Hell, there was something called Boft, it’s some kind of music.” And it sounds like that, Bopft.

Well, I would have married him no matter what. But when we went down to Europe, I said, “I’m not going to Europe with a name like that.” We changed it to an easier name, that I still don’t like. But it’s certainly an easier name. He would have taken any name. He didn’t like the name either, but he didn’t tell me. Why didn’t I change it to Grant, or McGillicuddy, or something interesting?

Kelly: How do you spell your new spelling? What is it now? How do you spell “Bobbs” now?

Bobbs: B-O-B-B-S.

Kelly: That’s much easier. Tell us about being a young woman in Santa Fe during World War II. You were here, and what were you doing here?

Bobbs: Well, this is a long story. My father was American, my mother was English, and she came here for four years after the First World War, and they married. She was here for four years in America. Then, finally, after four years, she said, “I’m going to England, I’m going back to England,” and told my father, “You can come if you want.” Of course, he went with her. I born in England and reared there, went to schools there, was educated there. So I regarded myself as English, which I was.

Then in the Second World War, big trouble, because we lived within twenty miles of the East Coast in England, and all aliens had to move out. But I was English, so I was okay there. But my father had to move to out. Then we stayed in Liverpool during the war.

Then America came into the war in ’41, and my father got a letter from the American Embassy that said, “If you are not contributing directly to the war, please go home.” My mother and father decided to go. It would be much better for my father because it was very hard for him during the war as a banker, and nothing much for him to do. I think his war job was looking after animals that were used in research; a horrible job.

So they decided to go, although they did not want to leave my brother, who was in the Army. But they thought it was best for my father. They asked me, “What would you like to do?” I was twenty-two. I thought about it, and I thought about what would happen to me left here—probably no means of support, and deaf people used in armament factories. I had the common sense to realize, “Do I want to work in armament factory, or do I go to America?” I made the very sensible and happy choice of going to America.

We all went my father’s hometown, San Francisco, and I lived there for over a year. Then I came into a legacy from my San Francisco grandfather, a handsome legacy, and I said to myself, “Freedom.” What do I want to do? I had been reading Mabel Dodge Luhan’s books when I was in San Francisco. I read all of them. I said, “New Mexico sounds very nice. I want to go to New Mexico.” There are times that come where you have to leave your parents, and that was the time for me.

I wrote to a Rhodes scholar—Rhodes scholar goes to Oxford on a scholarship—and I knew the Rhodes scholar in Oxford, and I liked him very much. He was older than me, and he married an English girl who read law in Oxford.

I had his address, so I wrote and asked him, and said, “Do you know anybody that would befriend me instead if I went there?”

He wrote back and said, “Of course, my mother would be very happy to befriend you.”

I went on the train, and rode into Santa Fe and his mother was wonderful to me. She really was. She found a place to rent around the corner for me for $30 a month. She got me a job with an abstract  company in Santa Fe—and I can’t remember what they did. It was very nice of them to take me in. [Chuckles]. That’s how I came to Santa Fe, on a voyage of my own.

And boy, was I happy. I love Santa Fe. I arrived in November of 1943. November, you know, muddy and patches of snow. But still, I looked around and I saw the lovely adobe homes, and I smelt the pinion smoke, which was quite prominent. I thought, “Well, I like this place.” That’s how I came to Santa Fe.

Kelly: At this point, had you gone to college?

Bobbs: Yes.

Kelly: Where did you go? What did you study, and where did you go to school?

Bobbs: I went to St. Hilda’s at Oxford. Due to my mother’s pressure, really, I had to read law. It was quite wrong for me. Utterly wrong. I hated law. I had to read the Roman law in Latin. It was a bore. Horrid.

Kelly: So you did not become a barrister?

Bobbs: No, I was very unhappy at Oxford. Big point about me is I started going deaf when I was eleven. Gradually, it got worse, and worse, and worse. By the time I was at Oxford, I could not hear the lectures. I could hear people if they spoke clearly, but not the lectures. I was kind of out of everything. I was very unhappy there.

When the war broke out in ’39 when I was there, I had spent two years in Oxford. The war broke out, and my parents moved to Liverpool, where my mother’s family came from. I decided, “Hell with it, I will finish my degree at Liverpool, University of Liverpool.” So I switched to them. I’ve got an English Law degree, and I’m so thankful that I can be gardener instead. 

I was given a job in San Francisco, probably due to family pressure. I worked in Crocker Bank in San Francisco. But then I had a job here too. There’s nothing better for one’s self-esteem than a job. I was very happy with both of them.

Kelly: This is partway through the Manhattan Project that had been there since April. How did you connect with people on the Hill? How did you meet Joseph Rotblat, for example?

Bobbs: Well, that’s interesting, because he was in the atomic research place in Liverpool. They asked him to come from Poland—he was Polish. They asked him to come and join the atomic research that they had. In 1939, he left Poland. He could not bring his wife with him because she had appendicitis. He got to England all right, but she never managed. Then Hitler invaded Poland, and she couldn’t get out and join him. He tried everything, he tried everything so hard to get her out, but never succeeded. She died in one of those horrible camps. Dreadful thing.

The British joined the Los Alamos, and brought everybody together. So Jo was under the British, not the American people. Sir John [misspoke: James] Chadwick was in charge of them all. Jo was very, very good friends, and he always told James Chadwick he was seeing me, he always told when he was going and coming back. He was trying to be very careful to do things properly, because he wasn’t really quite what they wanted.

Now, I don’t whether it was the Army Intelligence or whether it was the FBI, but they found out that we had both come from Liverpool, and suddenly they [inaudible] in a bad, bad place, they thought we might be spies. Totally ridiculous. But I can understand why they thought that. They were well-watched, very well-watched. The time they spent watching us was ridiculous. They should have been watching Klaus Fuchs, but that’s the Army intelligence oxymoron.

It was taken over by the FBI. The FBI came to see me long after Jo had left, several years, and it was huge [inaudible]. I said, “I don’t know. I have forgotten.” He was asking me. [Inaudible] Jo was not allowed to come back to the United States for about four years, five years. Then he was allowed to come back, so they cleared him too.

But still, to mistake me for a spy is somewhat ridiculous, isn’t it? Who has ever heard of a deaf Mata Hari, for heaven’s sake? Big joke, I thought. But I can understand, they were kind of suspicious.

Kelly: Did you know him in Liverpool? 

Bobbs: No, not really, except I had met him once or twice. Yes, a very, very wonderful lady, the wife of a professor at Liverpool University. She probably told her husband, “Look out for anybody that is interesting but unhappy.” She collected all sorts of interesting and unhappy people. So we both met briefly, but we didn’t really know each other. It wasn’t a friendship or anything. We just met a couple of times, maybe that’s all.

But then this wonderful lady, I wrote to her about everything. I said, “Well, I’m rather homesick. It is very nice here, but I’m homesick.” Jo had written to her that he’d just arrived in Santa Fe.  She wrote him and said, “Why don’t you get in touch with Elspeth, who is in Santa Fe?” and gave him my address.

He wrote to me and said, “I’d like to come and have a visit.” I wrote back and said, “Fine.” I don’t understand, really, how we got along, because he had a thick Polish accent.

Kelly: But you could understand him?

Bobbs: I managed. I don’t know how I managed, but I did. I did.

We got along very well, so he used to come on Saturdays. He said he came because Los Alamos had so many parties, with some drinking and parties, and he did not like that. He wanted to get away. He used to come most Saturdays. We would walk the dog, and I would make dinner sometimes, if he stayed late, but he had to get the bus back, of course.

He himself said he enjoyed my company because we had a lot to talk about. I learned a lot from him about Europe, and about literature, and music, and all the things that I did not have when I was young. So he wrote that “I feel very touched.” That was very nice of him.

Kelly: Tell me more about what he liked to talk about. Did he talk about things he was working on?

Bobbs: Never. Never mentioned work, and I didn’t want to know because I knew it was not really the right thing for him to fraternize. I never asked him about it, and so I knew nothing about it. And if anybody mentioned about atoms, I wouldn’t know what it was, anyway.

We would talk about Europe, and about things that he was interested in, because he hadn’t had a very good education. It was strictly science.

Kelly: Did he talk about his own feelings about working on the atomic bomb, or on the project?

Bobbs: I knew he wasn’t happy, I knew he was not happy then. I knew that he didn’t like the work. He was pretty unhappy about it. But I never inquired anymore on that, so I don’t know. I think he found out that Germany and Japan did not have the atom bomb, and were not likely to get it. So he did not want to go on with this work.

He told me that he was going to leave as soon as he can. He did leave pretty soon, before Christmas of ’44. I think his heart was not in it, far from it. The idea of this Los Alamos was really because they thought Germany might have the bomb, or had been working on it. They thought so. But then they found out that they hadn’t gotten very far really, if at all. 

He asked for permission to leave, and he got permission to leave, so no problem there. I think Sir James Chadwick was very nice in allowing him to go. I don’t know what the Americans thought, no idea. I think they were still suspicious. But that’s silly. That was Klaus Fuchs that was giving all the information to Russia.

Kelly: Klaus Fuchs, right. Was it a special friendship with Chadwick? Was he especially close to James Chadwick?

Bobbs: He got along with him very well.

Then Jo met Klaus Fuchs at a meeting of atomic scientists in East Berlin. He said, “That man had absolutely remorse whatever. He thought he did the right thing.” Jo was horrified.

He went into atomic medicine in England, and that was very good. And then he went to the—have you heard of Pugwash? You’ve heard of Pugwash? He was very active in that.

Kelly: Of course, he founded that. Can you tell us about why he decided to start the Pugwash conferences, named for the Pugwash, Nova Scotia?

Bobbs: Jo was very active in that. He was the last survivor, and that’s why he got the Nobel Peace Prize, which was very, very nice, and [inaudible] very happy about that.

There’s a Pugwash building, a place of work in London, and they have five tons of written material in the basements. They found some letters that Jo had written to me. But he was trying hard to write the right thing, so it was written in pencil to make sure he got it right. And I said, “Send them to me,” but they never did.

Kelly: Did you keep in touch with Jo after he left to go back to England in 1944? Did he write to you?

Bobbs: Yes, he did. But I did not keep the letters. They probably disappeared in my many moves. Then they kind of stopped coming. Then we went to live in London, and he came to play with the children when we were living in London, and established a very good friendship with my  daughter, my youngest daughter. Every time she was in England, she would go to see him, and they would have a lovely visit talking about this, that, and the other. Isn’t that nice?

Kelly: How nice. When did you live in London?

Bobbs: When was it? The day of the Suez crisis—’58, that was the time. It was a nice city to live in, but I didn’t like it.

Kelly: Where was Jo living then?

Bobbs: In London.

Kelly: In London, too.

Bobbs: He loved children. He loved to play with the children.

Connie Helms: Then he visited here again when he was older. Do you remember ,when he came back here?

Bobbs: Oh, that was quite late in the day. He was in Denver when the pope was there. He thought that was close enough, so he came visiting here.

Helms: Right, the two of them met. Jo met the pope. You have a picture of them.

Bobbs: That’s another pope.

Helms: A different pope.

Kelly: Were you there? Did you go to Denver?

Bobbs: I think he came to see me, but he wasn’t interested in Los Alamos. We took him there, drove him there, and I said, “Don’t you think you ought to go and see the important people?”

He said, “Oh, I think I’m persona non grata there.”

I said, “Oh, I don’t know.” But that’s what he thought. He thought he would be frowned upon.

Kelly: Jo thought he was persona non grata to the people at the laboratory, at Los Alamos National Laboratory?

Bobbs: There’s a place there that you can go if you want to, if you have connections. He could have gone in there, I suppose. But he decided against it.

Kelly: He decided not to?

Bobbs: No, he wasn’t happy there. I think he just liked to get away from the Saturday parties, because I guess all the  girls there thought he was a single. But he wasn’t, he was still married.

Kelly: I have read some accounts that talk about a missing suitcase, that Jo was leaving—I think he’d gotten to New York City to go on to London, to England. He had some personal letters and papers in a suitcase that disappeared. Do you know about that? Again, it’s just one account that kind of clouded his departure—what happened to the suitcase, and what was in it?

Bobbs: He tried very hard to find everything. But he thinks it was abstracted by whoever was doing the spying work, which I think is very, very, possible, because they suspected him, but quite without reason.

Kelly: Right. That caused more suspicion of him. But he thought that some spy had stolen it? Did he think that’s what happened?

Bobbs: Spies never confess that much. [Chuckles] If you [inaudible]. I think it’s certainly very possible they took it, very possible.

Kelly:  When did you see Jo last?

Bobbs: Well, he made two trips here. The last one I think was when the pope was in Denver. I can’t get any closer than that. So I got to say goodbye to him.

I’m very glad that he had a happy life, I think. But I asked him why he never remarried.

Kelly: He didn’t.

Bobbs: He said, “I just want to devote all my time to abolishing nuclear weapons. That takes my entire time. I can’t offer anybody the help of a husband.” [Inaudible]

Helms: You thought he should remarry?

Bobbs: I did know you can’t spend all your time on just one thing. But anyway, he seemed happy. He had his friends, he had his nieces. Some of his family survived, but his wife didn’t. They traced—the Germans kept records.

I think he had a happy life.

Helms You think that after Los Alamos, he was happy?

Bobbs: I had no idea, really. But I think he was happy leaving.

Helms: He was happy leaving, for sure.

Bobbs: I think when he worked at the hospital in England, yes, I think he was happy. He was happier for having left. I think he gradually got happier and happier. Sheila always saw him when she was in England. She said he was happy now, and he’s got lots of friends as well.

Kelly: Sheila was someone he was close to? Who is Sheila?

Helms: Sheila is her daughter who met him in England, that she was telling you about.

Kelly: Oh, your daughter.

Helms: Yeah, Elspeth’s daughter. They formed a friendship there.

Kelly: That’s nice.

Helms: You told me once that the communication with Jo later was more difficult in person, because he talked very fast and with a Polish accent.

Bobbs: With a thick Polish accent, very difficult.

Helms: But you had some nice, long letters between you at one point.

Bobbs: Yes, they didn’t have computers them. No computers. Computers are wonderful for communication. Wonderful.

He was a good man. I’m glad he had a long life.

Bobbs: It was strange, he just got out of Poland at the right time. Had he stayed a day or two longer, it would have been too late. He said he was born either during or shortly after the First World War, and he could remember living on frozen potatoes. They had a very hard time in Poland. Between Germany and Russia, not an easy place to be. 

He never went back. I don’t think he had happy memories of Poland at all. I think he was happy in England. He seemed to be. He was knighted by the Queen, wow. I think of that, a Nobel Peace Prize, and knighted by the Queen, for a poor boy in Poland who lived on frozen potatoes. Brains get you a long way.

I told the story then, I bought a house in Santa Fe, I bought a small adobe house. I paid $3000 for it. A long time ago. That was when Jo was here. The [inaudible] kicked me out, I think because I asked her to take pictures of us together. They come from a set that said, “This can’t be right.”

So I bought this house, and Jo fixed up a light system for me. If you opened the screen doors and knocked on the doors, a system of lights went on in the kitchen, so I knew if somebody was at the door. I thought, “That’s having a Los Alamos scientist fixed up a light system for me.” That was nice of him.

Kelly: Very nice. That’s great.

Bobbs: Very nice. We did not stay long in that house, so I wonder what happened to the system. We took it down, I should think. But that was very nice of him to do that.

I think he liked me. I think I was kind of a refuge when he wasn’t happy at Los Alamos. I followed his career with his career with great admiration. He worked very hard for it. [Inaudible]

Kelly: Wow. That’s great. You’ve done a beautiful job. This is a long time ago.

Bobbs: A long time ago. I was twenty-four. Jo was considerably older. I didn’t think he was good-looking. I did not think he was good-looking. He had an [inaudible] face. But then in December, we played throwing snowballs at each other outside, throwing snowballs. I saw his face from a different angle—he was down and looking up, and I thought, “Wow, he’s really quite good-looking.” I think it was a very good thing he left when he did. Interesting how one’s life works out. That was a very small chapter, but it’s a nice one to think about.

Kelly: Yeah, very nice. When did you meet your husband?

Bobbs: Probably the year—August, the year when war with Japan came to an end. It must have been September or October of ’45. His parents brought him over. He’d come back from the war, from working at Howard Hughes Aircraft. That’s how I met him, a very unhappy man. Very unhappy. In our family, we seemed to tend to like people who were unhappy, we want to cheer them up. We feel it’s our mission in life to cheer people up. I said, “Boy, I’ve never seen anybody look so unhappy.” So I cheered him up.

Kelly: I guess so. You had three miracle baby girls. That would cheer anyone up.

Bobbs: Nice to think about. Yes, I did cheer him up. I’m pretty sure I did. Certainly, he didn’t look as miserable as he did when he came back from Howard Hughes Aircraft.

Kelly: Did you live in San Francisco? Did you move to San Francisco?

Bobbs: Carmel. My parents lived in Carmel. We lived here, and I was very happy here, and I had a bookshop. The trouble is the education. When our oldest girl got to middle school, the education was very very, very poor here. There was no choice. When Santa Fe Prep started not too long after, it was too late. So we decided to move to Carmel until the girls were of high school age, and to educate them there. Now I think, “Hell, no. I should have stayed here. I was much happier here.” But still, you do for your children what you think would be the best for them.

When they about out of high school, I said, “Are we going back to Santa Fe?”

But my husband said, “Well, I’m happy here. I have friends here.”

I said, “Well, it doesn’t inspire you to paint here, [inaudible], time go back to Santa Fe. But I’m going, you can come if you want.” So, of course, he came. We found this great place. I was happy here. That worked out well.

Kelly: You bought this property. What did you call this property?

Bobbs: La Querencia. A nice name.

Kelly: What does that mean?

Bobbs: It means Beloved Place, or it can a place where a bull when it’s being attacked, it goes to one place and stays there. That’s its Querencia, and it says, “You’ll have to come and get me, I’m not moving.” It worked out very well for us, and he started painting again. Plenty of inspiration here. I feel very happy here.

Kelly: When did you become a gardener? When did you start building these beautiful gardens?

Helms: Well, when you bought it, it was just the main house, right?

Bobbs: Well, it had a garage, it had a storeroom, it had a greenhouse, [inaudible], and that was it. My husband had a lot of inspiration. He was one of those people who wanted to do things, he wanted to do things.

We were very happy here. He was happy, and I am happy. It’s just a nice place. I didn’t start doing much gardening until after he died. I just did the necessary things, but I didn’t really start—and then it was hard to stop.  

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