top of page

The origins - Why Wormley?

In the darkest days of WWII a group of far-sighted individuals planned the establishment of a multi-disciplinary research institute.  It would be formed from two existing groups.  The scientists of the Discovery Investigations based at the Natural History Museum in London  had studied the ecology of whales and related ocean biology and physical oceanography in the Southern Ocean.  Group W of the Admiralty Research Laboratory at Teddington had been studying surface waves with a view to improving the prediction of wave conditions for amphibious landings.  It would be called the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO). Though NIO was established in 1949 it was not until 1953 that it moved to its new home in an ex-Admiralty building in the village of Witley southwest of London.  Though the village (and the local railway station) was called Witley, the lab was in a small  hamlet called Wormley.  To the scientists who worked there it was known as the Wormley lab.    

NIO building late 1950s.png

The ex-Admiralty building soon after it became the home of NIO

There has been some research done, and information has come to light, about the Wormley site during WWII.   Two articles have been written. One, by John Gould describes  some aspects of the work that was done there on the development of naval radar and also talks about some famous scientists who worked there at that time.  The second, by Gwyn Griffiths, describes the workshop facilities during WWII.  The tradition of technological excellence carried forward into the NIO era.  


NIO 7245 Group W.jpg

Some of the Group W scientists photographed at ARL Teddington in the early 1950s just before their move to Wormley.

L-R Back Row: Norman Smith, Frank Pierce, Cyrl Williams, Rick Hubbard, D.W. “Dick” Privett, Lawrence Baxter. (Note Frank Pierce was absent and his photo was added to an unknown body).Front Row: Jim Crease, M.J. “Tom” Tucker, Henry Charnock, George Deacon, Ken Bowden, Jack Darbyshire.

The new National Institute of Oceanography, came into being on April 1st 1949 and gained its Royal Charter on 9 October 1950.  Its Director was Dr George Deacon, FRS a chemist who had worked on the Discovery Investigations and had been leader of Group W.

The selection of a new permanent home for the NIO considered a number of locations: alongside the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth, in Liverpool at the Tidal Institute, at Hythe on Southampton Water and a redundant Admiralty building in the grounds of King Edward’s School, Witley, that from September 1941, had housed part of the Admiralty Signals Establishment (ASE).  It was this latter site in Wormley, Surrey that was selected.   It had the advantage of already being a research laboratory and was close to Witley Station on the Portsmouth to Waterloo railway line.

The NIO scientists started to occupy site in Surrey in early 1953.  They were employees of the Royal Naval Scientific Service (RNSS) and were given the responsibility of running, and programming of the Royal Research Ships Discovery II and William Scoresby (the latter up to 1953).  At Deacon’s insistence, the NIO was to be multi-disciplinary covering physical, chemical and biological oceanography as well as geology and geophysics.

The original facilities

On the left is the staff list about the time of the move to Wormley.

On the right, from the same annual report, are photographs of two of the laboratories

RRS Discovery II.jpg

When NIO was established the scientists had access to the Royal Research Ship Discovery II based in Plymouth.  She had been launched in 1928 and had previously been used primarily for the Discovery Investigations study  of the ecology and oceanography of the Southern Oceans.

The institute's growth and evolution.

Over the years the staff numbers increased and in 1966 a second block was added to the original building. It housed a new library, conference room, administrative offices, a large warehouse with archives in its basement and on the ground floor a wave/towing tank.  Later the original building had an additional floor built on the roof and huts were added in the grounds for additional office space.  These elements can all be seen in the aerial photograph at the head of this site's home page taken in the 1980s.

Numerous organisational changes occurred following the transfer of NIO from the Royal Naval Scientific Service (RNSS) to the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) in 1966.  In 1973 the NIO  became the Institute of Oceanographic Sciences following an amalgamation with two other NERC Institutes: the Institute of Coastal Oceanography and Tides at Bidston on the Wirral and the Unit of Coastal Sedimentation in Taunton.  


In the 1980s there was a major change in the funding of science  following the 1971 publication of the Rothschild report, "The Organisation and Management of Government R&D". The Institute had to obtain a significant part of its funding from government departments and other external sources.

Two books document the development of the Institute at Wormley. A full description of the NIO between its foundation and 1973 is in “Of Seas and Ships and Scientists-the remarkable history of the UK’s National Institute of Oceanography” published in 2010 by Lutterworth Press. This book was written by NIO/IOS scientists.  A more recent book "Ocean Science and the British Cold War State" by an historian gives an insight into the process of establishing NIO and the interplay of personalities involved. An assessment of this book from an NIO/IOS perspective can be found in a review by Tony Rice.

Among these new sources, the Institute of Oceanographic Sciences secured a major contract for research into the feasibility of the disposal of high level radioactive waste in the deep ocean.  The staff increase associated with this led to the purchase and occupation of a former poor law institution at Hambledon.  The Institute also secured a contract from the US Geological Survey to survey the 13 million km2 US Exclusive Economic Zone using the Institute’s GLORIA towed side scan sonar (1984-1991).

In 1985, the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, with Henry Charnock as one of its advisors, called for stronger collaboration between Southampton University and IOS and this led to planning a joint venture between NERC and the University bringing together IOS the Research Vessel Services at Barry and Southampton University’s Departments of Oceanography and Geology.


Much of the drive for the move came from John  Woods who from 1986 to 1994 was Director of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences for NERC and had earlier held the Chair of Physical Oceanography at Southampton University.  The IOS was assimilated into the new Southampton Oceanography Centre which opened 1995.

Sam Robinson book cover.jpg


1949     NIO founded Apr 1st.  Dr George Deacon FRS appointed Director.
1953     Staff move into Wormley building in February.
1963     Whale Research Unit moves to Natural History Museum
1965     Natural Environment Research Council created and becomes
            NIO's governing body
1966     New block of building opens
1971     Deacon retires as Director, succeeded by Henry Charnock
1973     NIO absorbed into the Institute of Oceanographic Sciences
1978     Henry Charnock resigns as Director succeeded by Tony Laughton.
1979     Research on radioactive waste disposal starts
1982     Visit by Duke of Edinburgh May 20
1985     UCS Taunton closes, some staff relocate to Wormley and Bidston.
1987     IOS Wormley and Bidston labs separate. 
            Wormley lab becomes IOS Deacon Laboratory.
1988      Laughton retires as Director – succeeded by Colin Summerhayes.
1990      Offshoot of Marine Physics group established in Southampton as
             James Rennell Centre.
1995     Wormley lab closes Sept 23rd

Top. Former Director Sir Anthony Laughton  lowers the flag at Wormley (assisted by David Webb). Below. The new Oceanography Centre  site at Empress Dock in `Southampton.

bottom of page