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Researching Women’s History by Henrietta Heald

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Henrietta Heald

Henrietta Heald

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My dear – for sheer exciting experience, give me a town to light – 70-miles-an-hour belts and 320 Volts on the board with a well-soaked cement floor – and then remember you are the responsible engineer for the whole lot, and there isn’t another soul within 20 miles who understands the switchboard!!!’ So wrote Margaret Partridge in a letter of 1926 to her friend Caroline Haslett, capturing the thrill of installing the first domestic electricity supply in the county of Devon.

This letter and hundreds like it bring alive the exploits of female engineers in the early 20th century, when not only was it frowned upon for women to get involved in the dirty stuff – ‘… it is not right for a young girl to be out late at night without a chaperone – specially not at power stations!’ – but also a law was passed to prevent women working in industry.

It was opposition to this law, the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act, that energised the individuals who founded the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) in 1919. Their correspondence, along with transcripts of speeches and minutes of meetings, is held at the archives of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) in London – a resource that was invaluable to me in writing Magnificent Women and Their Revolutionary Machines,* a book celebrating the centenary of WES, the first professional organisation in the world dedicated to the campaign for women’s rights.

A big challenge in researching women’s history is that so little has been written and published from direct experience. The deeds of men in the public eye are recorded and analysed in books, newspaper articles, obituaries, broadcast media, as well as primary sources – but only rarely have women been given such treatment. That is why personal correspondence, diaries and specialist archives are so indispensable to historians.

The founding president of WES was Rachel Parsons, who in 1910 became the first female student of mechanical sciences at Cambridge University. She was the daughter of Charles Parsons, inventor of the compound steam turbine, and a granddaughter of the Irish astronomer William Parsons, third earl of Rosse; her eminent antecedents, though less well known today, were heroes of their age, and much was written by and about them.

Rachel went on to be a director of a large industrial concern on the Tyne and to train women all over Britain for munitions work; she was elected to the Greater London Council and stood for Parliament in 1923, when there were only two female MPs. In 1956 she was brutally murdered by a stableman in Newmarket; the newspapers covered the crime in lurid detail – but none considered Rachel deserving of an obituary. The executors at Barclays Bank regarded her personal papers as of such little worth that they had them burnt.

Fortunately, Rachel had written articles for various periodicals and given speeches calling for equal treatment of the sexes, and these have survived. One repository of information about her is the archive at Birr Castle, Co. Offaly, which holds the records of the Parsons family covering more than four centuries. There are also passing references to her at Tyne and Wear Archives in Newcastle, where Charles Parsons set up factories to manufacture steam turbines for use in marine propulsion and electricity generation.

The most fruitful source of information about female engineers from history is Woman Engineer magazine, published regularly without a break since its foundation in 1919 by Caroline Haslett, its first editor, and now available in digital form on the IET website. Among Caroline’s towering achievements was the creation in 1924 of the Electrical Association for Women, whose mission was to relieve women from domestic drudgery by electrification of the home; its history is chronicled in Electrical Age, also edited by Caroline Haslett.

Another potential source when writing about women from history, especially more recent history, is the testimony of descendants – but, in the case of many prominent female engineers, descendants are scarce or non-existent. This is simply because those trailblazers who founded the engineering society a century ago were obliged to flout the conventional behaviour expected of women. Few of them married, and even fewer had children; some of them flourished in same-sex relationships.

One of my joys in researching Magnificent Women was to make contact with those few descendants who could be found, among them a granddaughter of Laurie Annie Willson, who in 1888 began work – aged 10 – in a Halifax textile mill. Denounced as a ‘troublemaker’ during the weavers’ strikes, Laura Annie was arrested several times for suffragette activities. During the Great War, she and her husband adapted their machine-tool factory in Halifax to become a munitions facility, with a largely female workforce. She set up works canteens so that her employees did not have to starve themselves in order to feed their children.

Laura Annie’s granddaughter, Jo, told me with pride that, in 1917, her grandmother was awarded an MBE in recognition of her wartime work – one of the first cohort to receive an Order of the British Empire. She went on to build hundreds of high-quality homes for working people, describing house-building as ‘a form of engineering of the domestic kind’. From 1926 to 1928, she served as president of the Women’s Engineering Society.

(c) Henrietta Heald

Magnificent Women and Their Revolutionary Machines by Henrietta Heald is published by Unbound.

About Magnificent Women and Their Revolutionary Machines:

‘Women have won their political independence. Now is the time for them to achieve their economic freedom too.’

This was the great rallying cry of the pioneers who, in 1919, created the Women’s Engineering Society. Spearheaded by Katharine and Rachel Parsons, a powerful mother and daughter duo, and Caroline Haslett, whose mission was to liberate women from domestic drudgery, it was the world’s first professional organisation dedicated to the campaign for women’s rights.

Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines tells the stories of the women at the heart of this group – from their success in fanning the flames of a social revolution to their significant achievements in engineering and technology. It centres on the parallel but contrasting lives of the two main protagonists, Rachel Parsons and Caroline Haslett – one born to privilege and riches whose life ended in dramatic tragedy; the other who rose from humble roots to become the leading professional woman of her age and mistress of the thrilling new power of the twentieth century: electricity.

In this fascinating book, acclaimed biographer Henrietta Heald also illuminates the era in which the society was
founded. From the moment when women in Britain were allowed to vote for the first time, and to stand for Parliament, she charts the changing attitudes to women’s rights both in society and in the workplace.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Henrietta Heald is the author of Magnificent Women and Their Revolutionary Machines – the gripping story of Britain’s trailblazing, boundary-breaking first female engineers, marking the centenary of the Women’s Engineering Society.

Magician of the North, Henrietta’s biography of the great Victorian engineer and industrialist William Armstrong, was shortlisted for the H. W. Fisher Best First Biography Prize and the Portico Prize for non-fiction. She has also written a National Trust guide to Cragside, Northumberland.

Among her other books are Coastal Living, La Vie Est Belle, and Amazing and Extraordinary Facts about Jane Austen.

A graduate of Durham University, Henrietta had a long and successful career in book publishing before taking up the pen herself. She was chief editor of the historical encyclopedia Chronicle of Britain and Ireland and has edited and project-managed books on architecture, interiors and the British countryside, including Illustrated Guide to Britain’s Coast and Country Walks and Scenic Drives, both published by Reader’s Digest. Among her publishing triumphs was the first British edition of The Periodic Table by Primo Levi.

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