Who launched the Women’s Engineering Society in 1919?

Professor Graeme Gooday

The Women’s Engineering Society (WES) is currently marking a major anniversary, founded on June 23rd 1919. Since then it has supported women working independently as engineers for 100 years, both in Britain and around the world. But what was it that brought the Society together in the first place? 

The First World War of 1914-18 certainly created many opportunities for women to develop and demonstrate skills in engineering. That is how Caroline Haslett and Margaret Partridge first became engineers in adulthood and soon became leading lights in WES. Yet if we look at WES records, the Society’s founding clearly involved women from an earlier generation.  

WES’s Memorandum of Association of June 1919 was in fact signed by seven women raised in the Victorian era. Rather than being independent professionals, they encountered engineering through a family business or by having the wealth and leisure to try out new technologies. The whole range of social class can be found among them, from landed title-holders to former mill-workers.

Details of how these women came together to sign WES’s founding document are still to be uncovered in the Society’s archives at the Institution of Engineering and Technology. But we can glimpse something of their lives and motivations by material written in the Woman Engineer, WES’s house journal, which is now digitized for searching back to 1919.

First listed in the Memorandum is Lady Eleanor Shelley-Rolls of Monmouth (Trefynwy) in Wales. Like her brother Charles Rolls (of Rolls-Royce fame) she was an enthusiast for automobiles but also other exciting new means of transport. With her spouse Sir John Shelley-Rolls, she revelled not only in hot air ballooning but experimented with aeroplanes before the First World War made aeronautical adventures more routine. 

Lady Katharine Parsons came into engineering as spouse of the Hon. Charles Parsons. From the 1880s, the Parsons family played a major part in the Tyneside engineering industry. Katharine was clearly Charles’ close collaborator in inventing the steam turbine that transformed power generation on land and at sea. In 1919 she was the first woman to be made an Honorary Fellow of the North-East Coast Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders, recognising thereby her distinctive personal contribution.

Briefly a student of Mechanical Sciences at Cambridge University, Rachel Parsons was more educated in engineering than her parents, Katharine and Charles. When the First World War broke out, like her mother, Rachel recruited and trained women to munitions factory work. Faced with legislation in 1919 which obliged women to cede work to men returning from war, the Parsons promoted WES’s founding, Rachel being its first President.

Rachel Parsons

Margaret Rowbotham also studied at Cambridge before World War 1, taking her mathematics training initially into private school teaching in England and Canada. Her practical mechanical aspirations, however, led her to qualify as a car motor engineer in 1913.  Margaret returned home to pursue engineering in support of the war, becoming a superintendent at the Galloway Car Company in Scotland. She had a varied career thereafter, serving on the WES Council continuously until 1944.

As a self-styled ‘engineer-by-marriage’ Lady Margaret Moir worked closely with her civil engineer spouse, Sir Ernest Moir. They engaged jointly in various large-scale construction enterprises on London’s tunnel systems and further afield in Chile and China. During the First World War she helped to organise women’s munitions work and undertook extensive relief work for lathe operators. In WES’s early years Lady Moir was one of the philanthropic benefactors that helped maintain its solvency.

Lady Margaret Moir

Unlike the other WES founders, Laura Annie Willson started life without privilege, wealth, or education.  Starting as a textile worker in Halifax, West Yorkshire she engaged in suffragette protests while co-managing an engineering business with spouse George Willson. In the First World War she introduced key measures to support the dietary welfare of women factory workers, for which she was awarded an MBE. Latterly Laura Annie developed her own building construction business.

In Henrietta Heald’s forthcoming book Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines we learn much more about the Parsons family and the broader background to WES’s founding in women’s political movements and the First World War. Not only do we see there a vivid evocation of the June 1919 meeting chaired by Lady Parson, but we also glimpse the least-known of WES’s founders: Janetta Mary Ornsby of Newcastle-on-Tyne. She was spouse of mining engineer Robert Ornsby, and likely an associate of Lady Parsons.

Even so, there is more still that we need to learn about the founders of WES and how they came together in the first place. This might explored by searching the WES archives at the Institution of Engineering and Technology in London, and any remaining personal papers that can be traced for these women. All of their Wikipedia pages can be augmented considerably by such research and use of the digitized online WES journal The Woman Engineer, especially for Lady Parsons whose page remains a mere stub at present.  

One major opportunity to rectify these gaps, and to explore what brought all of these women together to found WES in 1919 is The Electrifying Women Wikithon at the LSE Women’s Library in London on Saturday 21st September. Sign up here at Eventbrite to take part.

Other wikithons are planned if you can’t make that one!

Introducing electrifying women: the long history of women in engineering

Dr Emily Rees

On the 23rdJune 1919 seven eminent and wealthy women in Britain did something extraordinary and unprecedented; they founded the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), the first society of its kind in the world. One hundred years later, in its centenary year, having been sustained by various talented and persevering women, WES continues to promote and support women engineers.

Yet, despite Britain’s pioneering history of women engineers, today only 12% of engineers in Britain are women, the lowest proportion in Europe. This is one of several reasons why WES and the AHRC Electrifying Women project are working together to promote the historical role that women have played in engineering, feeding into WES’s aim to celebrate past, present and future women engineers. With a renewed historical understanding of women’s very long past role in engineering, we hope to normalise the idea of women in engineering. 

Hertha Ayrton is one of the relatively more well-known examples, in part due to the fact she was, in 1899, the first woman to be elected a member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. Many more women remain unknown. Part of the problem with uncovering women in engineering is that their history has been erased or very well hidden.

One reason for this is that women’s role in engineering, especially before World War One (1914-1918) was familial, either through the parental family or marriage. Alice Gordon, for example, played a pivotal role in the domestication of electricity in the 1880s, alongside her husband. She published books on the subject, including Decorative Electricity (1891), and wrote of her ‘personal experiences’ as an engineers’ wife, showing her expertise about the engineering processes.

Lady Katharine Parsons, one of the founding members of WES, similarly became engaged in engineering through her husband, Sir Charles Parsons. Their daughter Rachel Parsons went onto study Mechanical Sciences at Girton College, Cambridge. Women’s role in engineering, therefore, was often collaborative rather than individual, and it is through examining collegiate ways of working that we can find the role played by various contributors, rather than just focusing on a lone (male) ‘genius’. 

Lady Katharine Parsons

Crucially, the stories of women like Alice Gordon and Lady Katharine Parsons tell us that women have a history that pre-dates the founding of WES in 1919. Women were active in engineering in the late Victorian era, normally through some kind of family connection. Often these women had links of some kind with the suffrage movement, a connection that can bear further research. However, it is likely that this history extends further back than this; a census from 1841 lists over 100 women working in engineering roles of some kind, an aspect of women’s history in engineering that also needs further investigation. 

The founding of WES in 1919 was, however, no coincidence. World War One provided unparalleled opportunities for women to work in roles normally populated almost exclusively by men, such as engineering. Once the war ended, women at first had reason to be optimistic: the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act allowed women to join professions for the first time. However, the 1919 Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act forced women to leave their jobs to give way to the men returning from war. As a result of this, one of WES’s founding aims was to ensure that women’s newfound role in engineering was not lost.

Between World War One and World War Two, there are innumerable stories of the work of women in engineering, supporting each other, collaborating internationally, and contributing to inventions that have shaped the modern world. This is a story that needs to be told to destroy the myth that women do not have a place in engineering, because they have had a rich, varied, though often disguised, role within it. 

Elizabeth Bruton, Curator of Technology and Engineering at the Science Museum, speaking at the Women in Engineering event. This event was hosted by the Science Museum.

The project team at Electrifying Women – Dr Emily Rees (University of Leeds), Dr Elizabeth Bruton (Science Museum) and Professor Graeme Gooday (University of Leeds) – want to disseminate the story of women engineers to as wide an audience as possible, as well as continuing to research the many endeavours of women engineers. For this, we are seeking to collaborate as much as possible. This blog is a space for us to share our research, but we also welcome guest blogs, so if you have any ideas about this or any other aspect of the project please contact us at electrifyingwomen@gmail.com

Further reading:

Bruton, Elizabeth (2018). “The life and material culture of Hertha Ayrton”Science Museum Group Journal10 (10).

Gooday, Graeme (2008). Domesticating Electricity: Technology, Uncertainty, and Gender, 1880-1914, London: Pickering & Chatto.

Gordon, Alice (1891) Decorative Electricity,  London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington.