Learning more from the archives: the Register of Women Engineers, 1935

Dr Emily Rees

The copy of the register held at the IET Archives

Tracing the history of women in engineering can be challenging; often women’s work is undocumented or disguised. As Elizabeth Bruton’s previous blog post discussed, material held in archives such as the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) is invaluable to researching the long history of women in engineering. In this blog, I will focus on a small, but incredible revealing, source from the IET archives: the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) Register of Women Engineers, published in the Autumn of 1935. 

Though the foreword to the register recognises the incompleteness of the record, it is an important resource for researching the careers of women in engineering in the interwar period. Interestingly, this was not a regular WES publication and we aren’t entirely sure why it was produced in 1935. At first glance the booklet appears as merely a register, listing names, qualifications, place of work, hobbies and contact details, but if we look more closely at the information the women provide, we can learn large amounts about the various pathways that women took in the early twentieth century and the wide-ranging careers they had in the field of engineering. What’s more, we get a small glimpse into the personalities and passions of these women, providing us with a sense of who these women were and what engineering meant to them. 

On the subject of education, the register brings to light the different ways in which the women entered into engineering-related jobs. Some of the women have bachelor’s degrees (though not all of these are in engineering) and a few entries list postgraduate qualifications, including a PhD holder. The universities listed include UCL, Cambridge and Birmingham, while for entries from women who qualified in the United States, Columbia is listed more than once, as is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The register shows that a more common route into engineering-based professions was through attending college. Several entries mention college courses of some kind, including evening courses and correspondence ones. Both the College of Technology in Manchester and the Royal Technical College in Glasgow appear in more than one entry. 

Inside the register

These more ‘formal’ routes are by no means the only ways in which the women in the register made their way into engineering, other entries speak of teaching qualifications in related subjects, while several women, who mostly left formal education after school, describe their education in terms of apprenticeships or learning on the job. A few entries make reference to war-time work such as working in factories or driving ambulances as part of their formative educational experiences. These varied pathways into engineering help us to see that there were different opportunities for women to access education and training, whether through more traditional academic routes, or more practice-based methods, which may have allowed a range of women, from various backgrounds, to find work in the field.  

We find something similar when we look at the variety of work experience and roles that are listed in the entries. If the women’s educations were a smorgasbord of pathways, the various roles they filled is no different: there are reports of work as teachers, draughtsman, researchers, assistants, secretaries, consultants, and writers. Again, we find certain locations reoccurring, especially where there were companies that we know hired large amounts of women, such as Ferranti in Manchester and Galloway in Kirkcudbright. 

Through this we also discover the wide range of engineering areas that the women were specializing in, there are references to women working in electrical, aeronautical, chemical, mechanical, naval and metallurgical engineering. Women’s work in engineering was not concentrated in any one specialty or job type; they were working across fields, with varied educational backgrounds, in a range of roles. 

Furthermore, the nationalities and places of work of the women is another factor with large variables. Not only are there examples from across the United Kingdom, there are several entries from the United States, including Lillian Gilbreth, who famously fought for the improvement of women’s domestic lives using her training in psychology and domestic sciences. There are two entries from women educated and working in Germany and one in Australia. Under the contact details, we find that some of the women, though educated in Britain, live as far afield as Palestine, Egypt, and New Zealand. It reminds us that WES’s membership was truly international, due to it being the first engineering society for women in the world. 

Beyond their working lives, we are given a small insight into the women’s leisure pursuits, as their hobbies and interests are listed. The women’s interest in engineering often spills over into their private time. A more eccentric answer comes from a Mrs Cecil Roland McKenzie who states her hobbies as: radio experiments, microscopical work, and tropical fish hatchery. More frequently, driving or motoring appears in the list, with flying coming up a few times. A common theme across the leisure pursuits is the abundance of outdoor, energetic activities, including sailing, skiing, team sports, riding and, for a few, fishing and hunting. Going against the stereotypical image of the domesticated housewife, the list suggests a group of women living fast-paced dynamic lives, beyond the confines of domestic drudgery (which leading WES member Caroline Haslett was so keen to relieve women from). 

Though, on the surface level, only a functional document, the register gives us an indication of the professional pride that these women took in their work, which is evident in the way they share their professional achievements, including patents, memberships, and writing. To cite only two, Margaret Rowbotham (one of WES’s founding members) states that she was one of the first six women motorcyclists and Mary Miller writes that she was came sixth in a class of fifty in Advanced Mechanics and that she was ‘the only girl.’ These examples show women who are proud to have been pioneering in some way and to have broken through barriers. 

There are too many achievements to list here, but reading the entries highlights the vast range of activities these women had done, from the technical to the literary, and, in this way, the registers acts not just as a directory of women in engineering but as a celebration of them too. In more practical terms, it allows us to see which WES members were practising engineers and those which were involved with engineering in more peripheral ways, but still found a home within WES.

If you are interested in exploring the stories of women in engineering in a creative fashion, we will be holding creative writing workshops, the first of which will be at Armley Mills Industrial Museum in Leeds on the 15th September, book here.

History of women in engineering at the IET Archives

Dr Elizabeth Bruton

For anyone looking into the history of women in British engineering, the archive of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) from its foundation is an essential resource. This is held by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) Archives at Savoy Place in London which hosts material relating to the IET and its predecessors and the history of engineering and technology more generally. The IET’s broader holdings can thus help us map the changing opportunities for women in a range of technical professions since the early twentieth century.

As discussed in Graeme Gooday’s earlier blog post, the Women’s Engineering Society was founded in June 1919 by seven women including Lady Katharine Parsons and her daughter Rachel. Owing to their collaborative engineering expertise it was not just Charles Parsons who helped make this Anglo-Irish family eminent in maritime engineering and especially steam turbine power.

 Parsons’ steam turbine generator, 1884. Science Museum Collections.

This follow-up blog post offers a guide to the documentation on women in engineering such as Lady Parsons held at the IET Archives and how to search for it more generally via its online catalogue.

Women’s Engineering Society

It you search the IET Archives online catalogue for ‘Women’s Engineering Society’ no fewer than eighty four search terms come up. These cover material back to the months prior to WES’s founding, but mostly including WES minutes, financial records, membership records, correspondence, conferences programme, press coverage, photographs, paper copies of (the recently digitized) The Woman Engineer, plus information on films and special series.  

Lady Parsons 

A search for ‘Lady Parsons’ brings two items up, the first being a file of correspondence from 1919 to 1923. Almost all of this is a series of letters by WES’s first Secretary Caroline Haslett in which you can see how Haslett worked to recruit early members to WES and also how far Lady Parsons personally supported the Society’s precarious finances. 

The second item is an important lecture delivered by her in July 1919, a month after WES’s founding. ‘Women’s Work in Engineering and Shipbuilding during the War’ was delivered by Lady Parsons at the First World War Victory Meeting in Newcastle upon Tyne. This speech has been transcribed by WES’s Magnificent Women project and is available online here. In her conclusion, Parsons pleaded for women active in engineering during the Great War not to be forced out of the profession and replaced by male combatants who would be returning to it under the ‘Restoration of Pre-War practices Act’.

Electrical Association for Women

Caroline Haslett when she became director of EAW, c. 1925. Held in IET Archives.

The IET archives also holds fifty three items in the collections of the Electrical Association for Women. Founded initially as the Women’s Electrical Association it soon changed its name to avoid confusion with the Workers’ Education Association. Its origins lie in a WES meeting in November 1924 at which some WES members aimed to increase domestic usage of electrical technology by targeting training of women at home. The papers runs up to the closure of the EAW in 1986 

Caroline Haslett, as first WES Secretary and an early and influential member of the society, was Director of the EAW from 1924 to 1956, acquiring the title of Dame Caroline in recognition of her labours.  

Papers of Dame Caroline Haslett

Complementary to the papers of the Electrical Association for Women (EAW) are the papers of Dame Caroline Haslett. These reflect her intense professional involvement, not only in the EAW, but also in the British and International Federations of Business and Professional Women, and much else besides. Haslett was especially keen to both promote electricity in the home, especially to women, and for women to be better educated on the science underpinning domestic electricity and technology.

Women’s Engineering Society – Papers collected by Mrs Isabel Hardwich

The collection by electrical engineer and photometry expert Isabel Hardwich includes photographs of women engineers at the Metropolitan Vickers/AEI publicity department, where Hardwich had worked since graduating from Cambridge in 1941, initially as a post-graduate apprentice. In the same year, Hardwich had joined WES and was clearly an active WES member until she retired in 1979.

Although small in number, the collection is a rich selection of early pamphlets on women in engineering, a large number of surveys and reports on the engineering industry and the position of women in it, and articles and cuttings form professional journals and daily newspapers.  The material is both national (British) and international in scope, showing increasing opportunities for women in engineering around the world.

The International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists (ICWES)

Lastly the IET Archives holds much printed material from ICWES conferences.  This material was donated mostly by Dr Elizabeth Laverick FIEE (who also donated the WES archive collection), chair of the ninth ICWES. Some was passed to her by Isabel Hardwich who had represented WES at the early conferences and acted as Honorary Secretary of the Second Conference in 1967.

The first ICWES meeting held in New York in June 1964 was organised by the Society of Women Engineers – the US counterpart to WES, founded in 1949. Well-attended by delegates from many disciplines from across the world, the ICWES soon became a regular event, being held in a different country every three or four years.

What can you do?

Through such extensive holdings in the IET Archives on the history of women in engineering, there is much scope to develop a fuller story of the diverse and evolving opportunities – institutions, conferences, and networks – for women in the field.  There is much still to learn about the history and contribution of women to engineering!

If you want to visit see here for further details about the IET archives, to search their catalogue or to book a visit – contact details are here.

For a more general introduction to using archive material for learning about women in engineering, we are holding a free archives taster session at The Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery, University of Leeds on the 17th September, 4-6pm, book here.

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.

@Showofstrength @LSELibrary @WESCentenary Not yet but this is definitely something we are looking into!

RT @WESCentenary: @WES1919 @thegentleauthor @SavetheWbf The Woman Engineer, Journal of @WES1919 has been published quarterly since 19… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…

After the success of our first #electrifyingwomen creative writing workshop yesterday at Armley Mills, we are thril… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…