A forgotten feminist pioneer: the story of Rachel Parsons

by Henrietta Heald

Rachel Parsons in 1923 (wikicommons/public domain)

Rachel Parsons (1885–1956), the founding president of the Women’s Engineering Society, was an archetypal ‘difficult woman’ who has been seriously misunderstood. Indeed, during more than half a century, she was better known for her death than for her life, after succumbing in 1956 to a violent attack by 25-year-old Dennis Pratt, a former employee at her Newmarket racing stable.

The killing made front-page headlines, not only on account of the lurid circumstances, but also because, at the time, Rachel was one of the richest people in Britain, having inherited an engineering fortune from her parents, Sir Charles and Lady Parsons. At Pratt’s trial, she was portrayed as an eccentric recluse who had wantonly neglected her fine possessions and ill-treated her staff. It was an image that stuck.

However, examined in more enlightened times, the story of Rachel Parsons can be seen as a tragedy, and the aftermath of her death as a stark example of victim-blaming.

Charles Parsons, Rachel’s father, had won global fame in the 1890s for his invention and manufacture of the compound steam turbine, which revolutionised the propulsion of ships and would make possible the generation of electricity on a vast scale.

As the son of William Parsons, 3rd earl of Rosse, a president of the Royal Society, Charles had grown up in a world of intense scientific enquiry and experimentation. It was an upbringing that he sought to replicate with his own children, Rachel and Tommy – with the result that, from an early age, Rachel spent many hours with her father in his workshop, an experience that ignited her lifelong love of engineering.

She was remembered by Anne Parsons, a cousin by marriage, as ‘a lovable, headstrong and attractive girl, brimming over with enthusiasm and with her father’s desire to achieve’. Anne also noticed that Rachel ‘inherited much of her father’s brilliant technical brain and volcanic temperament’. It was the same volcanic temperament that would get her into trouble later in life.

Encouraged by her parents – particularly her mother, Katharine – Rachel attended Roedean School in Sussex, where she enjoyed the best scientific education available to girls of that time; and in 1910, in one of many pioneering ventures, she became the first woman to embark on the Mechanical Sciences tripos at Cambridge University, adding academic learning to the practical skills she had learnt at her father’s side. She had started as she meant to go on, refusing always to be constrained by the ‘normal’ behaviour expected of women, including marriage and child-rearing.

During the First World War, Rachel was appointed a director of C. A. Parsons & Co., her father’s firm at Heaton, Newcastle upon Tyne, where she supervised the instruction of hundreds of women workers in the manufacture of steam turbines and other items vital to the war effort. An inspirational teacher, she later expanded the scope of this work by joining the training department of the Ministry of Munitions and giving instruction in factories all over the country.

Rachel’s wartime experiences opened her eyes to what women were capable of doing on the shop floor. ‘[I] had the great privilege of studying engineering before the war, and subsequently of seeing a good deal of this work, watching personally the progress made by women who were for the first time employed in engineering works,’ she wrote in National Review magazine in December 1919. ‘At first they attempted only fairly simple operations and were chiefly employed on shells, in filling factories, cartridge factories, and other work for which only a short training is required.’

Gradually, however, as the need for munitions grew, and increasing numbers of men were sent to the front, the women were allowed to do skilled work. ‘They were taught to operate more complicated machines; they did fitting work on aeroplanes; they were taught to set up some of the machines – till gradually many of the shops were staffed almost entirely by women.’ It was reckoned that, by the end of the war, more than one million women had been employed in the munitions factories. The jobs they undertook were highly demanding, and often dangerous, but they brought great benefits in term of economic, educational and social liberation.

Given the huge investment in women’s training and improved working conditions, Rachel and Katharine Parsons and their supporters were infuriated by the introduction after the Armistice of the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Bill, which threatened to make it illegal for any engineering firms to employ women if they had not done so before the war. Opposition to the bill was the catalyst for the formation in 1919 of Women’s Engineering Society (WES), with Rachel installed as founding president.

WES came hard on the heels of the 1918 legislation granting some women the right to vote in parliamentary elections, as well as other liberalising measures. ‘Women have won their political independence,’ wrote Rachel. ‘Now is the time for them to achieve their economic freedom too.’ A year later she inspired the creation of Atalanta Ltd, an engineering firm financed and run largely by women, and employing only women, which survived for a decade.

Photograph of Atlanta factory workers from The Woman Engineer, 1921 (WES/IET Archives)

From the start, WES campaigned for equal pay and equal employment rights for women, as well as for the training of women in engineering skills and their entry into all the major engineering institutions. Although the battle against the Pre-War Practices Bill was ultimately lost, it had brought together a group of disparate individuals and united them behind a common purpose, making them more determined than ever to secure jobs for women in engineering. In alliance with the Electrical Association for Women, founded in 1924 by Caroline Haslett, campaigns by WES and similar bodies would eventually pave the way for the equality legislation of the 1970s.

Rachel Parsons argued for the need for women to organise, describing this approach as ‘the only royal road to victory in the industrial world’. She took her crusade into the political sphere, securing election to the London County Council, where she was an active participant in the Electricity Committee and the Highways Committee.

In the 1923 general election, she stood for the Conservative Party in the Lancashire seat of Ince, but was defeated by the long-standing Labour member; only eight women in total were elected. Her choice of the Conservatives was influenced by the long-standing opposition of the Labour-aligned engineering unions to the employment of women in industry.

Rachel remained active in politics for many years, repeatedly arguing with great passion for equal employment rights, but she was never selected for another parliamentary seat. An engineering career was also out of reach – since she had made the decision not to rejoin C. A. Parsons in Heaton after the war, it was impossible for her to find an equivalent position in another engineering firm. Her brother, Tommy, had been killed in action, and both her parents died in the early 1930s, leaving Rachel, as their sole heir, extremely rich.

Disillusioned both professionally and politically, and without a family of her own, Rachel moved to Newmarket in Suffolk to start a new life as a racehorse owner and breeder. In 1947 she bought a 2,600-acre stud farm at nearby Cowlinge. Despite enjoying some success on the turf, she found the racing world as hostile to women as the engineering sphere, forcing her increasingly to take refuge in solitude.

She also made enemies – men who resented being told what to do by an intelligent, articulate woman who was used to getting her own way. If she lost her temper, which often happened, it made things worse. Newspaper reports after her death suggested that farm managers, stable workers and domestic staff had come and gone in quick succession. None of the news media gave any prominence to her career as an engineer, her role in WES, or her involvement in politics.

Charged with murder, the stableman Dennis Pratt complained that Rachel had repeatedly failed to give him holiday money to which he was entitled. When he asked her for it, she refused, hit him on the head with her handbag, and called him a ’guttersnipe’. It emerged at the trial that Pratt had picked up an iron bar ‘in self-defence’ and smashed her on the head three times, causing her death. 

Rachel’s fierce independence of spirit – interpreted by the defence as aggressiveness and eccentricity – told against the 71-year-old victim. Witnesses spoke about her in the most disparaging terms, culminating in claims that she was ‘wicked’ and ‘a she-devil’ – someone who, it was implied, deserved what was coming to her. In the event, Pratt was convicted not of murder but of manslaughter on the grounds of provocation. He was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment.

Like many other prominent women in history, Rachel was judged in her own day by contemporary expectations of female behaviour. It is only with the benefit of hindsight – as the Women’s Engineering Society celebrates its centenary – that we can appreciate her achievements for what they were and re-evaluate her contribution to the advance of feminism, both in the engineering sphere and beyond.

Henrietta Heald is the author of Magnificent Women and Their Revolutionary Machines (Unbound, 2019), published to mark the centenary of the Women’s Engineering Society.