The Long Read: Discovering the Victorian Engineer Henrietta Vansittart

Emily Rees

Introduction

In the third video of the Electrifying Women: 5 Key themes series, we talked about how women invented and innovated before significant new opportunities opened up for them as engineers in the first half of the 20th century.

We highlighted the career of Hertha Ayrton, who was elected the first female member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1899 for solving problems in the performance of arc lights.[1] While Ayrton’s name is commemorated in prizes, plaques, street names and buildings, most women’s careers in engineering have often been overlooked or erased. In fact, Ayrton was not even the first British woman in engineering who held patents.[2]

This blog post focuses on the life and work of Henrietta Vansittart (1833-1883) who held the patent for the Lowe-Vansittart propeller. This propeller was widely used in the Royal Navy’s ships and was awarded a first class diploma at the Kensington exhibition in 1871. A model of the propeller is held by the Science Museum Group.

US Patent for Lowe Vansittart screw propeller, available here.

Vansittart’s career raises various questions, just two of which I explore below.

First, since formal opportunities for women to enter engineering in the 19th century were so scarce: how did Vansittart find a pathway into the field? We shall see that, for Vansittart, as with other women in the period, familial connections to engineering were key. Secondly, Vansittart’s life story, and how it has been written about, raise queries about what constitute historical ‘facts’ and in turn about the reliability of the sources we use.

Since little academic attention has been paid to Vansittart, most of the information about her is only accessible through blog posts and Wikipedia. In such accounts, several details of her life are unclear, especially her tragic untimely death in an asylum in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1883. It is apparent that more research is needed to understand Henrietta Vansittart’s life as an engineer.

Routes into engineering

In our second video in the 5 Key Themes series, we explore how early women engineers had to be resourceful to forge their careers given the barriers they faced in accessing education and membership of professional institutions and trade unions. Though challenges remained, during the first few decades of the 20th century, opportunities grew for women to take more ‘formal’ routes into engineering, via training courses and university degrees.

A further key development was the outbreak of World War One in 1914 which led to thousands of women working in engineering jobs in factories and companies across the UK, replacing an absent male workforce. In 1919, the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) was formed to maintain these prospects when the male engineers returned. This led an increased number of women working in engineering; in the 20th century there are numerous examples of women who had long, highly successful careers in engineering, such as Margaret Partridge, Verena Holmes, Hilda Lyon and Beatrice Shilling.

How did women find careers in engineering before the 20th century? For engineers like Ayrton and Vansittart, many of these routes did not exist or the obstacles were far greater. Ayrton did undertake a university degree – studying Mathematics at Cambridge and the University of London – which is part of why her career was exceptional for the time.[3]

Hertha Ayrton (c) Girton College, University of Cambridge; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Indeed, before the 20th century it was more common for familial connections to supply women with a route into engineering.  For several founding members of WES their connection to engineering was formed through marriage, notably Lady Katharine Parsons, and fellow WES founder Lady Margaret Moir, who coined the term ‘engineer-by-marriage’.[4]

Lady Moir’s Presidential Address from 1929 in The Woman Engineer, held by IET archives.

Returning to Henrietta Vansittart, we find that we need to look at her family connections to explain how she became an engineer and inventor. Her father, James Lowe, was the inventor and patentee of a screw propeller in 1838. Vansittart most likely learned her engineering knowledge through working with her father on his inventions, even though these experiments led him to insolvency, thus reducing his family to poverty.[5]

Even after her marriage in 1855 to Frederick Vansittart, she continued to work with her father, and she was present at the testing of the propeller on the HMS Bullfinch in 1877.[6] After her father was killed in a street accident in in 1866, Vansittart took over his work on the screw propeller, obtaining patent no. 2877 for the Lowe-Vansittart propeller in 1868 in the UK (patented the following year in the USA).[7]

The influence of Henrietta Vansittart’s family on her work bears similarities to another naval engineer who was born in the Victorian era – Blanche Thornycroft. Recent research has revealed the significant role that Thornycroft played in the family’s engineering business based on the Isle of Wight.[8] Like Vansittart, her training in engineering was through working with her father. Other notable examples of women whose engineering training came through family companies are Rachel Parsons[9] and Dorothée Pullinger (who is the subject of a current interdisciplinary research project).

For nearly two decades Vansittart had carved a successful career for herself as an engineer and inventor. As already mentioned, the patented Lowe-Vansittart screw propeller was awarded a first-class diploma at the 1871 Kensington Exhibition. In 1876, she presented a paper on the Lowe Vansittart propeller at the Association of Foreman Engineers and Draughtsman, the first woman to do so. It was on a visit to the North East Coast Exhibition of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineers in Tynemouth in 1882 that she took ill and was then committed to the Tyne City lunatic asylum, where she died in 1883.[10]

With no evidence of having had a formal education, her father’s work, and his willingness to involve his daughter in it, provided the training Vansittart needed to become an independent engineer and inventor. Her status as a married woman did not appear to prevent her from practising and there is little evidence to suggest her husband was in anyway involved in her work or that he tried to stop it. As with other women from the period, familial collaboration was the vital route into engineering.

Historical ‘fact’: a question of sources

As highlighted earlier, unlike similar counterparts, Vansittart has not been the subject of any extensive academic research. It is only possible to speculate as to why this is. She has, however, featured in various blog posts and is frequently raised as an interesting case study for forgotten or unknown historical figures, for example this blog from the Open University.

This lack of academic attention may be, in part, due to the more ‘colourful’ aspects of her life. Other than the unusual career path she took – practising as an engineer when few women did so – her private life held many intrigues, ending with her death in a Newcastle asylum. It appears to have been well-known that she was having an affair with the MP Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who left both Vansittart and her husband money in his will.[11]

Unlike Blanche Thornycroft, who lived a reserved life in the Isle of Wight,[12] Vansittart is likely to have been part of London ‘Society’ even if she was not allowed to be member of any of London’s learned societies. Much more research needs to be done to find out more about Vansittart’s life as a working female engineer, wife and lover.

I happened to come across Henrietta Vansittart when trying to find out more about British women that were practising as engineers before 1919. In the absence of academic papers and without the means (yet) to travel to archives to see physical copies of documents, I have relied on online sources, including blogs and online archive repositories.

While beginning to draft this blog, I became troubled by the lack of ‘verifiable’ information I could find in the online resources about Vansittart. By verifiable, I mean links to archival material, links to primary sources or peer-reviewed academic articles. I was conscious of not simply recycling the same material, as the more something is repeated, the more it can appear to become ‘fact’.

Interestingly, questions were raised at the recent training session which the Electrifying Women project ran in London, about the extent to which we can trust blog posts and online sources, mirroring my own doubts researching the life of Henrietta Vansittart. Historian of women in engineering, Nina Baker, raised the point that in one of the online blogs on Vansittart the wrong image is used for her[13]. I have found that, for a while, different birth dates were posted on different blogs. Her birthplace, too, is different on different pages.

Similar questions about the ‘trustworthiness’ of online secondary sources, like blog posts, were asked at the recent wikithon, which the project ran in Leeds, where there was a discussion with the session facilitator – volunteer editor Nigel Pepper – about the extent to which we can trust Wikipedia entries. Nigel explained that Wikipedia freely admits that its online encyclopaedia is only as good as its secondary sources. Wikipedia discourages editors from using primary material, instead asking editors to use reliable, published secondary sources. Users are always encouraged to check the citations used in an article themselves before relying on them.

When there is little published material, how can we assess the reliability of online material? In the case of researching Vansittart, I found that much of the online material comes from the same few places. Her Wikipedia entry, for example, is largely based on a few blog posts, which have a varying degree of reliable sources attached (thus not meeting the criteria laid out by Wikipedia in this instance).

A more extensive, well-researched blog can be found on the Epsom and Ewell local history website, which has a range of sources on the Lowe and Vansittart families. However, the verifiability of the research conducted is still hard to ascertain.

A peer-reviewed academic article provides a layer of verifiability that a blog post does not have (though arguably it is not a fool-proof system) and raises other kinds of questions about who can access what information, when so many academic journals are still behind paywalls.

More ‘official’ sources of information about Vansittart include her entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB), though this is another source behind a paywall. There are two articles in Women’s Engineering Society journal, which is freely accessible online, The Woman Engineer, in volume 3 and volume 13, both of which explore the history of Vansittart’s life (though the historical veracity of The Woman Engineer can be questioned).[14]

Extract from the The Woman Engineer feature on Henrietta Vansittart (with a yet to be verified image) from 1983, held by IET archives.

In terms of primary material, Vansittart’s own publication The History of the Lowe Vansittart Propeller (1882) can be accessed in certain libraries. There are references to Vansittart and her propeller in The Times, including two separate entries in 1869[15] (the British Newspaper Archive is also behind a paywall). There is an image of the record for the US patent for the Lowe Vansittart patent available online and a model of the Lowe Vansittart propeller is held by the Science Museum collections.

The ODNB entry references letters in the Bulwer Lytton archive as evidence for the affair between him and Vansittart, though there is clearly more research needed here, for which the family archives at the National Archives might be helpful. The reason for Lytton leaving money to both Vansittart and her husband, for example, is yet to be excavated. Interestingly, while the affair is mentioned in Vansittart’s ODNB entry, it is not in Lytton’s (other affairs of his are mentioned).

Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer Lytton c. 1831, 1st Baron Lytton, by Henry William Pickersgill, source: National Portrait Gallery.

In this blog, I have proceeded with caution about stating too clearly the ‘facts’ of Vansittart’s life, favouring sources like the ODNB entry on her life. Facts, though, can only tell us so much to begin with and I would argue that what is needed now is thorough research into Vansittart’s daily life, to establish more about the way she lived, her place in society, and how she managed to negotiate this while working on developing her engineering project, the screw propeller.

Conclusion

Exploring the life of Henrietta Vansittart, and how it was thus far been recorded, has raised several pertinent points about how women found their place in engineering in the 19th century, and about the challenges of researching, and verifying, information about these women.

Firstly, this blog explored how Vansittart can be viewed as part of a wider trend of women in engineering from the period; an example of women who found their way into the field through family connections, rather than (or in addition to) more ‘formal’ educational routes. Alongside examples like Blanche Thornycroft, Dorothée Pullinger and Rachel Parsons (not to mention the engineers-by-marriage like Margaret Moir and Katharine Parsons), we can build an argument that family and kinship were crucial to the foundations of women in engineering and the founding of WES (a longer article on this is in development).

Secondly, this blog has looked at the ways in which finding out about women’s working lives can be challenging and brings to light questions about the sources we use and how we can trust them.

There’s also a more human dimension: in seeking out the histories of women in engineering, we find innovation – patents, inventions, productive collaborations – but we also find out other things – the messiness of human lives. We find this distilled in the case of Henrietta Vansittart. While we may seek to draw divisions between work and personal life (as is so often the case on Wikipedia entries), these lines are not so easily created, for women especially. In cases such as Henrietta Vansittart, where working life began through family life, such lines seem hard to construct. As this blog has discussed, the full scope of research into her work and life is yet to be done, yet her aliveness still comes to the fore.

Sources used

Links to blog posts on Henrietta Vansittart

Secondary sources

Primary sources


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

[2] Before the Victorian era, we have examples such as Sarah Guppy (1770-1852) who held patents for bridge design. Like Vansittart, more research could be done on her life and engineering work.

[3] To read more about Ayrton’s life and career, see Bruton, Elizabeth (2018).

[4] Moir’s presidential address delivered at Bedford College for Women, London, July 26th 1929 where she used the term ‘engineer-by-marriage’ is reproduced in The Woman Engineer, vol.2, 1929, pp.369-72.

[5] O’Mahoney, B., & Stearn, R.  (2012, January 05). Vansittart [née Lowe], Henrietta (1833–1883), engineer. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 21 Jan. 2020, from here.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] K. Harcourt and R. Edwards, (2018) ‘Engineering and the family in business: Blanche Coules Thornycroft, naval architecture and engineering design’, Science Museum Group Journal, 10.

[9] Heald, Henrietta (2019) Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines, London: Unbound.

[10] O’Mahoney, B., & Stearn, R (2012).

[11] Ibid.

[12] K. Harcourt and R. Edwards (2018).

[13] This blog post’s web page has potentially been compromised so I have not included it

[14] ‘A Victorian Woman’s Contribution to Marine Engineering’, The Woman Engineer, Vol.3 no. 13, December 1932 (accessed here on 21.01.20: ). B.M.E. O’Mahoney, ‘Henrietta Vansittart – Britain’s First Woman Engineer?’ vol. 13 no. 4, April 1983 (accessed here on 27.01.20: )

[15] “Naval And Military Intelligence.” Times, 8 Jan. 1869, p. 7. The Times Digital Archive. [Accessed 7 Jan. 2020]; Our Malta correspondent. “Naval And Military Intelligence.” Times, 24 Dec. 1869, p. 10. The Times Digital Archive, [Accessed 7 Jan. 2020].

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