Who launched the Women’s Engineering Society in 1919?

by Graeme Gooday

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

The First World War (1914-18) 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. 

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’ 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, Margaret Moir was one of the philanthropic benefactors that helped maintain its solvency.

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 Parsons, 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 the founders’ 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!