In December 1934, Theresa Wallach and her friend Florence Blenkiron set out from London to Cape Town, South Africa, on a 600cc single-cylinder Panther motorcycle with sidecar and trailer. They rode straight through the Sahara desert without a compass to complete a truly astonishing journey in record breaking time, arriving in Cape Town in July 1935.
The June 1935 issue of the Woman Engineer gave the following report about progress on their journey;
“Miss Wallach and Miss Blenkiron are now heading for Nairobi on their motorcycle combination; some of their more unpleasant adventures have included four nights in a tropical jungle without food or shelter, and capture by Tourags in the desert”.
Theresa was inducted into the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2003 and more about her story and life including photographs can be found on the AMA website here – AMA Teresa Wallach Biography.
Teresa was also a member of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), whose historic papers are held in the IET Archives, and it was here that we have just uncovered references to Theresa. We are currently cataloguing and scanning, a previously uncatalogued file of WES papers relating to the famous aviator Amy Johnson. Amy was the two-term President of WES from 1935-1937, and the file of correspondence is primarily between Amy and the WES Honorary Secretary, Caroline Haslett, during this period.
Amongst these newly discovered papers are several letters that refer to Amy Johnson (under her married name Amy Mollison) introducing Theresa Wallach and Florence Blenkiron to a WES meeting in London on May 26 1936. One such letter, from Caroline Haslett to Amy, dated 21 May 1936 referring to the meeting is shown below. The reference in the letter to Amy’s ‘latest triumph’ is Amy’s own record-breaking solo flight also from London to Cape Town which took place in May 1936, where she regained her Britain to South Africa record.
A brief report of Miss Wallach’s talk to WES appeared in The Willesden Chronicle on 29 May 1936. The report appeared in this journal because Theresa was a former pupil of Kilburn and Brondesbury High School, within the geographical remit of the Chronicle. This article with an image of Theresa is shown below:
A more lengthy account appeared in The Woman Engineer in June 1936, where it was reported;
“Miss Wallach was introduced by Mrs Mollison, who received a rousing reception, and who referred to many points of difference between her own London-Cape trips and those of the lecturer. In her remarks Mrs Mollison mentioned the earlier motor cycle records gained by Miss Wallach and Miss Blenkiron and also by Miss B Shilling, another member of the WES. With that generosity that is typical of sportsmen, the President made light of the dangers and trials of her own hazardous adventures in comparison with those about to be described. She found one too obvious similarity, however, the definite and complete refusal of all financial backing on the grounds that support would be aiding in sending the enthusiasts to certain death.
Miss Wallach gave a racy account of her adventures, referring lightly to the endurance test of the Sahara, the wild beasts that approached sufficiently close for discomfort, though never for real, the snakes that became part of the day’s experiences, the encounters with tribes in varying degrees of civilisation, the tackling of problems connected with the cycle, with water, with other provisions, including petrol, and, finally to the enthusiastic welcome at Cape Town.”
Theresa’s companion on the journey, Miss Florence C Blenkiron, became an Associate Member of WES in 1938 in recognition of the above feat and her considerable experience of the administrative side of steel production gained in the firm Hadfields Ltd.
More Extraordinary Feats!
The Women Engineer reported in autumn 1939 that Theresa Wallach was the only dispatch rider in the British army and she represented the Auxiliary Territorial Service at the Auto-Cycle Union’s National Rally 22-23 July when she gained a silver plaque. She had also gained her Gold Star in the spring, riding a 350cc Norton. This was the trophy awarded for completing a circuit of the Brooklands track on a motorcycle at a speed of over 100 miles per hour. Only two other women had been awarded the Gold Star (both members of WES).
Theresa’s story is another tale of pioneering engineers, who are perhaps less well known today, whose names are frequently mentioned in the WES archives (archive reference NAEST 92). The new Amy Johnson papers that contain the references to Theresa are expected to be available for consultation in the IET Archives from the New Year.