The above photograph is taken from an article in The Electrician, 19 August 1927 and has the caption, ‘Miss Alyse Tomlinson-Lee, who, as announced in last weeks’ issue, has been appointed attendant and demonstrator at the Leyton Electricity Showrooms’.
The fact that Alyse, as a woman, was featured in The Electrician in the 1920s might strike a person as quite unusual in and of itself. However, we are fortunate enough to be able to recount the story of her fascinating career, through the contents of her personal papers which were generously donated recently to the IET Archives by her family. The papers are also of great interest to the IET Archives, because Alyse was a Founder Member of the Electrical Association for Women (EAW), and although we hold the EAW archives amongst our collections, some of the details in Alyse’s papers about the EAW cannot be found within the EAW archives.
The Working Life of Alyse Tomlinson-Lee
Alyse managed to get her first ‘break’ into the world of work, through the intervention of her father Harrie [sic] Tomlinson-Lee who joined the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) as an Associate Member in 1901 and then became a Member in 1922. Harrie wrote to the Director and General Manager of the General Electric Company (GEC) in 1924, seeking a position for his daughter. The response from GEC, in a letter dated 29 September 1924, was as follows;
“Dear Mr Tomlinson Lee, I have your letter and would of course like to be of help to you. Actually speaking, there is no vacancy at the moment in the Showroom, but I think it likely that I could arrange for your daughter, if not immediately, certainly within a very short space of time. It might perhaps be as well if you asked her to call some time when convenient, and see Mr Winstanley, the Manager of our Fittings Department, although naturally I shall be pleased to see you first if you prefer it and can spend the time to call.”
Clearly Alyse made a good impression when she later visited GEC as Mr Winstanley wrote the following letter on 10 October 1924 (image shown below);
“Dear Mr Tomlinson-Lee, with reference to your visit, along with your daughter a few days ago, I have seen Mr Railing [Adolph Harry Railing (1878-1963), later became Sir Harry Railing, Chairman of GEC], and he is only too anxious to do all he can to comply with your wishes. I shall therefore be pleased to arrange for Miss Lee to start with us in some suitable capacity in our showrooms, and suggest she should come down to see me with the view to starting her duties on Monday November 3rd. You may rest assured I shall be pleased to place her in such a position as will afford her the knowledge and experience you are desirous she should have.”
Alyse went on to work for GEC for almost 3 years before applying for a job with the Borough of Leyton in 1927. Her application to become an Electricity Showroom Attendant and Demonstrator with the Borough was successful, probably helped by some glowing references from GEC and others (references present in collection). For example, the Managing Director of the Electrical Press Ltd said;
“I have known Miss A Tomlinson Lee for several years and on various occasions she has demonstrated electrical appliances to members of our Editorial staff, who have been able to compare her work with other demonstrators in various parts of the country. My opinion is that Miss Tomlinson Lee is a most capable Saleswoman of electrical appliances and an exceptionally good and pleasing demonstrator. She thoroughly understands her work and naturally takes a great interest in all things electrical”.
Alyse then had a successful 6-year career with the Borough of Leyton, although she did apply for other positions during this period including an unsuccessful application to the Borough of Hammersmith in February 1931 to become a Lady Showroom Assistant and Demonstrator. Her application to Hammersmith gives a lovely insight to her life and career. Her application says;
“Dear Sir, I beg to be allowed to place before you an application for the position of Lady Showroom Assistant and Demonstrator in connection with your Electricity Undertaking. I have had a High School Education, after which I went through a full course of shorthand and typewriting in order to prepare myself for entering my father’s office, who is a Consulting Engineer at 26, Victoria Street, SW1. I was with him from 1922-24 during which time I got an insight into the electrical supply industry, especially the power station side and its development.
In November 1924 I went to the General Electric Co Ltd, Kingsway WC2 as a demonstrator and sales woman in their showrooms. I was for six months in the offices of the Fittings and Showroom Department, where I was engaged in the preparation and checking of estimates. I was then drafted as a Demonstrator into the Magnet Electric Home. This is a show house of the bungalow type in which is displayed every manner of household electrical appliances, such as the electric cooker, hot water boiler, washer, refrigerator, vacuum cleaner, floor polisher, electric vegetable and other domestic appliances, together with violet ray and vibro massage instruments.
In January 1927 I was transferred from the GEC Bungalow and engaged as Demonstrator and Saleswoman on behalf of the General Electric Co Ltd at various municipal electricity showrooms and exhibitions, amongst some of these places I might mention Stoke Newington Borough Council, Hackney Borough Council, Worthing, Erith, Woking Electric Supply Co, South London Electric Supply Co, Brixton, Hammersmith Borough Council (Health Exhibition), Ideal Home Exhibition, Harrods Stores and others.
I enclose copies of testimonials from L C Gamage Esq, Director and Secretary of the General Electric Co Ltd, the late Mrs Alderman Hammer, who was Chairman of the Hackney Electricity Committee, W Alderson Smith Esq, Managing Director of the Electrical Press Ltd and E G Nicholson, the Secretary of the Woking Electric Supply Co. I may say that my present Chief, J Wetherell Esq will be pleased to reply to any enquiries which you care to make in reference to myself. My present salary is £250 per annum. Trusting my application meets with your favourable consideration.”
Alyse finally left her position with the Borough of Leyton in October 1933 as a result of her impending marriage, and received yet another glowing reference, this time from J Wetherell AMIEE AMIMechE, Borough Electrical Engineer & Manager, Borough of Leyton. This reference has the following words;
“Miss A Tomlinson-Lee was in the service of this Department from the 8th September 1927 until 31st July 1933, and the position she held was that of Showroom Superintendent. I cannot speak too highly of the character and ability of Miss Lee; she always carried out her duties with despatch and outstanding efficiency. Her relations with the consumers and her colleagues were the happiest. She was always studious and painstaking and kept up to date regarding modern electrical developments. It was a matter of personal regret to myself when Miss Lee left the service of this Department to be married, and she took with her the heartiest good wishes of myself and her fellow employees.”
Alyse and the EAW
The EAW was originally founded in December 1924 as the Women’s Electrical Association (WEA), but it very quickly changed its name to the EAW in 1925 because the initials WEA were considered to cause confusion with the existing Workers’ Education Association. Alyse was a Founder Member of the WEA and her membership card is enclosed in her collection of papers (shown below). We haven’t seen such a membership card before and there are no WEA membership cards in the EAW archives.
Alyse was awarded the EAW’s Grade I Diploma in Electrical Housecraft in 1932 and the collection contains not only her Diploma certificate but also the related silver medal, produced by the Birmingham Medal Company, which is inscribed on the reverse with the name of Alyse (image of medal shown below).
Accompanying papers from the EAW say that Alyse received this medal as a result of having at least 4 years’ experience ‘in the industry’ and having successfully completed an application form (copy not present).
These papers provide a wonderful insight into a successful woman’s career of the 1920s and 1930s in a job that many people will not have known existed and for anyone wishing to view the papers of Alyse Tomlinson-Lee, this collection has an archive reference SC MSS 306, and can be consulted in the IET Archives by appointment.