The image above shows Claudia Parsons, with her second-hand 1925 Studebaker car, which she called Baker, and her travelling companion Kilton Stewart. Claudia and Kilton bought the car for £30 in Calcutta in April 1938, before setting off on a journey back to England, planned by Claudia, which took them via India, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. The photograph above was taken in London just before Claudia sold the car towards the end of 1938.
Claudia, who had been born in Simla, India, 15 August 1900, earned money as a chauffeur-companion-mechanic for wealthy adventurers and as a writer. Other than writing stories and travel pieces she wrote a novel in 1936 called Brighter Bondage and a book about her travels called Vagabondage, published in 1941, from which the above image is taken, both of which were very successful. Vagabondage was about to be reprinted for a third time and the only reason for this not happening was the shortage of paper during WWII. In the meantime, during WWII Claudia worked in a munitions factory (as a skilled engineer).
Who was Claudia Parsons!
Our interest in Claudia has multiple origins. Firstly Claudia was a member of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) and had been since 1919 when WES was formed, and she wrote several articles for the WES journal The Woman Engineer including;
- ‘What not to do: when motoring abroad’, vol.3, no.3, June 1930.
- ‘The Ford Works, Dagenham: impressions of a visit’, vol.3, no.14, March 1933.
- ‘Baker, the anthropologist and Claudia Parsons’, vol.4 no.19, June 1939. This was an account of Claudia’s travels, later covered in Vagabondage, which Claudia had given to WES at its meeting held 8 March 1939.
- ‘Back to the old job’, vol.5 no.4, autumn 1940. In this article Claudia, who had studied engineering at Loughborough Engineering College, describes her 3 month ‘engineering reconditioning’ course at the Beaufoy Institute, Lambeth. The image below, taken from this article, shows Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, talking to Claudia Parsons (shown in overalls) and Caroline Haslett during her visit to the Beaufoy Institute.
Another reason for our interest in Claudia is that we hold 3 of Claudia’s books in the IET Archives, Brighter Bondage and Vagabondage mentioned above, and also Claudia’s autobiography, Century Story, published in 1995.
Claudia was clearly a fascinating individual with a sharp mind and a strong sense of humour. She dedicated her first book, Brighter Bondage, ‘to my husbands’, but Claudia never married, and on being asked why she hadn’t married during a newspaper interview she gave at the age of 95, she said of men, “they very often threatened to stop me doing what I wanted to do”.
Of particular interest amongst these 3 books is our copy of Vagabondage, which contains a letter from Claudia. In that letter, dated 9 December 1985 and sent to ‘James’, Claudia explains that this copy of Vagabondage was ‘my last and sacred copy of Vagabondage’. Claudia also discusses her former travelling companion Kilton Stewart in the letter and says;
“I did have a second copy [of Vagabondage] I was meaning to lend you. But just at that time I got a letter from one, Pamela Kay Stewart – Kilton’s daughter, no less – saying she had lately been staying with her uncle Omer, Kilton’s youngest brother, had seen this book, and was now in England hoping to see me, and was there any hope of getting a copy of the book?
You can see what happened. A small, perky, rather charming little 35-year-old turned up; very intelligent. No facial resemblance to her father. I had not known there was a daughter, though I knew Kilton had so far escaped from his tyrannical secretary, at one period to get married. She couldn’t take the secretary, so they got divorced. Pamela, when not travelling the world or taking post-graduate courses, lived with her mother, but wanted to know more about her father as she was only ten when he died.”
The complete letter with Claudia’s signature can be seen below.
For those interested in reading more about Claudia, an obituary for Claudia, written by Emma Parsons, was published in the Independent, 27 June 1998. The Claudia Parsons books and her letter (archive reference SC MSS 309/1) can be consulted in the IET Archives at Savoy Hill House, London, by appointment.