By Anne Locker, Library and Archives Manager
As part of this year’s celebrations to mark the centenary of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), volunteers and researchers have been drawing out the stories of women who worked in all sectors of engineering and technology during the 20th century. Some have been added to Wikipedia and to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB). One of WES’s early members who is featured in the IET’s collections and who now has an entry in the ODNB is the electrical engineer and contractor Margaret Partridge.
In 1926, Partridge was to be found climbing poles, working in holes in the ground in the rain and nursing temperamental electricity generators through the night in her bid to introduce electric light to towns and villages in rural Devon.
As she recalled in a letter to Caroline Haslett, the first WES secretary, who went on to found the Electrical Association for Women, “My dear – for sheer exciting experience give me a town to light – 70 mile an hour belts & 320 Volts on the board with a well soaked cement floor – & then remember you are the responsible engineer for the whole lot, & there isn’t another soul within 20 miles at least who understands the switchboard!!!”
Local residents, she wrote, saw her as: “…a wicked adventuress they should have no dealing with – or else that, as I offer light to publicans & sinners (bakers and farmers too) their only way of showing their superiority of birth and position is to pass by on the other side.”
How did an ordinary middle-class woman from an old Devonian family get caught up in this world of generators, power lines and political maneuvering?
Early life and career
Margaret Mary Partridge was born in Devon in 1891. Her family later moved to Bedford, where she was educated at the High School and then enrolled at Bedford College to study mathematics, helped by two scholarships. After graduating in 1914, she went into teaching – so far, so ordinary for a female graduate of the time. Presciently however, the principal of Bedford College, Miss Tuke, wrote in a letter of recommendation that: “She is also likely to prove successful in a non-scholastic post, in which her powers as an organiser will have scope.”
The outbreak of the First World War had opened up exciting opportunities for young women, and in 1915 (again after a recommendation from Miss Tuke), Partridge joined a firm of consulting engineers in London. Luckily, Bedford College kept excellent records of its students and graduates, and Partridge’s file includes correspondence with the college as well as notes from staff who had met with her after graduation.
In a letter to Miss Tuke in 1917, Partridge wrote: “I am glad to be able to tell you that I have work again – It is in the testing department of Messrs Lyons & Wrench and I think the chief work will be testing dynamos and small petrol engines. It sounds as though it will be pretty interesting work, & I am assured that I shall have every opportunity of learning all about the construction of everything made in the factory.”
Partridge rose to the role of supervisor, and remembered her wartime experiences with affection. “The work was hard, it was dirty, and we wore hideous trouser-overalls… Nevertheless the spirit in our Works was good, and, though our free time was limited, we found much amusement there.”
Setting up a business
After the war ended, there was little likelihood of a woman being kept on or finding another engineering post, so Partridge decided to set up her own engineering business. She also joined the newly formed Women’s Engineering Society and became a regular contributor to its journal, The Woman Engineer.
One of her articles describes the obstacles facing women in business. “Our first difficulty is our shyness … Our second difficulty is our sex. Most people think that this must be an almost insuperable obstacle, but it is by no means as bad as that. Sometimes in fact we find it a positive advantage, because once we have made ourselves and our work known to anyone there is little likelihood of their forgetting us.”
She also gave technical advice, including this from a list of ‘don’t’s’ for the engine room:
Don’t use a hammer or heavy tool to hit engines with.
Don’t loosen nuts and bolts on an engine and forget to tighten them again.
Don’t touch the top of the sparking plug when the engine is running.
Partridge became good friends with Caroline Haslett and correspondence between the two in the Haslett archives (UK0108 NAEST 033) shows them commiserating with each other’s trials. Partridge complained about the man who tried to cut down some wires because “he didn’t like the look of them”, while Haslett complained about her arguments with Lady Parsons and the founders of Atalanta, who were stirring up dissent in the WES Council. They also conferred on less pressing matters, such as the design of hats and the perils of appearing on flimsy stages at events.
Partridge described the relationship: “Do you sometimes feel that you are holding up the whole of London? I’ve got a queer peculiar feeling that I am the one transmission pole in the West of England – which would certainly snap under the strain were it not for certain stray wires rooted in London.”
Once Partridge had established her business with the help of the WES network, she was keen to give other women the opportunity to succeed. She decided to take on a series of engineering apprentices, and Haslett helped her find likely candidates. One of these apprentices was a young school leaver called Beatrice Shilling, known as Tilly, who would go on to work as a successful aeronautical engineer at RAE Farnborough:
I have managed to give Beatrice Shilling over a week’s wiring work, & it seems to be turning out a great success. I really think she is a great acquisition to the firm – able to enjoy any new experience – and not in the least superior or blasé – the fault of the very young at times. She has a wicked joy in making all the YWCA Hostel stand their hair on end by tales of her unladylike exploits with wiring.
Women engineers and the night working rules
Partridge had no problem working as many hours as were needed to get the job done, but this attitude would be the cause of a significant complaint against the firm: “…now I have to go off to keep the plant running till 11 o’clock – all alone at that old power station which is still like a cross between a cathedral & a sewage dump. I feel like putting the whole blooming town in darkness halfway through the evening.”
Problems arose when Beatrice Shilling was discovered working on her own in a power station at night. The International Labour Organisation Convention on Women and Children stated that women should not work on their own at night, for safety reasons. Partridge took advantage of her network of supporters, asking Haslett for help. WES minutes show that Haslett promptly and deftly took control: “…at the Chairman’s suggestion it was proposed by Lady Moir and seconded by Miss Miller that Miss Haslett be empowered to do what seemed necessary as occasion arose, without further consulting the Council.”
Haslett was a consummate negotiator. She established a cordial working relationship with the Trades Union Congress, and negotiated her way to a solution. The regulations were changed that year to exclude women working in managerial positions. Typically, the occasion was celebrated by inviting representatives from the ILO to dinner.
Why should we be interested in the story of an ordinary woman who became an ordinary engineer, set up a few lighting schemes, took on apprentices and dealt with red tape? Because she was a good engineer, a successful businesswoman and an effective mentor at a time when there were considerable barriers to any of these accomplishments for women.
Partridge’s pioneering work as an electrical engineer didn’t end with her retirement. One of her last articles describes her project to wire a local village hall with the help of the Woman’s Institute: “Our ‘Electric Girls’ this time may not prove as adaptable as those of thirty years ago,” she wrote. “Nearly all are mothers, some are grandmothers and none aspire to be engineers beyond what is needed to do their own home repairs, so we will welcome any outside help that we can get.”
For more information about collections on the history of women in engineering, please contact the Archives or search our catalogue.
Personal papers of Dame Caroline Haslett: UK0108 NAEST 033
Archives of the Women’s Engineering Society: UK0108 NAEST 092