This blog post is based on a talk given to the London Society in November 2020 by Ceryl Evans, Director of Engagement for Brighton Museums, and Anne Locker, IET Library and Archives Manager.
Early life and engineering career
Born on 17 August 1895 in Worth (now part of Crawley, West Sussex), Caroline Harriet Haslett was the eldest daughter of Caroline Sarah and Robert Haslett. Her father was a railway signal fitter and activist for the co-operative movement, and her mother’s experience of the drudgery of domestic work in the home came to influence Haslett’s thinking in adult life. Unremarkable at school, in Haywards Heath, she lost time because of an unspecified illness. On completion of school, she moved to London to take a business secretarial course under the protective wing of family friends and took up secretarial work.
Through a contact of her mother’s she gained employment with the Cochran Boiler Company as a clerk in the Cochran workshops during First World War. Haslett showed an interest in the practical side of the company’s work and due to the staffing shortages caused by the First Word War, she was able to persuade the company to train her in the engineering aspect of creating the boilers. She acquired basic engineering training in London and then in Annan, Dumfriesshire; (a huge distance from home in Sussex for a young woman). This opened her eyes to the opportunities which engineering and technology offered to women, either professionally or improving the quality of their domestic life.
It can be argued that the economic hardships brought about by post First World War policy decisions by government and backed by the unions had a detrimental impact on the majority of women during the next twenty years, despite the granting of partial suffrage to women over 30 in 1918. (At the age of 23, Caroline would have been seven years too young and without the economic means to qualify for the vote by property ownership). So many of the younger women who had worked during the war and campaigned for the vote continued to be disenfranchised and, to add insult to injury, The Restoration Of The Pre War Practices Act in the summer of 1919 gave employers not just the right but the instruction to sack any women who had not been working in their roles before the war, and give those jobs to returning men.
Haslett’s obituary in The Times stated that during her time in London, she had joined the Women’s Social and Political Union, run by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, yet her career, whilst firmly based in the fight for equality for women, was more suffragist than suffragette. Her later skills of negotiation and persuasion imply a practical approach to improving the lot of women through political negotiation, training, education and creating opportunities for women, whether in the home or the professional world.
Development of electricity supply
In 1919, there was therefore a stark need to support women who wished to continue their careers in engineering. In the same year, a small group of women engineers and philanthropists founded the Women’s Engineering Society. Its aim was to encourage women to enter engineering as a career, and to support those women who were already working in the sector. WES advertised for a keen young woman with engineering experience to become its first Secretary, and Caroline Haslett was offered the job.
Luckily for WES, Haslett was an excellent administrator. She set up the Woman Engineer, a journal which is still published today, and navigated the differing agendas and egos of WES’s founders with ease. But she never forgot that engineering and technology wasn’t just about the practitioners: the new post-war developments in engineering – especially electricity supply – had the potential to change how everyone lived and worked.
This was an extraordinary period for the history of electricity supply in the UK. The 1919 Electricity Supply Act, while falling short of its original ambition to enforce a national system of electricity supply, set up a national body of Electricity Commissioners and (voluntary) Joint Electricity Authorities, setting the foundations for the National Grid. The British Electrical Development Association (EDA), was founded in 1919 – the beginning of national sales and advertising campaigns for electricity. In 1920, the British Electrical and Allied Industries’ Research Association (ERA) was founded. Electricity was rapidly becoming a commodity which could be generated, supplied, researched and sold on a national level.
There was a gap: the consumer, and especially women in the home. They could be sold an electricity supply and shiny new domestic electrical appliances, but they had no voice in the organisations generating and selling electricity. In 1924, a new organisation was founded to fill this gap: the Electrical Association for Women. Its first Director was Caroline Haslett.
The EAW’s slogan was ‘Emancipation from Drudgery’, and it encouraged women to use electricity to lighten their domestic burdens. It was also an educational body: it trained domestic science teachers, electricity showrooms demonstrators and housewives on how to choose, maintain and sell the new appliances. And it acted a consumer organisation, talking to electrical appliance manufacturers about the needs of their customers. For example, they conducted a survey on electric cookers which looked at new designs which were easy to use and to clean.
Wiring a London flat
In 1925, Haslett had found a small flat in London and was renovating it before moving in. She wanted to ensure it had a supply of electricity and, of course, the latest in time-saving electrical gadgets. She asked a friend, Margaret Partridge, to help. Partridge was a member of WES and a founding member of the EAW, who owned an electrical contracting company which specialised in wiring houses and villages for electricity.
Correspondence between Haslett and Partridge in the IET Archives gives a cheerful account of the work. Partridge writes, ‘I propose to come Fri. night unless the cable has failed to put in an appearance … The advantage of working at a weekend is that I hope to have crowds of assistance from brothers & such.’ There were battles with the local workmen. Haslett writes, ‘You will not be surprised to learn that trouble has started at 69 Abbey Road. Mr Knight told me this morning that they had found a nail through the cable, and that there were “other technical difficulties”. When I pinned him down to definite information the “other technical difficulties” seemed to disappear. He talked vaguely about Marylebone not connecting up, however I am not in the least disturbed and I am sure that they will find a very difficult woman to deal with if they attempt any of this tommyrot.’
Electrical safety and the Post-War Committee on Electrical Installations
One of the issues the two friends had to face was adhering to the correct safety standards for electrical installations. By this time, there was an accepted national standard, the IEE Wiring Regulations (now BS7671). There was still some debate over whether this would be sufficient, as Partridge wrote: ‘Another little bother – can you ask the Marylebone people to send you the correct form of application for juice with rules on the back? Sorry to trouble you with these items – but as you are in the trade it is all educational – & I don’t want to be up against a set of fancy rules like the Ealing Supply Co. put up.’
It would be very useful experience for Haslett when she was the only woman appointed to a most important committee: the Institution of Electrical Engineers’ Electrical Installations Committee, which published Post-War Building Studies no. 11: Electrical Installations in 1944.
This report laid the foundations for increasing and improving the supply of electricity to homes in the United Kingdom in the post-war era. It set out the principles not only for electric wiring, switches and plugs, but all kinds of electrical appliances. From cookers to washing machines, door bells to television, and central heating to heated food trolleys, the study set out the ideal design and location of any electrical appliance that could be required in the modern home.
The influence of Haslett and the EAW can be seen in the attention to detail around design for efficiency and beauty. For example, the study recommends a specific design of electric oven which makes best use of cupboard space and states:
“In reaching decisions on the type of cooker for use in post-war housing we have been guided by the views expressed by the women of the country through their various organizations.”
There is some fascinating information about the home in the post-war period, for example this discussion on ‘Laundering’:
“In small houses, particularly in the north of England and in Scotland, home laundering is customary … On grounds of labour saving we consider that home laundering equipment will be increasingly required in the post-war period…
“In flats individual laundering equipment may not always be regarded as desirable. The effects of steam considerably increase the cost of redecoration, and the drying of washing in flats always presents difficulties.”
The study also looks to the future: designers should assume each house will probably have a telephone, and it even discusses the possibility of ‘wired television’.
This study is a fascinating read as a stand-alone document, and its recommendations were highly influential. Two of the technical innovations recommended by the report – the three-pin fused plug with a shuttered socket, and the ring circuit – became standard after the War and are still standard today. The impact of these innovations deserves a separate blog – so watch this space!
Influencing and networking
By 1925 Haslett had organised the First International Conference of Women in Science, Industry and Commerce – chaired by Nancy, Lady Astor, the first woman MP to take her seat in parliament. It was the first public engagement of the Duchess of York, later Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, with an international panel of women at the forefront of the women’s movement either speaking, lending their support and in attendance. The list included Kerstin Hesselgren, the first woman to be elected into the Upper House of the Swedish parliament, and Ethel H. Bailey, an American engineer representing the Society of Automotive Engineers and fresh from a visit with Marie Curie in Paris.
Haslett’s connections with Lady Rhondda and the professional women’s clubs networks of the 1920s and 30s (including the Pioneer, Lyceum and Forum clubs, all stalwart parts of the women’s’ movement) indicate her deep and ongoing interest in improving women’s lot, whether professional women like the engineers she supported through the Women’s Engineering Society, the Six Point Group, the British and International Federation of Business and Professional Women, or the women she hoped electricity would rescue from drudgery in the home through the Electrical Association For Women.
By the time of the Second World War Haslett was at the heart of defending women’s interests and as government policy was once again ignoring both women’s economic interests and what they could contribute to the war effort, the Woman Power Committee was created, from conversations between by Haslett and Lady Nancy Astor. The intention was to create an organisation which had the protection of the interests of British women during the war at its core. Women MPs from across the political parties backed the development of the organisation, although there were later complications around the involvement of Unions. The Women’s Engineering Society set up training courses in factory management well in advance of the government – Haslett was elected WES President in 1940 to use her connections to maximum effect. At the same time, the EAW took practical measures and sponsored Mobile Welfare Canteens in WWII.
In 1937, Haslett had addressed The International Federation Of Business And Professional Women, stating:
“Assume equality. Don’t be apologetic, men are quick to sense it and to take advantage, don’t try to be both a businesswoman and a housewife. Hire someone to mend your stockings. Men in executive positions have learned to travel comfortable, learn to do the same. Don’t waste your energy on small things.”
She became ill in the late 1950s and on 4th January 1957, she died as she lived, leaving instructions in her will that she should be cremated by electricity, at the City of London Crematorium.
The following collections are held in the IET Archives and can be viewed by appointment:
NAEST 033 – Papers of Dame Caroline Haslett
NAEST 092 – Archives of the Women’s Engineering Society
NAEST 093 – Archives of the Electrical Association for Women