By Anne Locker, Library and Archives Manager
Image above: Caroline Haslett and President Truman at the White House, 1952. Caroline is standing to the President’s right, in the dark dress with a striped collar (NAEST 033/12/06)
Dame Caroline Haslett was a leader in engineering and business in the mid twentieth century. In 1919, having completed her training at the Cochrane Boiler Company, she was appointed as the first secretary of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). Caroline set up the WES journal, The Woman Engineer, and would drive the future of WES from the mid 1920s. In 1924, she co-founded the Electrical Association for Women (EAW) and became its first Director.
Caroline combined a career promoting women in engineering and technology with public service: as the first woman member of the British Electricity Board; in her service on post-WW2 committees; in her involvement in town planning for the new town of Crawley; and as a Justice of the Peace. She was President of both the British Federation of Business and Professional Women and its international parent body, the International Federation of Business and Professional Women (IFBPW).
This successful career was built on Caroline’s vision and considerable abilities, and her networks. She met, befriended and corresponded with an astonishing range of men and women who played their own roles in the history of the twentieth century.
The Haslett correspondence
The personal papers of Dame Caroline Haslett are held in the Archives (reference NAEST 033). As we reopen the collections in the Archives to members and researchers in 2021, we can also restart some of our own cataloguing and research projects that have been on hold over the last 18 months. One such project is the re-cataloguing of the Haslett correspondence, and this is already shedding light on Caroline’s networks and demonstrating the extent of her personal influence in the post-war years.
Many of the letters are brief, business-like exchanges which could be found in any similar collection. Others are unique to Caroline’s position and influence. So far, we have re-catalogued files A-B and some of our initial findings are below.
Post-war engineering and women’s employment
Caroline was a key figure in the expansion of domestic electricity in the UK. She was the only woman on the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) committee on electrical installations in post-war housing, which reported in 1944. One of its recommendations was a safer, 3-pin electric plug, which would later become BS1363: more information can be found in the blog. An alternative technology was the Dorman plug, which was argued to be safer and more robust. Correspondence with Major Richard Amberton of Dorman and Smith shows him lobbying Caroline to give her support. He invites her to tour the factory and reports on a demonstration with local volunteers to show how easy and safe it is to change a Dorman plug.
Other connections are from Caroline’s advisory work and with the IFBPW. Caroline had travelled to the US in 1942 to report and advise on the employment and training of women. She made friends with her counterparts in the US, including Bess Bloodworth, head of HR at the Namms Department Store, Brooklyn, and the first woman to be appointed as a bank trustee.
Ambassadorial society and the White House
The role women played in wartime was the subject ‘The Women of England’, a radio broadcast by Margaret Drexel Biddle, who at that time was married to Anthony Drexel Biddle Junior, US Ambassador to Poland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, and Yugoslavia. Margaret Biddle was another regular correspondent while her husband was stationed in London and Paris in the 1940s, and the files include a typescript of the broadcast.
Margaret interviewed Caroline and two women working in factories: Miss Leather and Miss Hodgson. In her interview, Caroline emphasises the range of work being done:
“Not only are women working in these highly skilled jobs [in the tool room] but they are acting increasingly in managerial capacities – as supervisors, as managers of whole departments and as inspectors of all kinds.”
Sheila Leather would go on to found the company Holmes and Leather with the engineer Verena Holmes and was elected President of WES in 1950.
Margaret and Anthony Biddle separated in 1945. She stayed in Paris and became a well-known figure in American society, even being tipped for an ambassadorial role of her own. She died in 1956, and left her extensive and important collection of gilded (also known as vermeil) tableware to the White House, where it is now on display in the Vermeil Room, which also houses portraits of First Ladies of the United States.
Caroline’s international work with the IFBPW brought her into contact with notable figures in social movements, including Bodil Begtrup, the Danish activist and later Ambassador to Iceland, who was Vice Chair of the United Nations Committee that produced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Another brief exchange shows the connections between Caroline’s political work in the UK and international politics. Caroline worked closely with Sir Stafford Cripps – a subject for a later blog – and there is a short exchange of letters between Caroline and Peggy Appiah, Sir Stafford and Lady Cripps’ youngest daughter. Peggy worked with the UK government and international NGOs in the 1940s and 50s, where she met Joseph Appiah, Ghanian politican and diplomat. The letters in the collection date just after their marriage and concern a social engagement.
A royal connection
Nancy Astor, Viscountess Astor, was the first woman MP to take her seat in the UK Parliament in 1919. She had worked with Caroline since the 1920s and was a regular correspondent in the 1940s and 1950s. Astor was never an easy individual, and the letters become less frequent through the 1950s when Astor’s political views estranged her from many of her colleagues. It was, however, through Nancy Astor that a more surprising correspondent comes into the collection.
During the war, a suggestion was made that Marion ‘Crawfie’ Crawford, former governess to Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, could be interviewed by a US newspaper to give a US audience an insight into the Royal Family. This became a contentious topic, especially when Marion decided to write a book, The Little Princesses, which was not supported by the family. The dispute was the subject of a 2000 documentary, Crawfie: the Royal Nanny who Wouldn’t Keep Mum.
Caroline’s role was a relatively small one. As someone with connections in both the UK and US, when approached by Nancy Astor she advised Marion to speak with the journalist. There is no mention of the controversary that later surrounded the project, and she continued to correspond with Marion, offering help when her husband, Major Buthlay, was looking for a job.
In this short selection, it is already possible to see the breadth and depth of Caroline’s professional, social and political networks. Through her letters, lunches, travels and committees she was able to exert a quiet influence on an astonishing range of activities. Further work is needed to bring out more stories from the collection, and to assess Caroline’s role in post-war society.