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The true story of Britain’s early women engineers

Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines explores one of the fascinating untold dramas of the 20th century – the true story of Britain’s early women engineers and their success in fanning the flames of a social revolution, as well as their achievements in science and technology. Many of these trailblazers have disappeared from history, but Magnificent Women will bring them back to life.

The drama centres on a group of remarkable individuals who in 1919 came together to create the Women’s Engineering Society. Their leaders were Katharine and Rachel Parsons, wife and daughter of the engineering genius Charles Parsons, and Caroline Haslett, a self-taught electrical engineer who campaigned to free women from domestic drudgery and became the most powerful professional woman of her age. These three protagonists and the other main players encountered hardships and joys during the First World War that shaped their intellectual and political views. Their intertwined stories and sometimes tempestuous relationships form the core of the book, but it includes an array of other colourful characters.

Drawn from across the social spectrum, the cast includes Eleanor Shelley-Rolls, sister of car magnate Charles Rolls; Viscountess Rhondda, a director of 33 companies who founded and edited the revolutionary Time and Tide magazine; and Laura Willson, a suffragette and labour rights activist from Halifax, who was twice imprisoned for her political activities.

This is not just the story of the women themselves, but also of the era in which they lived. Beginning at the moment when women in Britain were allowed to vote for the first time, and to stand for Parliament – and when several professions were opened up to them – Magnificent Women charts the changing attitudes towards women in society and in the workplace, and towards engineers in particular. In a penetrating final chapter that looks at the present and the future, it identifies what’s changed and what hasn’t, and sets out to inspire a new generation of female engineers to take up the challenge.

Elegantly written by acclaimed biographer Henrietta Heald, and beautifully illustrated with black-and-white archive photographs, Magnificent Women makes a fitting centenary tribute to a group of extraordinary female pioneers.

Henrietta Heald is a writer and editor with a particular interest in British history, literature, engineering and feminism. Magician of the North, her biography of the great Victorian inventor and industrialist William Armstrong, was shortlisted for two literary prizes, and she has made many media appearances to promote the book. Henrietta was chief editor of Chronicle of Britain and Ireland and Reader’s Digest Illustrated Guide to Britain’s Coast, and she is the author of two works on interior style: La Vie est Belle and Coastal Living. She has a degree in English Literature from Durham University and her most recent book is Amazing and Extraordinary Facts about Jane Austen.

What was a girl to do? Rachel Parsons (1885–1956): engineer and feminist campaigner

What was a girl to do in the year 1900 if she wanted to become an engineer? It helped to have a father called Charles Parsons, whose creation of the steam turbine had marked him out as an inventive genius – to say nothing of a star-gazing grandfather who had built a six-foot-diameter telescope, the largest in the world for more than 70 years. The ancestral astronomer was William Parsons, third earl of Rosse, president of the Royal Society from 1848 to 1854.

Perhaps even more important was the legacy of a grandmother, Mary Rosse, who had herself been an astronomer and engineer, as well as a pioneer of early photography, and the influence of a mother who would become one of the foremost campaigners in northeast England for women’s rights.

Rachel Parsons was 15 years old at the dawn of the 20th century. From early childhood she had shown an aptitude for science and was never happier than when helping her father in his workshop. Rachel and her brother, Tommy, grew up in Northumberland and spent their days roaming the moors or crashing through the waves in increasingly faster boats. Their father, meanwhile, was building up a highly successful industrial concern at Heaton, on the eastern edge of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Rachel had been aboard her father’s legendary Turbinia at the Spithead Navy Review of June 1897, celebrating Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, when the speed of the little ship amazed the watching crowd, including the Royal Family, Lords of the Admiralty and visiting foreign dignitaries. Built as an experimental vessel, Turbinia was the first ship to be powered by Charles Parsons’s steam turbines. Much faster than all other seaborne craft of the time, she appeared unannounced at Spithead and raced between the lines of majestic ships, steaming up and down in front of the princes and admirals, and deftly evading a Navy picket boat that tried to stop her. It was a publicity stunt that alerted the world’s decision-makers to the potential of the steam turbine and set the standard for the next generation of super-vessels, including dreadnoughts and transatlantic liners such as Mauretania, Lusitania and Titanic.


Rachel Parsons and the power of good stories

Friday, 23 June 2017

Tongland women

Today, 23 June, is International Women in Engineering Day, during which women around the world celebrate what it means to be an engineer and the great career opportunities that the profession has to offer. One hundred years ago, during the height of the First World War, their predecessors launched a long battle for employment rights. Find out more by reading this article in the June issue of E&T …

Electrifying pioneers: a tale of two Margarets

Friday, 2 June 2017

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On Thursday, 15 June, I shall be taking part in a Wikithon at the Wellcome Collection in London. The event is part of a larger initiative to improve the gender balance in Wikipedia, since currently only 17 per cent of biographical entries in the online encyclopedia relate to women. Women engineers from history – long ignored or ridiculed as a group – provide fruitful territory for this work, in that…

Watch women build a bomber in record time

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

In the early summer of 1943, after months of relentless bombing raids by the German Luftwaffe, the Ministry of War, in collaboration with the RAF, issued a challenge to one of the factories producing planes for Bomber Command to build an operational Wellington bomber in record-breaking time. The purpose of the exercise was to impress friends and enemies alike. Broughton factory in Flintshire, a few…

Laura Annie Willson MBE: suffragette and house-builder

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Willson family in car

Of the seven Magnificent Women who signed the document creating the Women's Engineering Society on 23 June 1919, one name stands out. At the foot of the list is Laura Annie Willson of 22 Savile Park, Halifax, West Yorkshire. Like her fellow founders, Mrs Willson is described solely by her marital status ('married woman' or 'spinster') but, unlike the rest, she had begun life with no financial or educational…

Pledge Party in Bloomsbury on 24 April

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

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Together with Unbound, Waterstones Gower Street (in Bloomsbury, central London) is hosting a monthly Pledge Party where you can hear from the authors of a number of new books that are crowdfunding. Think a literary Dragons' Den where eight authors each have 5 minutes to pitch their book.

You'll hear about everything from Fiction to Memoir, and from Poetry to History, and you can vote for your favourite…

Claudia and Verena: Loughborough's original lady engineers

Monday, 27 March 2017

Claudia parsons 1

There must be some sort of creative magic in the air of Loughborough. This thought occurred to me last week when I heard that two 16-year-old schoolboys from the Leicestershire town had been jointly awarded the title Young Engineer of the Year. Sankha Kahagala-Gamage and David Bernstein won the prize for inventing a vest for people with epilepsy that can predict an epileptic fit up to eight minutes…

Don't mention Miss Shilling's orifice

Wednesday, 8 March 2017


It doesn’t seem politically correct in modern times to mention the orifice made famous by Tilly Shilling in the Second World War, but on this day of all days it should be remembered – for 8 March is not only International Women’s Day but the birthday, in 1909, of Miss Beatrice (Tilly) Shilling, aeronautical engineer and motorcyle racer.

Tilly established her reputation during the war while working…

Black women engineers: Hidden Figures no longer

Thursday, 2 March 2017

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So Moonlight won the Oscar for best picture – or, at least, I think it did, after a minor hitch that led to the award being presented to the wrong production team. And a brilliant, heart-rending film it is, with outstanding performances by Naomi Harris, Janette Monáe and Mahershala Ali, who secured the Oscar for best supporting actor.

But the triumph of Moonlight should not obscure the success…

Where are the Wikipedia women?

Tuesday, 14 February 2017


As the era of 'Post-Truth' descends, Wikipedia's reliability as a source of information about the past and the present becomes ever more important for anyone who uses the internet for research. It is therefore disturbing to discover how few biographies of women are included.

My first new Wikipedia entry has gone live – at last. Penetrating the wonders and mysteries of Wikipedia editing has…

Magnificent Women campaign launch

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Handmaidens of Death, a ten-minute film by Tracy Gillman


This is my first blog post for Magnificent Women, so I'd like to start by saying a huge THANK YOU to everyone who has made a pledge to the recently launched crowdfunding campaign – and to anyone who feels inclined to do so in the future.

Crowdfunding is much more absorbing and fun than I had imagined. It has given me an excuse…

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