Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines

By Henrietta Heald

The true story of Britain’s early women engineers

Friday, 2 June 2017

Electrifying pioneers: a tale of two Margarets

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 many of them can lay claim to great achievements that have been marginalized or forgotten.

The Wikithon coincides with an exhibition at the Wellcome called Electricity: the Spark of Life, which sets out to show that electricity is synonymous with life itself. This is a big claim, but it is strangely pertinent when related to the 1920s, the period that most interests me, because there were several women engineers of the time who realized that the key to women's emancipation from domestic drudgery was electrification of the home. Their attempts to spread the word about this insight were supported by the Women's Engineering Society, founded in the 1919, and the Electrical Association for Women, founded in 1924.

Two of the leading lights of this movement were Margaret Rowbotham and Margaret Partridge, a lesbian pair who set up home together in Exeter with a mission to electrify Devon. They are shown in the photograph below flanking their most famous apprentice, Beatrice 'Tilly' Shilling (detail of photo published in Women Engineer magazine, vol. 10, summer 1969, reproduced courtesy of IET Archives).


During the First World War, Margaret Rowbotham (left) trained in the workshops and drawing office of Galloway Engineering Co. and of Arrol-Johnston car manufacturer in Dumfries, showing such potential that she was promoted to machine shop superintendent at their Tongland Works in Kirkcudbright. When the Women's Engineering Society (WES) was set up in 1919, Rowbotham was one of the founder members.

Like many similar women of her generation, Margaret Partridge gained her experience in engineering by working in munitions factories during the First World War and was infuriated by the ban on women engineers that came into force after the war. She returned to her home county of Devon to set up her own business, M. Partridge & Co., Domestic Engineers, which advertised itself as specializing in electrical installations under the banner of 'Women for Women's Work'. Partridge later became the Southwest Region Organizer for the Electrical Association for Women and one of the authors of the EAW's publication The Electrical Handbook for Women. She was vice-president and president of WES, and during the Second World War she founded Exeter Munitions Ltd.

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