Miss Benest and Miss Griff – two women or one?

I have recently been honoured to be asked by the publishers of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography to write proposals for two women in the early history of women working as engineers in the UK: Margaret Rowbotham and Cleone de Hevingham Griff.

From my general gathering of information (I have some 400 women engineers on my ‘Long list’ database) I had a fair knowledge of Miss Rowbotham but the other lady was more of a surprise.

I had a lot of information about a Cleone de Heveningham Benest from her birth in 1880 up until about 1911, then nothing until her death in 1963 (mainly from the records of the Ryde Social History Group). And I had a fair bit of information about a Miss C. Griff (no first name ever given) from about 1915 to 1927 and then nothing at all. This request from the ODNB was the first intimation I had had that the two women might in fact be one woman.

From these two images (left from The Woman Engineer, the journal of the Women’s Engineering Society) could you be sure they were the same, beautiful, woman? I still couldn’t be sure. However, my next clue was the discovery of an entry for Cleone de Hevingham B. Griff in “Women, a modern political dictionary” which, it turns out, was where the ODNB people had stumbled upon her.

Still not what I would accept as definitive evidence, not least because the Hevingham B. part didn’t match up with all the other evidence I had about Cleone, namely that her (father’s) family name was Benest (a huge and widely-branched family associated with the Channel Isles) and the ‘de Heveningham’ [sic] a middle name specific to her and not featuring in her family tree at all.

However, the entry in that dictionary did include information about ‘both’ women that I already had – in separate entries in my database – including that Miss Griff had been an early member of the Iron and Steel Institute (1921), although not as it transpired the first woman member. The ISI, and a number of other materials associations, have over the years amalgamated into the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining, and their archivist responded instantly with scans of their paperwork about her being elected as a member to ISI. These documents confirmed that what looked to be two women is in fact one woman. Their records have her variously as:

Cleone de Hevingham B. Griff

Cleone de Heveningham Griff

Cleone Griff

Miss C. Griff

I hope to be able to find other confirmatory evidence of all this and am still baffled as to why she used so many different forms of her birth name and most of all why she adopted the additional surname Griff, apparently between 1915 and 1921.

Still more mysteries to uncover.

You are probably still wondering what this (one) woman actually did???

….. that’s a story for another evening, dear reader…..


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