Boarding School Mechanics – some engineering episodes in girls’ novels

Part 3 in the series “Once Upon a Time There was an Engineer, looking for female engineers in film and fiction” comes from Guest Blogger Kay Whalley

First, a disclaimer. I’m not an engineer. I collect girls’ books from about 1900 to about 2000. Girls’ school stories; girls’ adventure stories and girls’ career books.

References to engineering in nearly all these books are few and far between. Nina has blogged about the very few girls’ career books which are focused on engineering. There are hints in other books that the world is changing, but generally no more than hints. So I hope you engineers out there will bear with me when I quote some references that are peripheral.

My first references come from Cassell’s Little Folks Annual, as far back as 1914. ‘Little Folks’ was ‘the magazine for boys and girls’, which was published between 1871-1933. One of its features was the Little Folks Science Club, where children wrote in with science questions. Surprisingly, there are far more questions from girls than boys. Did boys think they already knew the answers, or did girls write in with more interesting questions?

I acknowledge that none of these questions are specifically engineering questions, but it does indicate an interest by girls in science which I didn’t know existed before World War I. None (or very very few) of the answers to these girls would have been taken up by teachers in the schools they went to. Gwendolen Leijonhuford wants to know ‘What is liquid air?’ Constance A Sherlock asks how oxygen can be put into cylinders if it is an invisible gas. Angela Martin asks why cold metal will blister like hot metal. Little Folks acknowledges that it has no satisfactory answer to this one! Irma von Lucius asks ‘how can airships keep in the air when the people and the aircars are so much heavier than the air around?’ And Elinor Briggs wants to know how they work the cinematograph. So, the interest by girls in science and the world around them was definitely out there.

It was surprising to read in one of Angela Brazil’s books, 1912, A Fourth Form Friendship that the girls take carpentry lessons. A large shed in the School yard had been fitted up with a joiner’s bench and, on wet days, girls devoted themselves to carpentry or chip-carving, their best efforts being sold at the Annual Bazaar. And in May Wynne’s 1922 Peggy’s First Term there is one sentence mentioning ‘the work-shed where some of the girls learned carpentering.’ I accept that neither of these references encompass engineering, but at least they’re moving away from embroidery or painting on china.

In Elinor Brent-Dyer’s 1929 Heather Leaves School, Heather Raphael is crossing over to Guernsey with Papa, Major Raphael, and younger sister Honey (Honeysuckle). Papa escorts Honey (who mustn’t be allowed to go unchaperoned) to the boat’s Engine Room, as ‘Honey had a passion for anything mechanical, and her best-loved toy was a railway, with lines, trains, signals, points, and so on.’ Sadly, 1929 was too early to hope that Honeysuckle could forge ahead to make her career with British Railways.

In the real world, the Second World War allowed women to surge ahead in hitherto male-dominated trades or careers as is spelt out in Eileen Bigland’s 1946 non-fictional book, The Story of the WRNS (‘Wrens’). ‘At the start they (Wrens) were only allowed to work in five categories, mainly connected with various kinds of office and domestic work.’ As more men were called up to serve in the Forces, Wrens became wireless telegraphists, radio or air mechanics, members of boats’ crews, ship mechanics, torpedo mechanics…….

The Director rejected the supposition that women have never been mechanically-minded. ‘I have always maintained that there are women who can undertake any job provided they are properly trained.’ The book contains photos of Wrens disarming a torpedo, and fixing marine and aero engines.

For the reverse of engineering creeping into girls’ novels, check up the true story of the ‘Ladies’ Bridge’. The discovery by Professor Christine Wall that Waterloo Bridge really was built by women during WWII emerged out of an urban myth, revealing that by 1944 there were approximately 24,000 women working in the construction industry.

WWII references continue with Elizabeth Wein’s 2012 Code Name Verity, where Maddie Brodatt rides over the Pennines on the motorbike that her grandfather gave her for her 16th birthday. He has also taught her how to service and maintain her bike. Maddie isn’t a member of the aristocracy who could afford to buy and run a motor-bike or an aeroplane. Maddie’s grandfather owns a bike shop. Very few girls had this advantage. Admittedly this is an authorial ploy to allow Maddie eventually to learn to fly a ‘plane and thereby end up in occupied Europe, but it is exciting to read about Maddie and her bike.

Michelle Magorian’s 1985 Back Home is another book which features the advantages that WWII brought to women. Rusty has been an evacuee in America for 5 years. She returns to Great Britain to find that her mother’s life has been transformed. She is Peggy now, not Margaret, has short hair, smokes, and is a car mechanic. ‘Your mother can drive anything. She can also make a vehicle run on almost nothing but elastic bands. We’re going to miss her dreadfully,’ says one of her WVS co-workers. Rusty is taken aback as her mother puts on a grubby pair of overalls, picks up a large toolbox, and proceeds to mend the van. When father returns from the War, he is horrified, not proud of his wife. The family goes out for a drive. The car breaks down. Father gets out to have a look at it. Four-year-old Charlie says, ‘Mummy, why don’t you mend it?’ Mrs Dickinson Senior says ‘Nonsense!’ Charlie insists, ‘but that’s what Mummies do, they’re the ones who fix cars.’ Peggy tells her husband that she did a course in car mechanics with the WVS. Pa says dismissedly, ‘I suppose they taught you how to put petrol in it and clean the wind-screen.’ Peggy mends the car. Father isn’t at all pleased. They finally separate as Peggy has been left a house in Devon, Rusty will go to school down there, and Peggy has been offered a job as a mechanic on the School’s estate. The Headmaster and her mother were leaning over the bonnet of the Headmaster’s car deep in discussion. ‘He’s mad about old cars,’ said Harry. ‘And my mother’s nuts about engines,’ responds Rusty.

Story about Victoria Drummond in True Stories comic

It was in Girl comic [but image above is from a similar comic] in the 1950s when I first read a picture story about Miss Victoria, Ship’s Engineer, who nursed her engines through bombs in the Atlantic, and thought “How wonderful, but, of course, completely unattainable in peace time”. Female ship’s engineers were only for Wartime. It wasn’t until 1994 that I discovered The Remarkable Life of Victoria Drummond: Marine Engineer MBE, by Cherry Drummond and her fight to become a licensed Marine Engineer.

There’s a gentle mention in Elizabeth Rogers’ 1946 The Girls’ of Fort Tregantle, where Loretta likes to think she’s a competent mechanic, but we have no details of this.

Now a surprise! We have a major mention in J M Page’s 1951 The Twins on Trial where Frederica and Frances are identical 14-year-old twins, too fond of playing everybody and everything up, so are sent to separate boarding schools.

Frances at the Orde School tells Ma Bates (obviously an unconventional Head Teacher) that she wants to do something with maths and science, preferably with motorcars and aeroplanes. Ma Bates placidly says that the school has a very good mechanics instructor. Fran scores in the Science Lab where she understands Miss Gracie’s analysis of milk, and is delighted to be given individual tuition, hopefully about more than milk. Staying with Rose and Brenda over the holidays, Fran meets George, Brenda’s brother, who wants help with his motor-bike. Fran is full of eager questions, George is delighted, and they bond over technical discussions. Fran never gets to ride pillion to the dance as she has her dance dress on, but perhaps next time? Back at school Fran concentrates her energies on maths and science and, in her spare time, takes the school ‘bus engine and motor mower engine to pieces. Mr MacDonald, the mechanic, offers to help her make a wireless set. At the Christmas Party Fran goes as The Spirit of the Machine Age in stained dungarees, grease on her face, and her hair tied in a spotted handkerchief. They visit Switzerland with Pa over Christmas, and Fran decides she wants to fly, not as an Air Hostess or a passenger, but actually to fly the ‘planes herself. By the end of the book Fran is servicing the harvesting machine on the Home Farm.

A few short mentions. In Joyce Case’s 1965 Clare Tristan Arctic Nurse, Clare is stationed at Blizzard Point, a Government Nursing Station alongside Andrea which is well inside Canada’s Arctic Circle. Yes, they have their own generator, but guess who’s responsible for it. ‘We are,’ laughs Andrea. ‘I work my way through the Manual of Instruction.’ So girls can cope when they have to.

In Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s 1962 The Feud at the Chalet School Tommy Lambert allows his sister, Jack (really Jacynth Gabrielle) to help him sort out their garage at home, as Jack revels in all machinery, especially motors. Jack is encouraged in this interest by her father who is equally keen on motors, and has been disappointed by his only son’s lack of enthusiasm, and so has turned to his daughter. Although the canny reader wonders would Jack have had this encouragement from Papa if Tommy had been the keen eager one?

And the last is Marjorie Gayler’s 1966 Where There’s a Wheel of which I had high hopes. But no! Lyn works in her father’s garage, but she’s confined to doing all the paperwork, serving petrol, changing wheels and ‘giving a helping hand here and there on a repair.’ But her major worry is keeping her clothes clean. Boys are starting to arrive at school on ‘powered transport’, but girls aren’t.

So there were some girls’ stories (both fictional and factual) out there where some engineering gets a look-in, but they have to be searched for. They’re fairly well concealed!

Today’s guest blogger:

Kay Whalley is a well-known authority on girls’ career novels of the mid-20th century. Under the name Kay Clifford she has published Career Novels for Girls (Mirfield Press, 2018).

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