The Fourth Signatory

The signatures in the founding document of the Women’s Engineering Society 1919

On the 23rd June 1919 seven women met to decide how they could set up an association for women who worked in engineering – the Women’s Engineering Society. The paperwork took a while but, on 19th December 1919, they all put their names on the official documents that would, on Christmas Eve, register the society with Companies House.

Six of the women were well-known then and remain well-known in engineering history circles to this day. Some were married to or related to prominent male engineers of the day (Eleanor Shelley, Rachel Parsons, Lady Katharine Parsons, Lady Margaret Moir), others were already trying to gouge out a living as engineers in a world that had, all too quickly, brushed aside their essential contributions to the recent war efforts (Margaret Rowbotham, Laura Annie Willson). But one woman, in the middle of the list of signatures, has vanished almost without trace.

Janetta Isabel Mary Ornsby (nee Palmer) (1871-1954) was that woman and it has proved very difficult to even sketch out the bare bones of her life. I have found no image of her.

Janet or Janetta Palmer was the oldest child of Rev Albert Reynolds Palmer (1844-83) and his Scottish wife Margaret Anne Macfarlane (1839-93), and was born in 1871* in Sutterton, Lincolnshire, where her father was presumably vicar in the local church. Her father’s job seems to have moved them from Lincolnshire to London during the years she would have been at primary school but he died in 1883 when she was only 12 years old. As her widowed mother also had 2 sons and a daughter ages from 2-10, it seems likely that they returned to her family in Dalkeith, Midlothian, which would be Janetta’s family ‘anchorage’ for the rest of her life. Although we have no record of Janetta’s education she presumably attended a girl’s high school in Dalkeith or perhaps in Edinburgh. Her sister Ethel had at least some medical training at the University of Edinburgh, brother Charles became an architect and the youngest brother Brien became a church minister in Australia.

Wedding notice in the Newcastle Courant, 26th September 1896

Janetta married Robert Embleton Ornsby (1856-1920) in Dalkeith in September 1896. Her husband had risen to become a qualified mining engineer and had been a colliery manager at the Seaton Delaval colliery near Blyth, Northumberland, for a while when they married. The 1881 and 1891 censuses show him still living on his father’s farm near Morpeth but working as a mining engineer and in 1888 he entered local politics for the first time. There is nothing to tell us how they met but Dalkeith is in the heart of the Scottish coalmining area and perhaps he visited a mine in the area at some point. They lived at 7 Osborne Terrace, Jesmond, not far from where the very well-known Parsons family lived, which may have been how the connection arose. Although the Ornsbys would not have been in quite the same social class as Sir Charles and Lady Parsons, Robert Ornsby was a popular local councillor for nearby Seghill, and Janet might have met Lady Katharine at some public event. As far as is recorded in The Woman Engineer, Mrs Ornsby’s signature on the founding document for the Women’s Engineering Society, since her name is not mentioned again after its first AGM.

Robert Ornsby died in 1920, leaving his widow quite well off – about £900k in today’s money – and they had no children for Janet to have to worry about. By 1930 she was living in Edinburgh but later in the 1930s she was living in Kent, as evidenced by a couple of newspaper reports of her minor traffic offences landing her in court in 1937 and 1938.

Murder trial report in Dundee Courier 14 March 1950

By 1949 she was back in Dalkeith living with a companion – Mrs Mary McArcher – a widow of about her own age. They were friendly with local man, Charles Turnbull, who was unfortunately murdered and both Janet and Mary had the grim duty of giving evidence at his murderer’s trial. She and Mary McArcher were living in a charming cottage, know as Tower House, in Dalkeith. By this time she as calling herself Mrs Janet Palmer and it was under that name she died in Edinburgh in 1954.

Tower House, Dalkeith, today (Googlemaps)

It has been frustrating to find out so little about Janetta, and especially to find no photo of her. If you know anything more about her, do get in touch.

  • Official records seem to contradict each other on the year of her birth. There is definite evidence from her baptism in 1871 and the 1881 census that she was born in 1871. But by the time she was an adult and presumably able tell the census officials whatever she thought she could get away with, we find her in the 1911 census recorded to be 37, which would put her birth year at 1874, and in the 1939 ID-card register she was recorded as born in 1876.

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