WES History

WES has supported women in engineering for over 100 years.

WES was founded on 23 June 1919 by a small committee drawn from the National Council of Women, which was created during the 1914-18 war to get women into work to release men for the armed forces. This group of influential women had government backing to support women engineers who, although welcomed into the profession during World War 1, were under pressure at the end of the war to leave the workforce to release jobs for men returning from the forces. These women founded WES, not only to resist this pressure, but also to promote engineering as a rewarding job for women as well as men.

Founding members included wives of eminent engineers for example Lady Parsons, wife of Sir Charles. Famous members since then have included Amy Johnson, Dame Caroline Haslett, and Professor Daphne Jackson. 

WES Members Visit Wolf Safety Lamp Company

In that first year the Society’s Journal The Woman Engineer was published, appearing regularly ever since. In 1923 the first annual conference was held and has been held ever since – cancelled only twice, during the Second World War. View history of conferences and AGMs.

Amy Johnson appears in this photograph (courtesy of the Wolf Safety Lamp Company Sheffield: Maurice-Jackson archive) of a visit of WES members to the Wolf Safety Lamp factory in 1936. Amy Mollinson (nee Amy Johnson, the aviator) is standing between Monica and William Maurice, front row right of centre.

Information on Rachel Parsons can be found on the Rachel Parsons Website and the Parsons website.

We have a tradition of making a difference. Our ‘spin out’ programmes led or stimulated by our pioneering members include: 

WES Archives

We have a vast amount of archived material held at the IET Savoy Place Archive in London. A list of what is available in the archive can be found HERE. The online catalogue can be found HERE and to see descriptions of the WES collection, simply type UK0108 NAEST 092 into the search field.

WES in the early days

The Women’s Engineering Society (WES) was formed nearly a century ago in 1919, forged in the fires of the First World War and the suffrage movement, becoming legally recognised as an organisation the day after the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 was passed in December 1919. “A person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function, or from being appointed to or holding any civil or judicial office or post, or from entering or assuming or carrying on any civil profession or vocation, or for admission to any incorporated society…” The act was intended to protect the rights of women wishing to remain in or access education and the workplace, and although it was never very strongly enforced, it was a significant step change which gave women who wished to pursue work and education outside the home in peacetime some hope and encouragement in their pursuit of rewarding careers.

Many of WES’s founders had been involved in WWI war work including munitions and other factories. Their experience of running and managing factories, working on the shop floors, design studios, workshops and engine sheds (particularly in the nascent aeronautics industries) gave them experiences and skills they could never have expected to access in peacetime. Whilst some women returned to the domestic sphere after undertaking war work, others were keen to remain in the engineering industries and to give other women the opportunities to train and work in the field too.

WES’s early members were campaigners, hands on engineers, inventors, designers, electricians, pilots, managers and administrators. Many of the leaders and committee members were from the better off industrial middle or upper classes, but the organisation’s work covered women working on the shop floor, making their way into management, those accessing formal education and even the female end users of engineering innovations such as the introduction of electricity into the home. They worked to build trust with politicians and universities so that negotiations and changes to policies and laws were realistic and constructive. Others set up their own businesses designed to be run by and for women.

Dorothée Pullinger set up a factory in the West of Scotland to manufacture the Galloway Car, designed and built for women by women, which was initially very successful, issuing around 4000 cars until the economic crash of the later 1920s forced its closure. Her apprenticeship for women was two years shorter than the one usually served by men as she believed women learnt faster. She later set up a successful steam laundry business using cutting-edge technologies  was designed to lessen the physical burden on women working in the laundries and in the homes they serviced.

Other WES members, such as Margaret Partridge, set up apprentice schemes for women, trained and encouraged women in the use of the newly introduced electricity in the home to reduce domestic burdens to improve health and free women’s time for leisure, opportunities to learn or work. In 1934, Miss Jeanie Dicks, another WES member, secured the contract for the first electrification of Winchester Cathedral.

Laura Annie Willson was a founding members of the Women’s Engineering Society, one of the seven women who signed the original Memorandum of Agreement. She had been a suffragette and a trade union organiser, and was imprisoned twice for her political activities. During the First World War she managed the women’s section of her husband’s lathe factory as part of the war effort. She was the first female member of the Federation of House Builders and built housing estates for workers equipped with the latest electricity and gas technologies.

Many of WES’s early members played a significant part in the nascent aeronautical industries, working as designers, engineers and pilots in the 1920s and 1930s, and transferring their skills into war work in WWII. Amy Johnson, the most famous WES member (and WES President 1933-4), renowned for her adventures as a pilot, was also a qualified engineer and worked hard to encouraged and inspire other women to join the industries and become qualified. Pauline Gower and Dorothy Spicer were just two of these pilots and engineers, Dorothy becoming the first person to hold all 4 different types of aeronautic licenses. They worked in partnership giving hundreds of flying demonstrations across Britain, and later running an air taxi service, before joining the war effort in WWII. Pauline established the women’s branch of the Air Transport Auxiliary, effectively becoming Amy Johnson’s boss.

Beatrice ‘Tilly’ Shilling, originally one of Margaret Partridge’s apprentices, went on to invent an adaption to Spitfire and Merlin engines (nicknamed Miss Shilling’s Orifice by the RAF) which stopped the engines flooding during manoeuvres, preventing the aircrafts from crashing. This is thought to have played a significant role in Britain’s ability to win the Battle of Britain, yet she is only known to subject specialists, rather than being a famous name with films inspired by her work as happened to many male engineers of the era.

These early battles, campaigns and steps forward, and many more in the hundred years since, are recorded in The Women Engineer, WES’s journal, published quarterly since 1919 and still going strong. Interestingly, some of the early commentary and campaign statement on equal rights and equal pay for women would not seem that out of place in articles published today. Since its inception, WES has worked to try to ensure that women have the opportunities to work and to be educated, campaigning for equal rights, equal education and equal pay in a sector which remains heavily male dominated. WES’s work in improving the rights of women in the workplace would have been impossible without male allies such as Sir Charles Parsons, inventor of the turbine engine, who were able to use their social standing and personal experience to make the case for women being a positive addition to the engineering workforce, much as the call today continues for men to challenge the gender bias in engineering. Sir Charles’s son and heir was called up in WWI and died near Ypres in 1916, so his daughter Rachel Parsons was brought into run parts of the family business, developing the experience and knowledge which gave her the skills and contacts essential in her role as the first president of WES. Her mother, Lady Katherine Parsons, became the second president. Both women used their social position, engineering skills and hands on experience of managing industrial works for the benefit of WES members and other women in the engineering and manufacturing workplaces

Today, only 11% of the British engineering workforce is female, yet women have played and continue to play a significant role in the field. The upsurge of interest in women’s history in 2018 with the celebration of the centenary of the achievement of partial female suffrage makes the case that women’s part in changing society is of great interest and inspiration and must not be allowed to be forgotten.