An open letter to the late Victoria Drummond (1894-1978).
Good morning Miss Drummond,
You don’t know me. But I know of you. First of all may I say what a privilege it is to be addressing the world's first woman marine engineer.
This letter is to tell you about a new online exhibition that includes you, in the context of your former employers, P&O. The exhibition is WOW – Women on the Waves. P&O’s Pioneering Women Seafarers: Past, Present and Future. https://www.poheritage.com/the-collection/exhibitions/wow-women-on-the-waves.
In it 23 'boards' tell the story of how women have risen from stewardess in the 1820s to captain in the 1990s.
You are there on one of the later boards: 'Exceptional Engineer.' The information about your success in becoming an engineer despite the odds comes just after the advent of ships' nurses in the 1920s, and good way before the start of women in deck and engine jobs in the 1970s.
Yes, women who were in WW2 – like you – are visible there, being stalwart and even getting medals for it, as you were.
The exhibition mentions that you were on the TSS Mulbera. I wanted to know more, and to see those 1927-28 years in context, so I’ve been looking them up in the biography published by the Institute of Marine Engineers. You were its first lady member.
1970s and equality strugglesYou'll remember that in the decade just before you died in 1978 there was a lot of equal opportunities legislation (and behind the scenes struggles to shape it and enforce it). That pressure enabled women engineers to start doing the job that were right for them.
They progressed, even though many men thought it was unsuitable for a woman; it was as if all your decades of work hadn’t proved anything.
The exhibition shows how much young women cadets began to do legitimately – but not easily – what you had to do solely through personal struggle and your contacts.
Your first ship: Blue Funnel's Anchises, 1922-24Cherry Drummond, your niece, edited your words about your career. So we know about your first ship, the Anchises, which was slightly larger than your next ship and had a triple expansion steam engine.
You were the Tenth Engineer. https://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/stories/victoria-drummond-inspirational-woman-international-womens-day At 27 you were quite old to be starting in such a basic position but delighted. The Far East and Australia were among your destinations.
You got on well with Malcolm Quayle, the permanent Second Engineer on the Anchises. I'm glad he stood up for you against the persecution by the relief Second, Mr Howard. Mr Waite, the Chief, liked you too.
You called Malcolm 'the Hedgehog' and he called you 'Kate' because you, like him, were prickly; it was a reference to stroppy Kate in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.
But then Blue Funnel Line wouldn’t carry on employing you. You guess they feared there would be a scandal about your closeness with the (married) Second. And maybe there was more to it than that, too.
Sailing on BIS's Mulbera, 1927-28You had almost three years on land, when you passed your Second Engineer's exam (Steam). Third time lucky.
Then began the period when you were with the British India Steam Navigation Company BIS) which became part of P&O. That period makes 34 pages in your memoirs. You explain that although you'd passed your Second Engineer's exams you were unable to get any shipping company to employ you, at any level:
‘I got Mummy to write, too, to everyone we could possibly think of. Suddenly I heard that British India Line would possible take me. I rang them and [was told] "Lord Inchcape is agreeable to your sailing with the company and therefore I think I shall put you on the TSS Mulbera, 9,100 ton, turbine-driven, oil fuel burning, running out to East Africa. She goes to just below Mombasa.The Chief and Second are both very nice"' (p112)Finally you began on 12 April 1927, age 32. The Mulbera was a medium size passenger-cargo ship, built in Scotland like you. Under Captain WR Steadman you were one of 153 crew. You don’t mention the cargo. Your steward was Indian and didn’t speak English, so ‘I started working on my Hindustani books.’ (p113). I wonder if you spoke it to any other Asian crew too.
Via ancestry.co.uk I’ve seen a digitised version of the Mulbera passenger list – which maybe you scanned in reality on that trip. The list shows us the names of the 23 passengers (some of whom were rude to you as a WOMAN engineer). You were headed for Colombo, Calcutta, Madras, and Port Said. They were all ports you knew.
You were pleased with your cabin, as you would be: BIS ships were known for their beauty, especially the polished hardwood:‘It was a much more comfortable room than on the Anchises ... [but] there was not much privacy as both ports opened on the deck and any passenger could look in. In addition, I had to share a bathroom.’(p113)
It wasn’t seemly for women to share with men, so perhaps you had shared it with lady passengers including two ladies travelling solo in second class: Margaret Copeland, a Tunbridge Wells nurse, and Phoebe Parsons ,a school inspector from Hornsey.
Down in the engine room you were surprised at the difference it made to be on an oil-fuelled ship, unlike the Anchises. ‘This was balanced by the noise of the turbo generators, which was so strong I could not hear myself shout in the engine room. At first it made my head ache but I soon got used to it.’ (p113)
And for the next three years you sailed as Fifth Engineer, mainly to East Africa,
No paparazziIn the 1970s P&O, like other shipping lines, celebrated the advent of young techie women. They were in newspapers, some even had their vital statistics referred to, and certainly their hair colour and prettiness.
Hardly anyone had celebrated your achievement, only The Woman Engineer, 50 years earlier. It is the journal of the Women's Engineering Society, which had begun just three years earlier. In 1924 it pictures you on your first ship, the Anchises. (pictured).
A couple of years later The Woman Engineer for December 1926 mentions you had popped into their London offices ‘to announce the good news that she had just obtained her Second Engineer’s certificate ... after making six trips on the Anchises.’
Your colleagues from the Anchises, the article said,
‘have paid many fine tributes ... [including] "she was been a wonder to us. She has done everything that could be expected of a man engineer. She has taken the usual day and night watches, and has never been known to miss a watch, no matter how high the sea has been, nor how hard the work."'
Today most people don't know how hard it was for your successors in the 1970s too. Some pioneers have told me privately how much they struggled, and had grit their teeth. Some wrote home about it. Others kept schtum; they didn’t want to upset their families or risk their career progression.
Surviving bullyingTheir misery is not recorded in this, or any, exhibition, so far, However, fortunately there is now much general campaigning for these women's rights, include the right to just get on with your job and not to be harassed.
Your words about the Mulbera reveal a couple of problems that are still typical today. The main challenge was hostility from your second engineer, Mr Lamb.
At 34 he was, you say, as tall and thin as the Chief was short and fat, and as hostile as your chief was fair.He seems to have taken an irrational dislike to you, bullied you, and indeed punished you.
You came to nickname him the Tiger Cat, for his vicious attacks.(p113). If he'd been fair he'd have let you have time off to recover from your injured thumb. Instead, the problem was prolonged for years.
Mr Stuart, your ‘very Scottish’ Chief, was indeed 'nice' and stood up for you when the Tiger was cruel again.
‘One day he was bad I went to the Chief and told him in confidence about my trouble. The Chief was very understanding and I felt better now that he knew my position.’ (p122)Excuse me noticing, Miss Drummond, however, that you don’t say he took any action (although you say of a later complaint, ‘The Chief fixed the Tiger Cat good and proper’’ p128.
Also you call it ‘my trouble’, taking it on yourself. Did you not see the Tiger as behaving in an oppressively discriminatory way that would have troubled any woman?
Do you think the Tiger Cat – maybe like the relief Second you’d briefly dealt with on the Anchises – felt threatened by a woman being capable of passing the same exams that he had passed?
At the end of your trip ‘the horrid Tiger was spreading such nasty stories about me that I thought it best not to stir anyone up so that I could just get my last two voyages in.’
Young women today say being constantly chipped at grinds them down. You too.‘I was so unhappy. It was such a miserable world,’ you said. (p140)
The legacy of good mentorsBut you had good times too, including happy runs ashore. And I'm very struck by the way your late friend and mentor, Malcolm Quayle, 'the Hedgehog' from Anchises, helped you from beyond the grave. On the Mulbera at 2am one night close to Calcutta, when you were dog tired, you had forgotten to do a job:
‘Suddenly I heard a voice behind me say, “I say, Kate old thing, slip down and sound the settling tank.” I looked around and there was nothing, but the old Hedgehog might have been at my elbow. I hopped down to the Engine room and found the settling tank stood at 1 ton, the least amount that could be allowed before changing over. If I had not changed over then all the fires in the boiler would have gone out!
Another time I was taking a blow on top and I felt someone close behind me, and then the Hedgehog’s voice said, “Kate, a freezer engine connecting rod bearing is hot.” I ran down and it was!” (p148).
What nextIn 1927 the Tiger Cat’s behaviour was the reason you left British India's Mulbera: that and the lack of enough leave. When you left
'the splendid Chief gave me a first class reference; attentive to her duties, civil, willing, and obliging and I hope to hear of her future success. She is of an exemplary character." How Jean and Frances laughed when they read that, or had it repeated to them by me, as they often did.' (p150)
Then for 12 years you were ashore, mainly in London, initially working for the Chief's certificate, trying to scratch a living, and getting to know the new babies in the family. (Catherine, the grand-daughter of your brother John, was later to help with this new P&O exhibition.) You went to visit Mr Stuart, who had just retired from British India, in Chingford. At his request you gave him a little black cocker spaniel like your dog, Sox. You later heard that Mr Stuart
'would sit in his chair in the dark, with the photo of me pulled close to his side, and listen to the scrape of the little dog's feet on the floor.'It must have been hard to lose both him and your dear Hedgehog. Engineers do die young. Did it make you wonder if your life would be brief, too, if you carried on up the ladder?
There’s external evidence that you continued to have strong identity as a woman engineer. You don’t mention it in your autobiography but WES recorded that in June 1928 you were a speaker at the Electrical Association for Women conference in Glasgow.
In keeping with the theme "Women’s Work in the Modern World", your session was on Business and Professional Women. In it you spoke about engineering and were referred to as 'the first seagoing woman engineer’. Maybe you got the chance to go home to Megginch too.
WW2 – anew phaseWhen WW2 began in 1939 you say:
'I felt it was time for me to get back on a ship. I was desperate. I wrote sending my certificates of competence, my list of voyages on the Anchises and the Mulbera, recommendations from the captains and Chiefs I served under, to anyone I could think of ... No one would have me. They might be short-staffed but that was no reason to employ a woman engineer. And certainly not in wartime.' (p177)You went down to the Royal Albert Docks and in a cafe you were
'hailed by a cheery voice, my old donkeyman from the Mulbera', who you had last seen 11 year earlier. “Hullo, Fifth! Come and have a cup of tea on us’ he urged. When you explained about your futile job search he offered ‘” I tell you what I would do, sail under a foreign flag.'' And so the Mulbera donkeyman fixed it for you, telling you ‘"You got us out of a spot in Hamburg with your German. One good turn deserves another."
He introduced you to a man recruiting for tramp ships. Initially he was rather shocked – a woman! – but then saw your documents and approved: "You have been in two of the best companies ... Blue Funnel and British India.’ (pp 177-8)And so you began the rest of your seagoing career, never again sailing with any ships of what became the P&O group. I'm sure you would have done so, had they offered you work – work commensurate with your status.
And you became recognised as a hero in 1941, with your MBE and Lloyds Medal for Bravery.
You often worked in a lower-ranked jobs, on your many ships (which people can read about on Wikipedia). No-one persecuted you as badly as on your first two ships. And you died in 1980, finally ‘Finished with Engines’, as Cherry said.
You through modern eyesMiss Drummond, I think you'd like this P&O exhibition, including the unusual pictures your descendent Catherine Drummond-Herdman loaned to it.
Seeing you in it will mean a lot, too, to the modern women I’ve met, who’ve won the Nautilus Award named after you, and studied in the University of Solent engineering block that bears your name.
Getting this new angle on you, in your P&O context, has shown me that I'd like to go to your old home, Megginch, which is still the family's private home, to get a sense of your progress from Perth to the Orient: a woman who liked engines and travel.
Thank you for persevering with your impressive career, and for putting up with the Mr Lambs and Mr Howards of this world.
Hopefully new protocols will never mean young women have to suffer again the attacks of unfair bosses in lonely ships far from home support. Thank heaven for the Hedgehogs and Mr Stuart of the world.
With esteem, from a woman who writes the histories of your seafaring sisters and belongs to WES because she supports women’s right to do STEM work.