The Story Of Scotland’s First Female Marine Engineer


SATURDAY, February 11, should be an important date in the calendar for Scotland, given that we have long punched above our weight in science. Our history of innovation and invention in various branches of science is well known, and we have the famous tea towels with that memorable list to prove it, reports The National.

Eighth International Day 

Three weeks on Saturday will see the Eighth International Day of Women and Girls in Science and I sincerely hope this day will be marked across Scotland and that the growing role of women in the STEM fields – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics – will be highlighted.

International Day of Women and Girls in Science is a project promoted by the United Nations and was initially the brainchild of the woman known as the Science Princess – Her Royal Highness Princess Dr Nisreen El-Hashemite, a member of the Iraqi royal family and a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

She has long been an important advocate for gender equality in STEM matters, and persuaded the UN back in 2015 to nominate February 11 as the annual day to promote women and girls in science.

The UN states: “A significant gender gap has persisted throughout the years at all levels of science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines all over the world. Even though women have made tremendous progress towards increasing their participation in higher education, they are still under-represented in these fields.”

According to the United Nations website for the international day, women just do not get a fair deal in science. The UN says: “Women are typically given smaller research grants than their male colleagues and, while they represent 33.3% of all researchers, only 12% of members of national science academies are women. In cutting edge fields such as artificial intelligence, only one in five professionals (22%) is a woman.

“Despite a shortage of skills in most of the technological fields driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution, women still account for only 28% of engineering graduates and 40% of graduates in computer science and informatics.

“Female researchers tend to have shorter, less-well-paid careers. Their work is under-represented in high-profile journals and they are often passed over for promotion.”

So in the run up to February 11, I am going to do my bit for Scottish women in science by presenting the stories from history about extraordinary female Scots and their achievements that you may possibly have never heard about.

An inspiration

Let’s start with the remarkable Victoria Drummond, surely an inspiration for any girl or young woman who wants to break into the world of engineering. If her only achievement had been becoming the first woman marine engineer in Britain and the first woman to become a Member of the Institute of Marine Engineers she would be remembered for her pioneering work alone, but as we shall see, she was much more than that.

It helps that her niece, Cherry Drummond, wrote a biography of her aunt and most of the information about her comes from that source.

Victoria Alexandrina Drummond was born in Errol in Perthshire to a family with aristocratic connections on October 14, 1894. She was the middle of three daughters of Captain Malcolm Drummond of Megginch, Groom in Waiting to Queen Victoria and Deputy Lieutenant of Perthshire.

Her mother was Geraldine Margaret Tyssen-Amherst, the daughter of William Tyssen-Amherst, 1st Baron Amherst of Hackney, and her godmother, after whom she was named, was Queen Victoria herself.

Drummond’s younger brother would become the 15th Baron Strange and in later life would become well-known as an eccentric and entertaining peer.

Given such lofty connections, it comes as a surprise that from an early age Drummond expressed a wish to become an engineer, specifically a marine engineer. She was inspired by visits to a local engineering firm owned by Robert Morton who advised her to study hard and try and get an apprenticeship.

HER father encouraged Drummond, too, but first of all in 1913 she was presented as a debutante at the court of King George V. The normal progress would have been marriage to some noble lord or wealthy man, but the outbreak of the First World War gave Drummond the opportunity she really wanted.

An apprenticeship

With millions of men being called up to serve in the forces, many jobs were opened up to women, and Drummond was able to start an apprenticeship as a mechanic in a garage in Perth earning the princely sum of 2s 6d – the old half crown – per week, her wages doubling in her second year. While there, she studied maths and engineering three evenings a week at Dundee Technical College, which much later became Abertay University.

From Perth she moved to Dundee and, with her father’s support and his local connections, she became an apprentice at the Caledon shipyard’s boilermaking and engineering workshop.

Drummond completed her apprenticeship in 1920 and became one of the first members of the Women’s Engineering Society, which had been established the previous year to campaign for greater opportunities for women who had been forced out of their jobs to make way for men returning from the war.

When Caledon suffered a sharp loss of orders in early 1922, many employees were made redundant including Drummond, who was still determined to become a marine engineer at sea.

Honouring a promise made by an earlier director, Lawrence Holt, director of the famed Blue Funnel shipping line and later the co-founder of the Outward Bound scheme, agreed to interview Drummond and she impressed him so much that he immediately offered her a job at the company’s engineering record office in Liverpool.

From there it was a short hop to the position that Drummond really wanted – being an engineer at sea. In August 1922, she was made an assistant engineer on the Blue Funnel liner Anchises, going on a trial run from Liverpool to Glasgow.

As the first and only woman in such a job in Britain, Drummond was under close examination and she thrived in her new role so that she was taken on permanently as 10th engineer, making four voyages to Australia and the Far East.

Drummond met with some misogynistic behaviour from officers and even female passengers, and she was accused of having an affair with one crewmate, which she hotly denied. The crew largely became very loyal to her, as she was to them.

She still needed to get a certificate as an engineer and, after leaving Anchises, she studied hard and passed the exams in October, 1926, becoming the UK’s first certificated woman marine engineer.

Becoming a chief engineer would be much more difficult, however. After three years at sea in which her competence was established, Drummond decided to base herself with her sisters Jean and Frances in London and to study hard to pass the engineering exams set by the Board of Trade.

All her experience counted for nothing as she sat them no fewer than 37 times, marked as a “fail” on ever occasion. The examiners would later admit she had been failed simply because she was a woman. She did gain her certificate from Panama,but that was not accepted by the Board of Trade.

DURING her time in London, Drummond and her sister Frances, a trained commercial artist, set up a business trading in goldfish and it took her abroad on several occasions. One visit to Austria would become memorable for a strange reason – by chance she was able to photograph Adolf Hitler in his car. When war broke out, Victoria and Frances were able to get several children evacuated from Austria to the UK.

Having applied to become a marine engineer, Drummond was turned down frequently, so she became an air raid warden. Eventually due to a chance meeting with an old colleague, Drummond was able to get an engineering job on the Har Zion, a passenger and cargo ship operating out of Haifa in what was then Palestine.

Due again to persecution by a male engineer, Drummond left the Har Zion when it docked in London in July, 1940. A month later, the ship was sunk by a German U-boat in the Atlantic with the loss of all but one of her 37-strong crew.

Drummond’s next ship was the Panamanian-registered SS Bonita, aboard which her engineering certificate from Panama was accepted. The Bonita sailed with a cargo of china clay from Cornwall and, despite being a neutral vessel, on August 25, 1940, was attacked by German long-range bombers. The ship was 400 miles from the nearest land and it would only have taken a couple of direct hits to sink her.

Drummond took immediate charge of the engine room and ordered its other occupants to a safer place. Near misses shook the boat and caused one fuel pipe to fracture, spraying Drummond with oil that closed one of her eyes.

Somehow she was able to get the engines to increase their power by one-third, and the captain, a Hungarian named Herz, was thus able to increase the ship’s speed to 12.5 knots and steer the Bonita out of the path of bombs. Bonita survived the bombing and, although damaged by machine gun fire, was able to continue to her berth in Norfolk, Virginia. The local press got hold of the story and were told by one of Drummond’s superior officers that: “She is about the most courageous woman I ever saw. She seems to be without fear or nerves, is very good at her job and has an uncanny power over engines, for which I once thanked God.”

Back in Britain, Drummond was acclaimed for her heroism and was awarded the MBE, which she received from King George VI.

The Times reported on her courage, stating that her conduct had been an inspiration to the crew, and an edition of True Comics featured her as the “lady engineer” working the ship’s machinery by herself. She was also awarded the Lloyd’s War Medal for Bravery at Sea.

Drummond left the Bonita and on her very next voyage aboard another Panamanian-registered ship, she survived another attack by German bombers, during which one officer was killed by machine gun fire.

Drummond spent the rest of the war in various engineering positions in Merchant Navy ships and frequently suffered the barbs and misconduct of male colleagues. Ordinary crew members took to her, however, especially when she showed her courage by reporting one ship’s captain for drunkenness.

After the war, the Blue Funnel line appointed her to the post of superintendent over the construction of two ships at her old haunt, the Caledon shipyard. In May, 1946, she passed the examinations to allow her to become a second engineer, and she would spend the next 16 years on board merchant vessels in a variety of jobs, including chief engineer. In all she made 49 sea voyages.

According to her niece’s biography, Drummond was involved in various crises on board several ships, including a fire on board the

Hong Kong-based Jebshun company’s cargo carrier Shantae. Drummond cleverly diverted steam to smother the fire until the Hong Kong port service was able to extinguish the blaze.

In March, 1962, her final voyage on the iron ore carrier Santa Granda ended with her retiring on the spot when Jebshun refused to accept her verdict that the ship was unsafe.

Drummond thereafter lived quietly with her sisters until both Jean and Frances died. Her health deteriorated and, having moved to a care home, she died on Christmas Day, 1978. She is buried beside her parents at Megginch.

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Source: The National