Engineer of the Week No.94: Victoria Alexandrina Drummond MBE (14 October 1894 - 25 December 1978)
In the week of her 125th birthday we remember Victoria Drummond, the first woman ship’s engineer and role model for women at sea, who were not able to follow in her wake until 10 years after she retired.
Victoria Drummond, the first woman to become a ship’s engineer, may have come from the Scottish aristocracy but she had to work very hard in a very tough environment to become a chief engineer. Such privileges as being a goddaughter of Queen Victoria, were by no means sufficient to achieve what she did. Born in Errol in Scotland but also enjoying holidays in England with her grandmother who was an expert wood and ivory turner, Victoria was able to tinker with family cars and her family was able to help her first get an apprenticeship in a garage in Perth and then a full apprenticeship in the Caledon Shipyard in Dundee. By this time, her family had lost most of their wealth and she (and her siblings) had to make their own way in the world for the rest of her life. However, family connections did get her an introduction to one of the directors of the Blue Funnel Line, who was able to arrange for her to get her first sea-going job, as a very junior engineering officer. If this sounds as if she used privilege to get a job not normally available to women, any such privilege was of no further use: she had to show what a competent engineer she was to a very sceptical audience of traditionalist ships’ engineers. Some were supportive but many were openly hostile. Hostility was also embedded at the Board of Trade, who ran the examinations for all seagoing qualifications. The examiners passed her for her 2nd Engineer’s Certificate in 1927, but when she presented herself for her Chief Engineer’s Certificate they failed her more than 30 times as they could not stand the thought of a woman engineer in charge of an engineroom. Eventually she took the equivalent qualification in Panama, where the exam papers were anonymised.
Most of her seagoing career was on non-UK ships, some 18 ships in total. In August 1940, she was serving on a Panamanian ship, the Bonita, in the North Atlantic when Luftwaffe aircraft attacked. As a neutral-flag ship, she was not protected by an Allied convoy. Drummond was on watch when near-miss bombs blew lagging off pipes in the engine room and split the main water service pipe feeding the boilers. She ordered her fireman and greaser to open the fuel injectors and main steam throttle to increase speed and then get out of the engine room in case they needed to abandon ship. The Bonita had never before gone any faster than 9 knots, but Drummond somehow increased speed to 12.5 knots which was enough for the captain to dodge the rest of the bombs dropped and make it to the USA in safety. Drummond was awarded the MBE and the Lloyds Medal for Bravery at Sea.
She retired from the sea in 1962 and lived the rest of her life with her sister in London. She is commemorated by a Victoria Drummond Room at the IMarEST headquarters in London. A very detailed (if somewhat uncritical) biography, The Remarkable Life of Victoria Drummond – Marine Engineer, was written by her niece, Cherry Drummond, the late 16th Baroness Strange. Drummond was a very early member of the Women’s Engineering Society which published various updates on her career in The Woman Engineer.