Engineer of the Week No.15, on her 102nd birthday is Past WES President Hettie Bussell, the UK’s first female railway engineer.
Henrietta (Hettie) Langdale Bussell (19th February 1917- December 1996)
Hettie Bussell was born in London in 1917 but when she was 12 the family moved to Newport, Monmouthshire where she won a scholarship to the local new grammar school. Her father Herbert Bussell had been a builders’ clerk but joined Great Western Railways where he became a draughtsman in their Wales office. Apart from war service in the Royal Engineers he remained with Great Western Railway (GWR) all his life, which was also where Hettie worked for 40 years. She left school in 1933 in the depths of the Great Depression and found it very hard to find any work but having come 2nd out of 6 entrants in GWR’s exam, she becaume a temporary tracer in 1934. She was the first female in such a role and the only woman in the Cardiff office, as all the clerical work there was still being done by men only. It is believed that she was the UK’s first woman railway engineer.
In 1938 she became a permanent member of staff and in 1942 was promoted from tracer to Junior Technical Staff, again the first woman to do this. At this point she started doing trackbed surveys identifying subsidence, eg due to local mining and this was the start of her expertise as liabilities expert for the railway. In 1948 she transferred to what was now British Rail’s western region office in London and was soon promoted to assistant draughtsman in the divisional engineer’s department. As all this was achieved without any formal technical training she was delighted to be promoted in 1957 to Technical Assistant and in 1966 to Engineering Assistant. Hettie worked in the Road Bridges and liabilities department for whole of BR western region, and had a particular interest in tunnelling. In 1971, at the age of 54, she was promoted finally to Senior Engineering Assistant (Management Grade 1), in the Chief Civil Engineer’s Office of British Railways western region.
Hettie joined the Women’s Engineering Society in 1951, not long after moving to London and soon became active in the London branch committee, giving talks about her work and writing articles for The Woman Engineer. In 1961 she was on the WES council and became the Society’s president in 1976-77 and took a great interest in the training for women engineers. Although seriously ill in 1989 she lived on to die in Colchester in 1996