Engineer of the Week No.34: Margaret Mary Partridge BSc, MIEE (18th April 1891 - 27th October 1967)
On her 128th birthday we remember Margaret Partridge, electrical power supply pioneer and campaigner for women’s right to work at night.
Margaret Partridge was born in Nymet Rowland, Devon in 1891 to John Leonard James Partridge (1859–1922), a landowner of independent means, and Eleanor Parkhouse Joyce (1858–1926). The family moved to Bedford where Margaret attended the High School, and went on to Bedford College, London, on two scholarships. She graduated with a BSc Honours in maths in 1914.
Her first job was as assistant mistress at Saltburn High School but soon moved to be an assistant to an eminent heating engineer, Arthur Henry Barker, in London.
In 1917 she went Lyons and Wrench, to work in munitions, where she learned a lot of practical engineering. As with all other munitions women she lost that job when the war ended and she moved home to Devon, where she set up her electric power supply company, M. Partridge and Co., Domestic Engineers, offering to install electric power in rural homes, with the support of Dr John Purves MIEE, an electrical engineer who would later advise on the electricity supply scheme for the whole of the west of England. Although it was difficult to finance her company, it did have some successes, the first electrification scheme was in Bampton, completed in 1926.Initially many rural people were suspicious of the new technology and the woman installing it but when the lights came on there wasgreat excitement and many more were keen to be connected. Her little power stations were on the DC system and employed male and female engineers. Probably her most famous apprentice was Beatrice Shilling, who started in 1926 with such enthusiasm that Partridge encouraged her to go to university and she ultimately became a well-known aeronautical engineer famous for her work on the Spitfire engines. However, Shilling’s enthusiasm to work whenever required was discovered when she was working alone in a power station after 10 pm, in contravention of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention on night working for women and children. This led Partridge and others in WES to a very long campaign to change the lawand, in 1934, the international convention was altered to exclude ‘women holding responsible positions of management’.
In 1920 Partridge joined the Women’s Engineering Society soon after its founding she became its president in 1943-45. In 1922 her exhibition of electric models and domestic appliances in Exeter, was a forerunner of the work done by the Society’s offshoot, the Electrical Association for Women,founded in 1924. Partridge became an active supporter and was the EAW Organizer for the South West region and one of the principal authors of the Electrical Handbook for Women.
When the Second World War came, Partridge used her engineering and WW1 experience to help establish Exeter Munitions Ltd., for which she was the company secretary. The company made 18 pounder shells and employed 30 men and 40 women. She was also the government’s regional advisor for factories, on the employment of women.
On retirement in 1946, she took an active interest in local activities in Willand, where she lived with her friend and former business partner Margaret Rowbotham. Under her supervision the wiring of the new village hall was completed by members of the Women’s Institute. She also acted as a director of two nursing homes, where her sister was chief doctor. She died at her home, Harpitt, Willand, Devon, on 27 October 1967 and was buried in the churchyard at Willand, where Rowbotham is also interred..
In her own words: ‘…. for sheer exciting experience give me a town to light’