Engineer of the Week No. 52: Margaret Dorothea Rowbotham (I9 June I883 - 23 February 1978)
Today we remember engineer and WES founder-member Margaret Rowbotham on her 136th birthday.
Margaret Rowbotham (pictured on the right with Margaret Partridge on the left, and Tilly Shilling in the centre) was a mathematician, engineer and campaigner for the rights of women at work, and founder member of the Women's Engineering Society. Born 19th June 1883 at Park Villas, Plumstead, Woolwich, daughter of John Edward Rowbotham, a shipbroker, and Miriam Ann Isaac, and sibling to William Bevill, Claude, Violet Mirelle, Mildredand Ella.
Margaret attended Blackheath High School (1893-1902), where she gained the London Matriculation Class 1 certificate, enabling her to go to Girton College, Cambridge (I902–05).She passed the Mathematics Tripos Part I, Class. II. Correctly assessing that a teaching career would be possible for a woman with such qualifications, she then took the Cambridge Training College's Teachers’ Diploma.
Her first job was as an assistant mathematical mistress, rising to mathematical mistress at Roedean School, Brighton (September 1906-August 1913). Roedean is one of the top academic girls' boarding schools in the country, so this would have been an excellent starting post for a young teacher, and she seems to have lived at the school for much of that time. On leaving Roedean she spent the next year studying motor engineering and gained the Royal Automobile Club's Driver's Certificate, which seems to have been her first foray into the world of engineering which would later make up so much of her life. In September 1914 she crossed the Atlantic to spend2 years as one of the first mathematics mistresses at Havergal College (also known as Rupert's Land Girls' School), Winnipeg, Canada, before returning to the UK in the summer of 1916.
On her return to the UK, Margaret trained in the workshops and drawing offices of Galloway Engineering Co. Ltd. and of Arrol Johnston, Ltd., Dumfries (I9I6–I7), and showed such immediate potential that she become the Machine Shop and Works Superintendent,at their Tongland Works, Kirkcudbright, from I9I7 until 192I. The factory is in an isolated rural part of the Scottish Borders and Margaret was noted locally for riding her motorbike around the area and was pictured on her motorbike for an article in The Gentlewoman (7 Nov 1917) about women in engineering. She was personally responsible from the day the factory opened for the development and organisation of work in the workshops, in very harsh conditions as the factory was unheated such that the water supplying the factory’s hydro-electric power station sometimes froze. The Tongland works started out as a social experiment to establish an engineering university for women in parallel with the production of munitions for the war effort. Supported by women's organisations of the period and by the Government, which was struggling with its policy of putting women 'dilutees' into formerly all-male factories, this seemed initially as if it might answer both the women's ambitions and the Government's needs. However the factory’s isolation meant that middle class educated women were not attracted to the factory-university in the numbers required and it quickly became a more typical munitions factory, employing mainly local women along with any available men. By the end of the war, Margaret Rowbotham's view, as the Superintendent, was that the experiment had not succeeded, as only about a quarter of the women had taken the courses.
With the end of the war and the dismissal of women from such work, under the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act, women such as Margaret and her colleague and employer, Dorothee Pullinger (one of the directors of the Galloway company), were so dismayed at the loss of employment for skilled engineering women and for women who had become engineering professionals, that they became founding members of the Women's Engineering Society (WES) in 1919. Both women were amongst the Society's original signatories of its Deeds of Covenant and were lifelong members and supporters of the cause of women's work in professional engineering.
The post-war period was very tough in the engineering world and Arrol Johnstons was no exception. Having been a well-known car maker before the war, it needed a new product for the newly emerging middle classes. Pullinger had a keen eye for a new market and recognised that many middle class women had learned to drive during their war service and were much more independently minded than before the war. She and her father (Thomas C. Pullinger) devised a car for women to drive that could be made by the women at the Tongland factory – the Galloway car. This small, easy-to-drive car was reasonably successful but Margaret Rowbotham seems to have become discouraged and left the company in 1921, just before the car-making moved to Dumfries.
In 1920 Margaret applied to join the Institution of Mechanical Engineers but was rejected. She next took a post as the Assistant Works Manager, at Swainson Pump Co. Ltd., Newcastle. Robert Swainson set this company up, supported by Lady Parsons (another founder of the Women's Engineering Society) who provided some of the funding, on the condition that he employ women on the shop floor and a woman as an assistant manager. Margaret only stayed for about a year and then moved south to become a 'premium pupil' studying laundry managementunder Miss Ethel B. Jayne, OBE. Miss Jayne was another impressive woman in a technical field who was also such a good manager that she was Lloyd George's advisor on women factory workers before and during WW1.Her network of Little Laundries were the training ground for Margaret from I922–23, but she seems not to have followed this profession.In 1924 she returned to Roedean School, as School Secretary and Bursar, until 1927.
In 1927 she returned to engineering to join another WES founder member, Margaret M. Partridge, inher electrical engineering company (M. Partridge and Co. Ltd., Electrical Engineers, Exeter) and
successively became its Secretary, Manager and Chairman of one of its offshoots: the Cheriton Fitzpaine Electric Co–operative Society Ltd., Devon, I927–32. The two Margarets were more than colleagues, becoming lifelong friends who seem to have lived together in later life. Margaret Partridge's company offered electrification projects to houses and villages across Devon, building a small local power station and connecting the members of the scheme directly to this local electrical supply, in the days before the National Grid.
From the early thirties onwards Margaret moved into hotel management and became the Managing Director (resident) and Manageress of the Osborne Hotel Ltd., Exeter, Devon.
Margaret Rowbotham was a Member of WES Council 1919 to I944. From about 1927 until the 1950s, she campaigned to overturn the Washington Convention on the Employment of Women during the Night (1919), which prohibitedwomen from working night shifts. WES joined forces with the International Labour Office's Women's Employment section and the International Federation of Business and Professional Women to get the law changed. In1935 there was a partial relaxation, so that at least administrative and supervisory grade women could work at night. This was not merely an altruistic campaign, as Margaret and her colleagues in M. Partidge & Co. were directly affected by the prohibition since it meant that they could not work their small power stations at night without breaking the law. They nicknamed themselves “The Perpetrators of the Original Offence”. Margaret was made an Honorary WES Member in 1962 and even attended the annual dinner in 1965, at the age of 82. Whilst working for M. Partridge & Co she was a mentor as well as supervisor to the girl apprentices, who included the young Beatrice Shilling who went onto aeronautical engineering fame. Shilling later recalled Margaret Rowbotham's personal grace and kindness as well as her exceptional engineering skill. On her own retirement, Shilling looked back over the years to her “first memories of Miss Rowbotham. I'm afraid they're more humorous on the whole, such as picking Miss Rowbotham up to give her a lift to St. David's Station, Exeter on my motorcycle in those days of tight skirts. Miss Rowbotham's knees were showing and a police constable on point duty stopped us and reproved us.”
She remained in Exeter until about the late 1950s, but the last 10 years at least of her life was spent living with Margaret Partridge in the latter's family home, Harpitt House, Willand Old Village, Devon.In her retirement in Willand with her friend Margaret Partridge, Margaret Rowbotham is said to have been the quieter one of the two although both were well known and active in village activities, including overseeing the village women to install electricity in the village hall, after their husbands refused to do it.
A local resident Betty Penberthyrecalled “I moved into Willand in1955 and I remember Miss Rowbotham well. She, with Miss Partridge, were keen W.I. members, along with Miss Tracey, the daughter of Dr Tracey who owned The Gables. Miss Rowbotham used to drive a very old vintage car."
The ashes of both Margaret Rowbotham and her friend Margaret Partiridge are interred in Willand Churchyard.