Engineer of the Week No.44: Mrs. Mabel Lucy Matthews (nee Hanlon) AIEE (1879- c.1970)
Today we remember electrical and production engineer, Mabel Matthews, on her 140th birthday.
Mabel Hanlon was born into very humble beginnings, the second daughter of a retired soldier, raised largely in rural Yorkshire and Cheshire. Her father’s Chelsea Pensioner status apparently later secured him jobs as gatekeeper in government departments in Whitehall. In 1901 she married Richard Matthews who was listed in the church records as a ‘gent’. They were living in Barrow-in Furness in 1901 and he was listed as a company secretary, but in 1909 he died and she never remarried, mainly living with her parents and sister. By the 1911 census she was doing clerical work for a paper makers’ engineers, presumably somewhere in London as she was living with her parents in the gatekeeper’s flat at Burlington House, Piccadilly where her father then worked.
It is not clear when she started working for the Consolidated Pneumatic Tool Co Ltd but perhaps during WW1 as she is known to have been there for several years by 1923. The company’s factory was in Fraserburgh in the north east of Scotland but she seems to have worked from their London head office, in the Egyptian Building in Piccadilly. Although she must have had only the most basic of schooling and perhaps some technical training during the war, she never gained any formal engineering qualifications. However, she must have had enthusiasm and natural ability to learn as she spent her entire career with the company rising to become its manager. Her technical experience by 1923 was sufficient to grant her graduate membership of the IEE and from 1930 she was an Associate of the IEE (not to be confused with Associate Member). In 1924 The Woman Engineer (journal of the Women’s Engineering Society) reported that: “Mrs. M.L. Matthews, a member of the Women's Engineering Society (WES) council, conceived the idea of ‘a scheme popularising the domestic use of electricity’. Mrs Matthews first presented the idea to the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) in a paper to fulfil the requirement for associate membership of the Institution.” Although she worked in sales, before becoming manager, she became expert enough in the specialist equipment for coalmining drills and welding that she was able to give talks and run the stands at trade shows. The company’s London office was evacuated to theShe retired, probably in about 1940, and is believed to have died in about 1970.
Mabel was active in the early years of WES, on its council and as a Vice President in 1931. Her IEE paper on popularising the domestic use of electricity was the idea that led to WES establishing the Electrical Association for Women (EAW) in 1925. This was a time before the National Grid brought electricity to all parts of the UK and many homes had, at best, only electric light, and sometimes not even that. Electric appliances were so new that housewives needed to be shown how to use them and how they worked. Mrs Matthews explained her ideas: "When I was haymaking once during the war, an old farmhand came to me and said ‘Now ma'am, this is a job where you can work hard or you can work light. What you want to do is to work light'. I've never forgotten that, and I look round and see lots of women working hard when they might work 'light' with equally effective results. That is where electricity can help …". The EAW had branches all over the UK and ran very popular classes for women (and Girl Guides) to teach them about electrical appliances, how to fit a plug and change a fuse. Mabel was also a vice president of the EAW, which eventually closed in 1986, having completed its objectives.