Engineer of the Week No.53: Verena Holmes B.Sc. (Eng.), AMIMechE, AIMarE. MILocEng (23 June 1889 – 20 February 1964)
On her 120th birthday and the 100th anniversary of the Society she founded, today we remember Verena Holmes, practical mechanical engineer, patent holder and entrepreneur.
Verena Holmes was the Women’s Engineering Society’s first practicing engineering president, who had a life’s career in the field.
Verena Holmes was born in 1889 in Kent, where her father Edmund Holmes was a schools inspector and author. She attended Oxford High School for Girls and after initially working as a society photographer found her true vocation when the First World War opened the door to engineering. Her first job was building wooden propellers at the Integral Propeller Co., Hendon, whilst attending evening classes at Shoreditch Technical Institute. She then worked at Ruston and Hornsby, an aero engine firm in Lincoln, as their Lady Superintendant responsible for the selection, control and welfare of 1,500 female employees. However, her real interest was engineering and she persuaded the directors of the company to let her start as an apprentice in the fitting shops. Holmes gained experience as a turner and completed an apprenticeship as a draughtsman before the end of the war. In 1919 she was the only woman who was allowed to stay on with the firm. She attended Loughborough Technical College, and gained a BSc (Engineering) degree extramurally from London University in 1922. From then onwards Verena would produce a steady stream of inventions, of which 17 were patented. One of the more significant was the Holmes-Wingfield pneumo-thorax apparatus, which she designed and made for for Dr RC Wingfield, for his work at Brompton Hospital tuberculosis sanatorium.
In the early 1920s she worked with various consultant engineers before setting up her own design consultancy in 1925. From 1928 -1931 her patents on locomotive valves got her a job at the North British Locomotive Works, Glasgow, and from 1932-39 she worked at Research Engineers Ltd, designing many new pieces of engineering. She later said that this was one of the happiest times of her life and she also gained her private pilot’s license. When the Second World War started, Verena, as with many of her generation of engineers, saw that the demands for women workers would be the same, with the same problems, as she experienced in the Great War. She designed and instigated a training scheme for women, initially run by the Society, at the Beaufoy Institute and later adopted by the government. In 1940 she become adviser to Mr. Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour, on the training of munition workers and was joined by other WES members in this work. In 1946 she and Sheila Leather formed Holmes and Leather, a company employing women to make Bantam metal shearing machines, and other Holmes inventions, in Gillingham.
Having been a founder member of the Society, Verena Holmes outlived most, if not all, of the other founders, and remained active in the society until she became frail at the end of her life. She was President in 1931-32, was on council for many years and had two periods as Honorary Secretary in the early years and then in the 1950s. She was always interested in the educational side of the Society’s work and produced a widely used booklet on training women engineers, so it was very appropriate that her £1,000 legacy to the Society on her death in 1964 was used as the funding to start a Verena Holmes Memorial Lecture series which toured schools for many years.