Engineer of the Week No. 57: The Rt Hon. Mary Parsons, Countess of Rosse (née Field) (1813-22 July 1885)
Today we remember Mary Parsons, blacksmith, photographer and ancestor of the founders of the Women’s Engineering Society.
Yorkshirewoman Mary Field was born into a wealthy family of landowners, the Fields of Heaton Hall, and her privileged upbringing gave her an exceptional mathematics education rarely available to girls in the early 19th century. At the age of 23 she married William Parson, Lord Oxmantown who soon inherited his father’s title becoming 3rd Earl of Rosse, so that Mary became Countess of Rosse. Although William was a good deal older than Mary they were well-matched as they had many technical interests in common. William was interested in astronomy and Mary helped him to build an enormous telescope, known as the ‘Leviathan of Parsontown’. Most unusually for any woman of that time, and especially for a woman of her class, Mary is said to have had expert blacksmithing skills and made the framework which supported this gigantic instrument. She also made an elaborately decorated iron keep gate for their estate,using the lost-wax method and the estate’s peat-fuelled furnaces.The couple were what we would now call ‘early adopters’ of new technologies and their next activity was photography. Again, Mary started taking and developing her own photographs, using the waxed-paper negative method, including some of the telescope. In 1854 these were exhibited at the Photographic Society's first show in London, earning her the Photographic Society of Ireland's first ever Silver Medal.
Although only 4 of her 11 children survived to adulthood, one of them was Sir Charles Parsons who, with his wife Katharine and daughter Rachel, were the principal instigators and supporters in establishing the Women’s Engineering Society in 1919.