Engineer of the Week No.79: Eliza Dinah Fairchild (AKA Mrs Evelyn Diana Turnour Sheffield) (6th September 1856- 28th November 1942)
163 years after her birthday we remember the highly colourful life of Evelyn Sheffield, a real “Eliza Doolittle” as in Shaw’s play Pygmalion, or how even a barmaid may take up engineering!
Mrs Sheffield cannot be compared to any of the female professional engineers who began their careers during her lifetime but hers is such an extraordinary story that the rules on ‘who is an engineer’ just have to be bent a wee bit to include her so that we can tell her tale. Eliza Dinah Fairchild was born in 1856 into a working class family in Southampton and had no engineering training or education that we are aware of but she and her brothers attended the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company’s school in Southampton, until at least the age of 14. Their father was a ship’s steward, a trade which Eliza followed in her early life as she became a barmaid. In 1877 she married Henry Digby Sheffield a minor member of the aristocracy. At this point many ‘facts’ become immersed in a sea of fantasy, lies and downright fraud.
She and Henry invented a ‘posher’ background for her, claiming that she had been born in Cadiz, Spain, the daughter of a British naval officer and a Spanish aristocrat. She took the name Evelyn Diana Turnour Fairchild, ‘Turnour’ being the surname of this imaginary naval father, and went by the name of Mrs Evelyn Sheffield from then on. Henry and Evelyn lived the leisured life of his class, travelling to the USA and Canada where they enjoyed big game hunting and fishing. In 1888, whilst Evelyn was in the UK, her husband died in Florida. The newly-widowed Evelyn was soon living openly with a John Lewis Garden, a Suffolk landowner and big-game hunter, with whom she seems to have enjoyed a relationship from before 1884 or before. When he died in 1892 she gained £7,000 from his estate (following a court case), enabling her to pursue her own interests for the rest of her life. She never married again.
Now we come to the engineering. Tony Martin’s family blog (https://www.lostcousins.com/newsletters2/aug19news.htm ) gives the full details of this period of her life. She had developed aninterest in medical treatments and had the idea that the use of hot dry air could be therapeutic for a range of ailments. In 1893 she learnt that an engineer, Mr Thomas Henry Rees, had taken out a patent for a hot vapour treatment device and they got a patent for their “ An Improved Medical Dry Bath for Applying Superheated Steam or Gases and Medicines in Vapour to the Human Body”.
However a Mr Lewis Tallerman also got involved at this point and Rees’s contribution to the technology became invisible. The therapy became known as the Tallerman-Sheffield hot-air treatment, even being written up in the medical journal, The Lancet. However in 1900 various legal disputes arose between the partners in the company. Both Rees and Tallerman were experienced businessmen and probably Sheffield had not been able to adequately protect her interests when the partnership was set up. Tallerman Institutes were set up at which the ‘baking’ treatment was offered to sufferers of rheumatism and joint problems, often being free for the poor.
In another bizarre turn of her life, in 1901 Evelyn was initiated into the esoteric Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn at its Isis-Urania temple in London.
Soon after that she was again embroiled in another court case, which became a very high profile scandal in such national papers as the News of the World. In 1905 she most ill-advisedly brought, and lost, a breach of promise case against the Marquess Townshend. They each thought the other was wealthy but both were soon disabused. Her fake identity was exposed and the offer of marriage was withdrawn on the grounds ‘that the plaintiff was an adventuress and a clairvoyant and otherwise unfit to become Marchioness’.”
Her lifestory with her invented persona was very widely publicised and seems very likely to have had at least some influence on George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion, which was published in 1913, in which of course the working class girl raised from the gutter is even called Eliza.
Tallerman did everything he could to expunge Mrs Sheffield from association financially or otherwise with his therapeutic work. She must have considered herself to still have interests in the field because, in the 1911 census she gave her occupation as ‘medical’ and in the 1939 national ID Card register as ‘inventor of medical dry air baths and pads’. She lived in various quite nice London houses until her death in 1942 when she left only about £300 to an engineer called Percy Lock. She never relinquished her invented identity even in official documents.
So, was she an ‘engineer’? An independent and enterprising woman, certainly, and her involvement in engineering was essentially no less than that of Sarah Guppy (suspension bridge patentee), but most of her life was coloured by her legal problems which probably made it hard for her to follow her interests in innovating.