Engineer of the Week number 85
Jeanie Dicks (25 September 1893 – 6 July 1980) was responsible for the first permanent electrification of Winchester Cathedral in 1934.
Maude Jeanie Dicks was born in Winchester, Hampshire to Philip and Frances Maude (née Henning) Dicks and baptised at St Maurice’s Church on Wednesday 17 January 1894, alongside her older brother Philip John Dicks (d. 1921). Dicks and Sons had been set up as a gas fitters by her grandfather, John Dicks and taken over by his sons Philip and John in 1888. The company expanded and took on heating, lighting electrical and refrigeration work over the years.
After the death of her father Philip in 1926, Jeanie Dicks, age 33 and the only surviving child in the third generation, took over the family firm, now called Messrs. Dicks Ltd of Winchester. We know little about her life up until this point, but assume she has been involved in the family business.
By 1928 Miss Dicks was the first woman member of the Electrical Contractors Association and attended their annual conference at Cheltenham Spa [pictured] (where her photograph was taken outside the Pittville Pump Rooms by Mrs Nelly Atkinson*). In a mass photograph of the ECA members in 1931, Jeanie Dicks is the only woman pictured. She was also a member of the Women’s Engineering Society and the Lyceum Club.
In 1931, Jeanie Dicks won her company the contract to electrify the Deanery in Winchester for the newly appointed Dean, E Gordon Selwyn and Mrs Phyllis Eleanor Selwyn (nee Hoskyns). It must be remembered that electricity was still seen as a new and potentially dangerous technology at the time, with many houses and public buildings still lit by gas. A “Wizard in the Wall” marketing campaign was run in the 1930s attempting to demystify electricity. Recently donated papers in Hampshire Records Office show Miss Dicks as a very efficient project manager introducing electricity into an old dilapidated house suffering from damp, the enemy of electricity. Her company offered a bespoke service, drawing plans for the electrical circuits, designing, ordering or making suitable fittings. She seems to have built a good working relationship with the Selwyns, which stood her in good stead as the Dean was about to start a long term restoration and modernisation of Winchester Cathedral.
In September 1933, Messrs Wingfield-Bowles, the London based consulting engineers for Winchester Cathedral, issued a call for tenders for the electric lights and accessory works. Miss Dicks enquired about submitting a quote…
And so in 1934 Jeanie Dicks began to manage the first permanent electrification of Winchester Cathedral. Her firm also installed new heating and later a sound system.
A "Woman's Cathedral Job” was widely reported in the press, with the Lancashire Evening Post writing “She is Miss Jeanie Dicks, Winchester, and in a month’s time she and her engineers will have completed the first part of their task. Miss Dicks…secured the contract in competition with famous British and Continental firms." There was even an article in the Sydney Mail in Australia with a cartoon captioned “a woman in in charge of the installation of light and heat in Winchester Cathedral – and the men obey!” The International Women News reported far more thoughtfully on her “great care in avoiding risk of fire and in securing that an essentially modern development is in harmony with the ancient beauty it is to illuminate.”
It was a complicated job, and she supervised each element herself. It was discovered that to replace the choir-stall gaslights with electricity that cables would need to be run through the crypt. Electrifying the nave was the largest part of the operation but Dicks reduced the task by laying the cables at the same time as new central heating pipes were put in. This had necessitated removing and reburying coffins – except for that of Jane Austen, whom they managed to move gently to one side. Five miles of wire, capable of withstanding the cathedral’s infamously damp conditions, was especially created for the job by Messrs W T Henley’s, a firm which had specialised in creating insulated wire and waterproofed cables since the mid nineteenth century.
To ensure that the lighting was correct, Dicks and two of her staff, foreman Charlie Wicks and Ralph Slade, spent many evenings in the cathedral with the two men up in the roof experimenting with different types of lighting for Dicks to judge for effectiveness down in the nave. The extensive trials resulted in her recommendation for lights hidden by frosted glass. She had a reputation for knowing what “looks right”.
The electrification contract alone was worth £3,000 (the equivalent of around half a million pounds in 2018), and the heating and lighting work seems to have grown from the original plans, stretching into the 1940s and costing more than £20,000 in the end.
The company’s work wasn’t limited to the cathedral alone, Dicks Ltd is considered to have “illuminated Winchester” electrifying most of its churches, The Castle, and the Assizes Court as well as some of the great houses of Hampshire, including Beaulieu. The company expanded beyond Hampshire and in 1934 Miss Dicks secured a contract from West Riding County Council for the electrical work for a new sanatorium at Scotton Banks.
As Managing Director of Messrs. Dicks Ltd, she employed a staff of 75–90 people and was responsible for securing the jobs to keep them employed in the fields of radio, water engineering and plumbing. She encountered a certain amount of sexism where clients insisted on speaking with her male staff but rose above it to ensure that her firm was hired by well-heeled clients. Ralph Slade later said that "she wasn’t an easy lady to work for but she was always a fair one and her employees stayed with her".
Winifred Holtby, the novelist and journalist, referred to her in her seminal 1935 book Women and a Changing Civilisation as "without thinking too much about it they have as successfully broken the line between "women's interests" and "men's interests", as the English woman electrical engineer, Miss Jeanie Dicks, who secured the contract for rewiring Winchester Cathedral".
In April 1937, Miss Dicks was married to Ian McVean, a traveller for Beeston Boiler Company, in Winchester Cathedral by the Dean, Gordon Selwyn, and all the staff were invited to the service. As a wedding gift the Dean gave the couple an inscribed a copy of his book The Story of Winchester Cathedral, especially bound in white vellum. By March 1939 The Woman Engineer reported that "New ground has been covered by Mrs I. McVean who has been elected President of the Winchester Chamber of Commerce".
The 1939 England and Wales Register (Census) taken on 29 September, records that she and Ian lived in Flat 3, Lansdown House, Winchester. As well as “Managing Director Heating engineers, Electrical engineers, Plumbers" she is listed as an ARP Ambulance Driver. During the war years, work continued at the cathedral but lots of Ministry of Works contracts are also undertaken.
By 1954, she was president of the Electrical Industry Benevolent Association, Hants and Dorset branch. Soon after she exchanged notes with the soon to retire Dean Selwyn who reminisced about how pleased he still was that they had won the argument for the installation of radiators in the nave of the cathedral. [photo]
In 1960, she decided to retire. She sold the business in two parts, with four staff members buying the electrical contracting side from her for one pound and naming the new firm Dicks (Electrical Installations) Ltd. The firm continued to operate in Winchester and working on large national and international electrification projects until 2018.
Mrs Jeanie McVean died on 6 July 1980. The Hampshire Chronicle describing her a “one of the City’s leading business women over a period of 40 years’.
Guest Author Ceryl Evans @politicdormouse email@example.com