Engineer of the week No.95: The Hon. Lady Katharine Parsons (nee Bethell) JP (1859-16 October 1933)
On the 86th anniversary of her death we remember Katharine, Lady Parsons, militant feminist and founder of the Women’s Engineering Society.
Katharine Parsons was the originating founder of the Women’s Engineering Society. Described by Caroline Haslett as “a militant suffragette and feminist” it was Katharine Parsons who brought the women together who would, in 1919, become the founder members and signatories of the first articles of association to found the society. She, her daughter Rachel and her famous engineering husband, Sir Charles Parsons were lifelong supporters of the Society.
Born in the East Riding of Yorkshire in 1859, she was the youngest of William Froggatt Bethell and Maria Elizabeth Beckett’s 12 children. Her father was a landowner and magistrate. It is most likely that all her education will have been at home as the first proper girls’ schools were only being established when she was a young adult. Like a later WES President, Lady Moir, Katharine Parsons was really an ‘engineer by marriage’. It is reported that as soon as she married Charles Parsons she started to take a detailed interest in his engineering works at Heaton. During the First World War she and her daughter, racel, were much involved in the recruitment, training and welfare of female munitions workers.
In 1919 she became the first female member of the North East Coast Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders and gave a rousing speech about women engineers at their victory celebration after the First World War. She also published a book: “Women’s work in engineering and shipbuilding during the war”. Her interest in women’s voting rights and their war work in engineering led to the idea for the Society which she partly funded from the start. She advertised for a General Secretary to help her set up and run the nascent society, and recruited Caroline Haslett. Together they established and ran the society in its early years and in 1922 Lady Parsons became its president. Although never formally trained or educated as an engineer, her contribution to engineering was widely recognised and she was also admitted to the Worshipful Company of Shipwrights and became a freewoman of the City of London. She died in 1933 and is buried in Kirkwhelpington, Northumberland.