Dora Metcalf (1892-1982)

Born: Dora Greene

Sector: Technology – Software and Computer Services

By guest author, Mary Monro, Dora’s great niece. There is more information about Dora Metcalf (and Mary) at Dorapower.

Dora Metcalf was a pioneer in the information technology and services industry. Born in India of Irish parents, she was brought to England after her father died when she was eight. Dora was the eldest of three children and her mother, known as Lyd, knew that the only way they might avoid poverty was through a good education. The children’s father, one of fourteen children, had lost his own father when he was six. They had had to make their own way in the world and he had chosen the meritocracy of the Indian Civil Service. Lyd chose to settle in Bedford, where Bedford School for boys and Bedford High for girls both had excellent reputations. That worked well for Dora and her brother Howard, but their little sister Hilary was severely deaf, so governesses were found to teach her at home. Dora won a scholarship to study Mathematics at London University when she was fifteen. London University was a pioneer in both women’s education and distance learning, so Dora studied from her school, gaining her BA in 1911 when she was nineteen.

 After losing the love of her life at Gallipoli and finding herself a ‘surplus woman’, Dora’s spark of ambition ignited and she started selling Comptometers, a kind of mechanical abacus, in Belfast in 1916. She soon discovered that businesses and government departments needed help to appreciate what the calculators could do and lacked the in-house skills to do the work, and in 1917 she set up another office in Dublin. She stayed with Lichenologist Matilda Knowles (1864-1933) whose flat was a meeting place for the Irish revolutionary set, including Dr Kathleen Lynn, Dr Katherine Maguire, Robert Barton, Erskine Childers, Diarmuid Coffey and poets Willie Yeats and George ‘Æ’ Russell. This unconventional and inspiring crowd strengthened Dora’s resolve. In 1924 she founded her own business, called Calculating and Statistical Services – the acronym CASS being the surname of the lost love of her life.

Extract from an advertising leaflet for Comptometers, 1920s.
Extract from an advertising leaflet for Comptometers, 1920s

By this time, it was becoming established that ‘office machinery’ operators were women. Typewriters, telephones and calculating machines were all regarded as low skill, low status equipment with no career progression attached, and thus suitable for women, whose careers were short due to the marriage bar. There was the added advantage that women were paid less than men, so government departments and commercial businesses could shed armies of clerks and save even more money by replacing them with a few women ‘computers’. An advertisement for Comptometers spells this out as a benefit of the machines, claiming that a Comptometer and its female operator could do the work of three male clerks for less than the cost of one clerk. In some ways this played into Dora’s hands and she probably encountered less resistance to setting up a ‘women’s business’ than she would if computing had been perceived to be men’s work.

C&SS was a partnership with her cousin Everard Greene, who had co-founded British Tabulating Machines (BTM) in 1907, and her friend Sam Haughton, a well connected Ulsterman, who came from the same village as Matilda Knowles. Dora’s goal was to win the contract for analysing the Northern Ireland census that was to be held in 1926, and she was astute enough to realise that these male credentials were necessary. She also knew that the tabulators were an essential technology for expanding her business, with their vast data processing capacity.

Commander John Metcalf and Dora on their wedding day, August 1935

Her business really took off in 1930 when C&SS won the contract for the Irish Hospitals Trust Sweepstake – a huge earner for the next three decades that led to offices of C&SS being opened around the UK. Her work with the sweeps also led to a private audience with Pope Pius XI in 1933! In 1934 Dora founded the Service Bureaux Division at BTM and moved to London, leaving C&SS in Ireland in the hands of a capable management team. BTM never gave her the title ‘director’ but they happily accepted the new business she brought in, providing services rather than selling or renting machines. At this time Dora joined the Women’s Provisional Club, founded by Ethel Wood and Viscountess Rhondda. It was to prove a source of inspiration, support and business contacts throughout the rest of Dora’s career. Dora married Naval Officer John Metcalf in 1935 and did not allow this to interfere with her career – perhaps a long distance relationship facilitated this as you can’t spend your day preparing a meal for someone who is away at sea most of the time. Anyway, Dora had never cooked in her life.

inner workings of a bombe machine, Bletchley Park
The inner workings of a bombe machine at Bletchley Park

In the Second World War, BTM was asked to design and build the bombe machines for the Bletchley Park codebreakers. Between 1940 and 1943 over 200 machines were built. Dora’s role was to manage the contract with ‘Bureau B’, as Bletchley was known at BTM. She already ran a service department dedicated to government work and so it was relatively easy to maintain absolute secrecy, but sourcing the materials to build so many machines was almost impossible. The same materials were needed for aircraft, tank and ship manufacture, and top level, high priority status didn’t always filter down to the relevant managers in the Admiralty, Ministry of Supply etc. Dora also had to work out the logistics of recruiting and training enough operators – usually ten women (mostly Wrens) per machine. The stress took its toll and tummy trouble, that Dora had suffered for a decade, flared up and required an operation at the end of 1942. BTM took the opportunity to demote her, so that when she returned to work she found herself in charge of the London Dividend Services Bureau.

Post-war, Dora split her time between London, Dublin and Belfast, working hard to restore her status and reputation, no doubt with the women of the WPC at her back. She worked with Dr Dorothy Stopford-Price on the TB vaccination programme in Ireland in 1949 and introduced the first electronic computer into Ireland in 1957. She and John retired in 1962 and moved to the Highlands, renting a remote house at Loch Morar, with no road access, no electricity and water from a pipe in the burn. The house had been used as a training centre by the Special Operations Executive during the war. It may be a coincidence that Dora was involved in top secret work during the war and that she ended up here, and it may not. Regardless, she earned her place in history by inventing the Information Services industry in 1924, long before recorded history perceives it to have existed.

Mary Monro has written a novel, Power On, based on the story of Dora’s life and is currently seeking a publisher.

1 thought on “Dora Metcalf (1892-1982)”

  1. […] what news? This week is British Science Week and Dora is being featured on the Women Who Meant Business blog. This is a fantastic site that tells the stories of early businesswomen, creating a FT – […]


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