In September 1922 Margaret Partridge, the first member of the Women’s Engineering Society to set up her own business, shared her recipe for success with fellow members:
“Take the following ingredients:
- The impudence of a small monkey
- The epidermis of a hippopotamus
- The patience of an elephant
- The energy of an ant
- A good business address
- A long suffering landlord
- Quarts of publicity
- Good introductions, or friends in the neighbourhood
- A modicum of knowledge of the job
- As much capital as possible
Mix these ingredients in the correct proportions, season with a pinch of Optimism and put in a warm place to rise. If these instructions have been carefully followed, success is assured.”
Margaret’s energy and positive attitude come through in her witty article and were to prove important as she was then the only woman in the country installing lighting, central heating and small general utility power plants in farms and country houses.
Two of Margaret’s 1921 advertisements
The local newspaper was supportive: ‘Though it is unusual for a woman to turn her attention to this side of the domestic problem, no doubt it is a step in the right direction and, when half the domestic architects and engineers are women, we shall certainly produce dwellings which lack many of the inconveniences of the modern home.’
Margaret was born in Devon, a smart child with access to a good education. Like Edith Beesley, she attended the highly-regarded Bedford High School and in 1908 she won a scholarship that took care of all her school fees. She studied under Elizabeth Roberts who had been one of the first students of Natural Sciences at Newnham College. Now a teacher, from her ‘small, cold, ill-equipped room of corrugated iron’ Elizabeth sent out a stream of women to enter the fields of medicine, science and engineering.
Margaret won the Arnott scholarship to Bedford College, London where she studied mathematics and mechanics, graduating in 1914. She started teaching but the war opened up a wider range of opportunities and she took an apprenticeship with an engineering firm specialising in consulting on heating, ventilation and electric lighting. Then she joined Lyon & Wrench, which made signalling lamps, electric generators and batteries, where she was head of the testing department. She and her team ensured that the searchlights and x-ray sets, which were being sent to be used by British troops, worked. She also taught gave percussion lessons to her colleagues and when peace was declared bundled her band into the company van and toured around London, ending up on the steps of Nelson’s Column where they performed an impromptu concert.
The war brought this job to an end but Margaret had the taste for engineering and turned her attention to the domestic uses of electricity, setting up her business in 1921. To generate more demand she set up an exhibition of electrical models and machines in Exeter to show how rural houses might feel with electric lighting and how this could be installed. There was also a display of labour-saving devices designed to get women excited. It had the desired effect, with the new business kept very busy, installing electricity in scores of private houses and three rural churches.
Margaret was an early member of the Women’s Engineering Society and in March 1923 she spoke at their first conference in Birmingham. A journalist said that they had not met ‘a more hopeful and cheerful body of women’ for a long time. Margaret presented a paper on Engineering Contracts in Country Districts. ‘The very practical and breezy account of her short career as a Contracting Engineer given by Miss M. Partridge showed that an engineer’s life in a rural district is anything but a continual round of dull monotony’, reported the W.E.S. ‘Miss Partridge not only handles live wires, she is one herself’, was the verdict in one newspaper. Margaret was good friends with the organisation’s secretary, Caroline Haslett. Together they wired up Caroline’s St John’s Wood flat and shared their experiences of navigating a male-dominated world, where industry conferences ran parallel agendas for ‘engineers’ and ‘ladies (‘Please tell me’, Margaret wrote to Caroline, as they prepared to attend one of these events, ‘am I a lady or an engineer?’) and a change in marital status meant signing a new set of company documents.
In 1924, Margaret joined Caroline and Laura Annie Willson as a founder member of the Electrical Association for Women. Back in London, she took up the cause with zeal, writing pamphlets and lecturing on ‘The Live Wire’, ‘The All-Electric Home’ and ‘What is Electricity?’ and writing articles for Good Housekeeping. At the 1925 Wembley Conference she shared her first-hand experience of seeing about how electricity was revolutionising rural Britain. ‘I could now show you farmhouses where all the dairy work, ironing and washing is done by electricity. A woman with a family of six washing before a tub of soap and water in perpetual motion can do what was once a morning’s work in half an hour.’ In Margaret’s dream world, boot cleaning machines scraped the mud from farmers’ boots, vacuum cleaners sucked dirt up from the floor and hours of housework vanished into thin air.
Margaret believed that the EAW had a vital role to play in providing the link between the brains of the men who invented household gadgets and the housewife who needed them, which is why she put so much emphasis on going out to show women the practical benefits of electric power. Reading the list of items she demonstrated at the All-Electric Exhibition in Leicester in 1925 brings back memories of the Generation Game conveyor belt: oohs and aahs greeted a washing machine ‘where the clothes ‘magically wash themselves’, hairdryers, sewing machines, toasters, coffee pots and an electric blanket.
For a while Margaret explored commercial applications, making electrical signs for advertising but it was the opportunities presented by domestic electricity that really excited her and she went back to Devon, taking on responsibility for the southwest region of the EAW and embarking on a plan to electrify entire villages rather than single buildings.
The first people to benefit from Margaret’s desire to take on a bigger challenge were the 737 residents of Thorverton, which was lit up in 1925. In December 1925 Margaret became a director of the Exe Valley Electricity Company, established to install electricity in Bampton and other Devon and Somerset locations. The first step was negotiating with government departments and councils to secure the necessary permissions for electricity generation and distribution. Then a power source was needed. Sometimes there were nearby water sources but Margaret and her ‘small army’ of men and women also had to build and equip power stations and connect all the houses. There were numerous problems: cows attacked the stay wires; birds committed hari-kari on the overhead mains cables; curious passers-by ignored warning signs and fell into the large holes that had been dug for telegraph poles and residents asked to hang ceiling lamps low enough for them to be able to switch them on and off.
The risks and difficulties were more than offset by the satisfaction of seeing people shouting and cheering when their streets and their living rooms were illuminated, looking at Margaret as if she was a kind of miracle worker, the Good Witch of the South. ‘For sheer exciting experience, give me a town to light – 70 miles an hour belts & 320 Volts on the board with a well soaked cement floor – & then remember you are the responsible engineer for the whole lot, & there isn’t another soul within 20 miles at least who understands the switchboard!!!’ she wrote to Caroline Haslett. ‘Devonshire men have made their county famous in song and story but it has taken a woman to light up Devon with modern electricity’, claimed one paper.
Cheriton Fitzpaine was the next village to go electric, followed by South Molton. Margaret’s firm was also involved in a project in Bungay in north Suffolk where Caroline was one of the directors. However, Margaret’s practice of giving equal opportunities and equal treatment to the male and female apprentices was about to hit a major stumbling block.
Women and night work
As Margaret built her business, legal restrictions limited the type of industrial work women could do. Much of this was a hangover from the Industrial Revolution: along with factory work in the mid-late 1800s came Factory Acts, which lumped women and children together as a single group needing the same protections. This philosophy had informed subsequent legislation and in 1919, Great Britain had signed up to the Washington Convention of the International Labour Organisation which banned the employment of women in industrial contexts between 10pm and 5am. So, while women could work late into the night as doctors, nurses, hotel managers, waitresses, in the engineering sector, among others, their freedom to work was curtailed.
In 1928, one of Margaret’s apprentices, Beatrice Shilling, was discovered by a Factory Inspector at around 11pm doing some maintenance work in one of the small power stations Margaret had set up in Devon. The company was told that this was illegal and the W.E.S. immediately started a campaign to change the law. It took three years to get the issue on the agenda but in 1931, Hilda Martindale, H.M. Deputy Chief Inspector of Factories (and, like Caroline, at this point a member of the Women’s Provisional Club) submitted an amendment and after another three years it was finally accepted. This was partial: it only exempted women in management positions and still did nothing to help women who wanted the same rights as men to do more hands-on roles but it at least created a loophole that could be exploited by Margaret and others.
In September 1927, Margaret joined Caroline and Laura Annie Willson to set up Electrical Enterprises, to expand the scope of rural electrification and electrical appliance installation but eventually the development of high tension ring mains caused the demise of small individual firms carrying out this kind of work.
Margaret turned her attention to education. In 1929, she was still one of only two women in the country who were Associate Members of the Institute of Electrical Engineers making her a valued speaker and contributor in the field of engineering and more widely. She lectured on the Domestic Uses of Electricity for Domestic Science Teachers at Hampstead College in July 1930 and wrote a number of chapters for the Electrical Handbook for Women, first published in 1934. 33,000 copies were sold in the first year and, regularly updated, it remained in print for the next fifty years.
When the Second World War broke out, Margaret became Secretary of a newly formed company Exeter Munitions Ltd, formed with the objective of carrying on the business of manufacturers of and dealers in machine tools, shells, ammunition, explosives, bombs, mines, grenades, guns, small arms, torpedoes, aeroplanes and war-like equipment and stores of every description, iron founders, engineers, manufacturers of agricultural implements and other machinery etc’. During the war she also worked as one of Verena Holmes’ team of Labour Supply Inspectors, with special responsibility for investigating the supply and conditions of women in engineering factories across the south-west.
In 1943, she became President of the W.E.S. and earnestly solicited members for ‘good and sound ideas for the rebuilding of a World in Peace’, determined that women engineers should be able to play a role in the post-war reconstruction. By a happy coincidence she was still President when the Electrical Association of Women celebrated its 21st birthday in 1945. and presided over a joint ‘Women and Electricity’ exhibition which ran for two weeks in October that year. After the war, Margaret focused on social work in Willand, where she was living, getting heavily involved in the construction of a new village hall, one of the largest in Devon, with the wiring done by the Women’s Institute under her supervision.
Margaret died on 27th October 1967. Her partner in work and life, Margaret (Madge) Rowbotham, another W.E.S. member, wrote in the Woman Engineer that ‘her outstanding brain and indomitable spirit, together with her innate honesty and abiding sense of fair play, were a guide and inspiration to all who lived and worked with her, and with it all she was such fun to be with.’ She is remembered by a plaque on her former home in Willand but since you are unlikely to be passing through there any time soon, perhaps you can spare a thought for her life and work the next time you flick a light switch.
The Woman Engineer – Volumes 1-10, 15.
Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 6/3/1903; Bedford Record 10/12/1907; Bedfordshire Times and Independent 27/03/1908; 15/12/1911; 9/12/1914; Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 24/6/1921; Daily News 18/4/1922; Yorkshire Post 9/4/1923; Western Mail 14/4/1923; Sunday Sun (Newcastle) 22/4/1923; The Woman’s Leader 13/3/1925; Dundee Courier 12/5/1925; Daily News 18/7/1925; Leicester Mail 13/10/1925; Western Morning News and Mercury 12/12/1925; North Mail and Newcastle Chronicle 30/3/1926; Westminster Gazette 8/3/1927; Yorkshire Post 29/4/1927; Portsmouth Evening News 3/2/1930; Western Morning News 30/5/1940;
‘The Doors of Opportunity’ by Rosalind Messenger (1967); Magnificent Women and their Machines by Henrietta Heald (2019)
“Am I a Lady or an Engineer?” The Origins of the Women’s Engineering Society in Britain, 1918-1940 by Caroll Pursell (1993) in Technology and Culture, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 78-97