Annette Ashberry (1894-1990)

Born: Hannah Annenberg; also known as Anne Ashberry

Sector: Engineering

Annette Ashberry had two quite different careers, first as an engineer and later as a designer of miniature gardens. She was one of twelve children of Israel Annenberg, who was born in Poland, and his wife Leah, born in Russia. They became naturalised British citizens in 1896 and like many Eastern European and German families Anglicised their name in the run up to the First World War. Annette was born in Seven Sisters and the family later moved a bit further out of London to a large house in Green Lanes.

During the war Annette worked assembling munitions at the Park Royal Filling Station and then transferred to the British Thomson-Houston Company, a British subsidiary of the General Electric Company. She started in their main factory in Rugby, which produced components for the Royal Navy, including signalling and radio equipment. Edwin Lutyens later designed a war memorial to the 243 employees of BTH killed fighting in the First World War, one of six he designed for private companies. By the end of the war she transferred to the Coventry branch where she worked on magnetos, a vital component of the ignition equipment of aeroplane engines.

After the armistice Annette moved up to Kirkcudbright. The Tongland munitions factory had been taken over by the Galloway Engineering Company and transformed into fitting and machine shops. As the union-driven Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act pushed women out of the factories, it gave women one place where they could continue to develop their engineering careers. It was here that Annette met Dora Turner. In an early article for The Woman Engineer, Annette and Dora expressed their concerns about maintaining a decent representation of women in the engineering profession and asked whether it might be possible to for firms to build and equip factories especially for women labour? No big organisations were enthused by such a prospect.

By October 1920, they had decided to take matters into their own hands and set up their own company. Writing in the The Vote, the explained that it was ‘the only logical outcome of what had become a perfectly absurd position’. Why spend so many years learning how to do a particular kind of work only to be told that no further progress was possible? They went on to lay out the purpose of Atalanta Ltd: ‘To advance ourselves primarily, both mentally and materially, to give us an outlet for our own energy and also when we are established firmly to give other girls, like-minded with ourselves, a better chance than we have had, and we hope, indeed, a better chance than many boys have been given in engineering shops under the old laws.’

The launch of Atalanta Engineering
The Women’s Engineering Society were ready backers and a meeting was held at their offices in the autumn of 1920. Alongside Annette and Dora the other Directors were Hon Lady Katherine Parsons, Hon Lady Eleanor Shelley-Rolls and Caroline Haslett. Loughborough was chosen as the location because of the nearby Technical college that would enable the women to continue their study of the theoretical side of engineering and both Dora and Annette studied there for B.Scs in Engineering. Three of the directors were members of its staff, including Herbert Schofield, who was Principal of Loughborough College for 35 years. The prospectus for Atalanta Ltd, ‘the Women Engineers Factory’ was issued on 31st December 1920. The name was inspired by Atalanta’s race against prospective suitors – ‘we are racing men in business’. (Laura Annie Willson also named one of the roads in her Halifax housing developments Atalanta Terrace.)

All the women who were part of this new enterprise had worked together at Tongland so ‘know one another’s capabilities as well as eccentricities’ and all were shareholders. Annette was works manager, Dora the company secretary. The team’s first job was fitting out the location they had found on Selbourne Street. They had to bed lathes in concrete, put in overhead shafting, lay gas pipes and install additional windows. One of them was a skilled carpenter and fitted the small factory out with shelves and tool racks, which can be seen in this photograph. The decision was made to specialise in fine fitting, making plates and fitting up units such as carburettors and pumps. It was hard going and they were working 47 hours a week.

Good Housekeeping July 1922

The WES helped drum up publicity for the new venture, running a Domestic Labour-Saving competition in the spring of 1922 where Annette won the prize by inventing a dishwasher which could cost as little as £6, the equivalent of six weeks’ wages for a woman in an entry-level secretarial role. Women’s newspapers and magazines also got behind the enterprise. There were features in Common Cause, The Vote and International Woman Suffrage News and in July 1922, Good Housekeeping ran in an article by Cleone Griff on Engineering Careers for Women featuring photographs of the Atalanta operations, perhaps aided by some behind-the-scenes conversations between Caroline Haslett and Alice Head.

The move south
The early years were tough and orders were slow to materialise. In 1924, Atalanta scaled back and relocated to London, spending the next year operating out of smaller premises at 479 Fulham Road. In 1925 a large order for some special stamping work meant that they could move to larger premises at 1-3 Brixton Road and install a wider range of machinery. That year Annette was elected the first woman member of the Society of Engineers and in 1926 presented a paper on ‘Some products from a small machine shop’. They included a screwdriver that could be used with the hand staying in one place, with a mechanism for rotating the blade separately and a hairbrush where the bristles were on a detachable plate that could be removed for easy cleaning.

Annette Ashbury, Atalanta Engineering
Annette Ashberry c. 1926

The coverage of her speech and the way in which the story of Atalanta is written in the Daily News is telling. The company is commended for doing some ‘exceptionally skilled’ work for a well-known firm of instrument makers, making a ‘complicated’ engine for the Nobel Prize winning scientist Professor Frederick Soddy, making laboratory filters for one of the country’s leading engineers, Dr Henry Hele-Shaw, one of the country’s leading engineers and manufacturing parts for broadcasting microphones and aircraft.

Yet a patronising tone is struck by the description of a ‘little’ company run by an ‘enthusiastic little body of women’.

By 1927 Atalanta was employing around twelve women and was described by Lady Parsons, in a speech on the opportunities for women in engineering, as being one of the two women-led engineering businesses in the country that was on a solid commercial footing, the other being Margaret Partridge’s electrical engineering business in Devon.

In May 1932, Annette gave what seems to have been her last interview in her role as the leader of Atalanta. In an exclusive interview in The People, under the headline ‘Not a Man in this Factory: Women Engineers manage very nicely thank you!’ Annette was described as the only woman in the world managing her own all-women engineering business. As was common in articles about women leaders at the time (and since), it started with comments on her appearance and manner.

‘She might be the young, tactful wife of a clever politician. There is nothing of the Napolean in skirts about her. She has a low, musical voice which one associates with the drawing-room rather than the engineering plant.’

The appearance of the women working in the factory is also a cause for comment:

‘Each of the women employees at Mss Ashberry’s factory serves a stern apprenticeship. They wear neat blue overalls and a blue cap, And they are permitted to smoke while on the job, just like any man.’

What the journalist fails to mention is what any of them are actually doing…

In July of that year Lord Justice Scrutton was presiding over a fraud case where ‘heavy business transactions had to be considered’ and commented that the fact that there had been no women on the jury was an ‘advantage’ in reaching a speedy resolution. As a woman with more than a decade of experience of running a business Annette was contacted for a comment: ‘Undoubtedly some women are capable of dealing with lengthy and complicated business affairs.’ Generalising in this was ‘unfortunate’.

Whether ground down by sexism or simply unable to create a viable economic model, by 1937 Atalanta had ceased trading and Annette looked to new pastures.

From lathes to leaves
At the end of the 1930s, Annette embarked on a career as a designer and maker of miniature gardens and with the new direction came a different version of her name. Now calling herself Anne Ashberry, her gardens had tiny trees, miniature roses and cyclamen planted in bowls, concrete boxes and stone sinks. She based her business in South Kensington had two years to establish herself before the war intervened and she put on her overalls once more.

She spent the war years working for Hoffman’s ballbearing factory in Chelmsford but in 1945 she was able to return to gardening once more.

In June 1946 she won the cup for Best Horticultural Exhibit at the Essex Show and in 1948, when she spent a week in Harrods doing demonstrations, it was reported that she had made a miniature garden for Princess Elizabeth. She exhibited at the Chelsea Flower Show in 1949 and in 1952 her work was featured in a short British Pathé film.

She published her first book, ‘Miniature Gardens’ in 1951 and went on to write six more. Many were illustrated by her partner, Creina Glegg and the last one was published in 1977.

Essex Chronicle 23/11/1945

Anne(tte) Ashberry died in 1990 and was largely forgotten for the next thirty years. However, the celebrations surrounding the centenary of the Women’s Engineering Society in 2019 brought a resurgence of interest in women’s engineering firsts. and the story of Atalanta Engineering.

Sources include:
Common Cause 28/2/1919; The Vote 8/10/1920; International Woman Suffrage News 5/11/1920; The Vote 18/2/1921; Halifax Evening Courier 4/5/1922; Westminster Gazette 22/11/1924; Sheffield Daily Telegraph 3/3/1925; Westminster Gazette 4/6/1926; 30/10/1926; Daily News 2/11/1926; The Falkirk Herald 25/5/1927; Daily Mirror 15/9/1931; The People 8/5/1932; The Scotsman 28/7/1932; Essex Chronicle 7/12/1945; 14/6/1946; Essex Newsman 27/4/1948;

‘A fine university for women engineers’: a Scottish munitions factory in world war I’ by Georgine Clarsen (2003) Women’s History Review, 12:3, 333-356

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