This week marked not only Women in Engineering day, but also 125 years since the birth of Verena Holmes: the first female member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
Born 23rd June 1889, in Kent, Verena showed a keen interest in engineering from an early age. Holmes began employment at Ruston and Hornsby superintending the selection, control and welfare of 1,500 female employees. However, her real interest was engineering and she persuaded the directors of the company to let her start as an apprentice in the fitting shops. Holmes gained experience as a turner and apart from a break in her training due to active service in France; she worked her way through a number of roles in the drawing office. In 1919 she was the only woman who was allowed to stay on with the firm. She had experience working on requirements for engines up to 500 BHP. She gained her degree in Engineering from Loughborough Engineering College in 1922. She was accepted as an associated member of the Institution in 1924, but was not granted full membership until some 20 years later.
Her interest in innovation and design is reflected in her membership application which lists patents that she took out for valve gears and a deep-sea diving outfit. Holmes took out 12 patents over here lifetime – including one for a safety paper cutter (paper guillotine).
Her interest in the promotion of women into engineering was cemented by her involvement in the founding of the Women’s Engineering Society at the end of the First World War. Holmes also formed her own engineering company in 1946 – Holmes and Leather – which employed only women to give them a chance at employment in a male dominated field.
The Institution has an annual award named after Holmes, which aims honour and celebrate individuals who have achieved by undertaking a unique challenge or experience and recognise that innovation is stimulated by embracing diversity.
For more information about the Women’s Engineering Society, you can visit http://www.wes.org.uk/. They have a yearly lecture named after Holmes, which aims to promote engineering to children aged 9-11.