My history hero: Cathy Newman chooses Beatrice Shilling (1909–1990)

Cathy Newman, journalist and broadcaster, chooses pioneering engineer and racer Beatrice Shilling as her history hero

c1935: Beatrice Shilling sits astride her Norton motorcycle. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

In profile: Beatrice Shilling (1909–1990)

Beatrice Shilling was born in March 1909 in the small Hampshire village of Waterlooville. She bought her first motorbike at the age of 14, and was obsessed with them throughout her life. Shilling trained as an engineer – something that was incredibly difficult for women to do at the time – and secured a job as a technical officer at the Royal Air Establishment at Farnborough in the 1930s. She was awarded an OBE in 1947 for her pioneering work on the engines of fighter planes in the Second World War.

When did you first hear about Beatrice Shilling?

It was when my husband was helping me research my book, Bloody Brilliant Women. He found a biography of Shilling, and I became fascinated with her life and how history has remembered her. For example, the device for which she is best known – the disc with the hole [which stopped the engines of fighter planes cutting out] – was nicknamed ‘Shilling’s orifice’. She helped win the Battle of Britain, but was reduced to a gag about her vagina.

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What kind of person was Shilling?

She became an engineer at a time when it was, as her biographer put it, “easier for a woman to think of a career in lion taming”. She was definitely an ‘English eccentric’: while other young girls were pressing flowers, she was in her overalls taking motorbikes apart.

Shilling later joined the British Motorcycling Racing Club and became one of the first women to complete a circuit at 100 miles an hour. She was always a motorbike fanatic, and trained herself to become an engineer by taking apart motorcycles in her back garden.

What was her finest hour?

When the Battle of Britain started in July 1940, it soon became clear that there was a serious problem: the Luftwaffe’s planes had fuel-injected engines, and the RAF’s didn’t. This meant that whenever a British pilot in, for example, a Spitfire went into a dive to shake off an enemy plane, the engine would splutter and sometimes cut out entirely because of the effects of negative G-force.

Shilling helped change the course of history: we might not have won the Battle of Britain if it wasn’t for her invention

Shilling and her team worked 19-hour shifts trying to recreate the conditions in which these cut-outs might occur. After a year, she discovered a way to regulate the flow of fuel into the engine’s float chambers using a metal disc with a hole in it. Shilling fitted these to aircraft herself, riding between airfields on her Norton motorbike. The solution fixed the flaw that was causing pilots to die.

She helped change the course of history: we might not have won the Battle of Britain if it wasn’t for Beatrice Shilling.

If you could meet Shilling, what would you ask her?

I suspect that she would have some shrewd advice for my daughters about how to make it in the world. And she might teach me how to ride a motorbike!

Can you see any parallels between her life and your own?

I would never have considered a career in engineering. My parents were both scientists, but I was better at English and music. One of my first journalism jobs was with the Financial Times, so I had to become very numerate, very quickly. I enjoyed the challenge, but can’t see myself as a Beatrice Shilling character.

Cathy Newman was talking to Rachel Dinning

Cathy Newman is an award-winning investigative journalist, Channel 4 News presenter and author of Bloody Brilliant Women (2018). She was talking to Rachel Dinning

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This article was first published in the July 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine