History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

5 "bloody brilliant" 20th-century women

We know of Emmeline Pankhurst, Vera Brittain and Marie Stopes. But who remembers Beatrice Shilling, whose ingenious device for the Spitfire's Rolls-Royce Merlin engine allowed RAF aircraft to beat the Germans in the Battle of Britain? Here, Cathy Newman, journalist and Channel 4 news presenter, chooses five lesser-known women from the 20th century who altered the course of recent history...

c1935: Beatrice Shilling sits astride her Norton motorcycle. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
Published: November 30, 2018 at 1:28 pm
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed

I’ve loved history ever since I was a child, reading about the Norman Conquest and Alfred burning his cakes. But the subject wasn’t necessarily taught well at my school, and I’ve been acutely conscious of the gaps in my knowledge ever since.


Over the years I’ve spent a small fortune on doorstop ‘History of Britain’-type books. One day, as I waded through one of these great tomes, I began to notice that women were rather thin on the ground. It was an all too common trend. Obviously, the Queen is mentioned – you can’t avoid her. And Margaret Thatcher. And the Pankhursts. But after that, women seemed to be packed away in a cupboard marked ‘lowly; ancillary roles; housewives, etc’ until the 1960s, when they were allowed out to be totems of the sexual revolution, burn their bras and go on strike at Dagenham’s Ford plant.

I was sure the truth was more nuanced. And in the course of writing my first book, Bloody Brilliant Women, I found plenty of proof that it was. My book is a history of 20th-century Britain (with a few years before and after thrown in for good measure) that places women front and centre. Here are some of my favourites…


Beatrice Shilling (1909–1990)

When I was in the early stages of thinking about my book and friends asked me about the sort of women it would include, I would always reply “women like Beatrice Shilling…” and give a potted history of her life. “Ah,” they would say. “Right. We understand now.”

Shilling isn’t totally unknown – she has a pub named after her in Farnborough, Hampshire – but nor is she as feted as she ought to be. She was born in March 1909 in a small Hampshire village called Waterlooville. Throughout her life she was obsessed with motorbikes, and she bought her first one aged 14. While other girls were pressing flowers, Shilling was at the bottom of the garden taking its engine to pieces.

In many ways, the First and Second World Wars catalysed change for women by giving them permission to defy social expectations – and Shilling was no exception. She 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.

The First and Second World Wars catalysed change for women by giving them permission to defy social expectations

In July 1940 the Battle of Britain started. It soon became clear 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, say, 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 and her team worked 19-hour shifts trying to recreate the conditions in which cut-outs might occur. Eventually, after a year, she discovered a way to regulate the flow of fuel into the engine’s float chambers (although don’t ask me what these are!) using a metal disc with a hole in it. Shilling fitted these to aircraft herself, riding from airfield to airfield on her Norton motorbike. To Shilling’s apparent amusement, the restrictor was christened ‘Miss Shilling’s orifice’ by the Rolls-Royce engineer Sir Stanley Hooker and became known by this name throughout the RAF.


Jennie Lee (1904–1988)

Jennie Lee served as Labour prime minister Harold Wilson’s Arts Minister between 1964 and 1970 – the first person to hold that post – and was so much loved by the public that when she attended a play the audience would applaud her as she took her seat. It was, according to her biographer, Patricia Hollis, a common occurrence.

Lee was a big, charismatic Scot; the daughter of a miner; and passionate about making the arts more accessible to ordinary people. As she put it: “I am determined that all our children should be given the kind of education which was the monopoly of the privileged minority in the past.”

Scottish Labour politician Jennie Lee. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Scottish Labour politician Jennie Lee. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In her youth she’d been the youngest member of the House of Commons becoming MP for North Lanark in 1929 when she was just 24. She subsequently married Welsh Labour politician Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan – the founder of the NHS – and lived much of her life in his shadow. Wilson, however, recognised her talent and after Bevan’s death in 1960, tried to find a post for her, coming up with ‘Arts Minister’ after Richard Crossman at the Department of Housing had rejected the then 60-year-old as being only “good for opening bazaars”.

Crossman’s loss was Britain’s gain. Lee beefed up the Arts Council, saved the National Youth Orchestra and was a great supporter of the National Film School. She also oversaw the redevelopment of the old Festival of Britain site on the South Bank and fought for the new National Theatre to be located there.

Her biggest, most ambitious achievement, though, was overseeing the creation of the Open University. This ‘university of the air’, using TV and radio to give people a university education they would not otherwise have had, was Wilson’s pet project. It was a perfect match for Lee, who knew all about what she called “the struggle for self-education”. She herself liked to trace the Open University’s roots “back to all the years when Nye Bevan and myself were together. We knew, we both of us, from our backgrounds, that there were people in the mining villages who left school at fourteen or fifteen who had first-class intellects. The problem was how could you devise a scheme that would get through to them without excluding other people?”

Forceful and belligerent, Lee made enemies as easily as she did friends

Forceful and belligerent, Lee made enemies as easily as she did friends. At the National Gallery it was said that she cared more about the coffee shop than the paintings. But as the gallery’s director later admitted, the coffee shop was awful and Lee had been right to care. She understood that young families needed somewhere to feed children and older people somewhere to sit. Lee approached museums and galleries from the viewpoint of ordinary punters whose lives might be transformed by what they saw.

A fourth to fifth-century AD Roman mosaic shows a woman spinning. The household was considered a woman's natural environment; the political arena certainly was not. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Wendy Hanson (1935–1991)

Apart from the screaming fans, women weren’t a big feature of the Beatles’ story until its end in 1970, at which point Linda McCartney and Yoko Ono became hate figures, often blamed for breaking up the group. A woman mentioned infrequently in accounts of the Beatles’ careers – but who was vitally important in keeping the show on the road – was Wendy Hanson, the smart, well-spoken, Yorkshire-born assistant of the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein. Hanson had moved to the US in the early 1960s to work as an au pair before drifting into the music industry, working first as a PA to the conductor Leopold Stokowski and then at Capitol Records, the Beatles’ US label.

Concerned that the practical pressures of coping with the band’s popularity were overwhelming Epstein and his team, Capitol sent Hanson to help out during the Beatles’ 1964 US tour. Scenes of chaos greeted her upon her arrival at Epstein’s New York hotel. “He [Epstein] was in a terrible state when I walked in there,” Hanson later recalled. “There was a queue of people in the hall, many of whom had been waiting for hours and all of whom he seemed to be trying to avoid.”

The Beatles arrive at London Airport upon their return from America, February 1964. They wave at the many fans who have come to the airport to greet them. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Undeterred, Hanson returned to London with Epstein afterwards and worked in the London office of his company NEMS. She kept the overstretched office functioning, covering for the frequently absent Epstein as his mental health deteriorated. Hanson fielded the fuss over John Lennon’s remark: “We’re more popular than Jesus.” “You’d better get on top of this,” she told Epstein as Beatles records were burned on bonfires across middle America. But the job she remembered most fondly was tracking down all the still-alive celebrities whose cut-outs appeared on the cover of Sergeant Pepper and arranging to pay them royalties for the use of their image: “I spent many hours and pounds on calls to the States,” she once said. “Fred Astaire was very sweet and Shirley Temple wanted to hear the record first. I got on famously with Marlon Brando, but Mae West wanted to know what she would be doing in a lonely-hearts club.”


Dina St Johnston (1930–2007)

Back in the 1950s computers were enormous machines that filled a room. Many early coders were women because programming was seen as secretarial drudgery akin to typing. The important bit was deemed to be the creation not of software but of hardware, which men oversaw. It was Dina St Johnston who in Britain overturned and questioned this orthodoxy. Born in 1930 and schooled in Selhurst near Croydon, London, St Johnston left her grammar school at 17 against her father’s wishes, taking a job at British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association and, to please her father, studying part-time for a mathematics degree. She ended up at a company called Elliott Brothers that produced computer hardware for the military. After proving herself a skillful programmer, St Johnston was given the job of writing software for the Elliott 153 computer, designed for use by the Royal Navy. She went on to write the program used by Elliott Brothers for its payroll, and oversaw the first purchase of a computer by a local council – Norwich City Council in 1956.

Ada Lovelace “had a unique and farsighted insight into the potential of computers,” says James Essinger. (Photo by Getty Images)

St Johnston left the company in 1958 to found her own, Vaughan Programming Services (VPS). An entrepreneur at heart, St Johnston realised it wasn’t practical or cost-effective for hardware companies to produce their own software as well. Instead, so-called ‘software houses’ could design applications to meet companies’ specific needs and provide customer support when things went wrong. At first, VPS was run from her house, a converted pub in Brickendon in Hertfordshire. By the end of 1962, St Johnston had a staff of eight people, creating bespoke software for blue-chip companies like Unilever, BAA and British Rail. Her company also developed alarm and monitoring systems for the nuclear power plant at Sellafield: an operating system called Master Control Executive (MACE) that ran on eight different types of computer and had a broad range of industrial applications, from warehouse crane control to railway signaling. VPS even produced its own computer, the 4M, which was used by British Rail to track the position of trains.


Claudia Jones (1915–1964)

The Notting Hill Carnival is now a British institution, but it was originally the brainwave of a woman called Claudia Jones, who was born in Trinidad in 1915. As a child, she emigrated to the US where, in her early twenties, she joined the Young Communist League, inspired by her experience of racial segregation. After being imprisoned for her activism in the US, she was offered sanctuary in Britain on humanitarian grounds. She founded a newspaper for the black community, the West Indian Gazette, which she edited herself from rooms above a barber’s shop in Brixton.

After the Notting Hill race riots of 1958, Jones initiated what became the carnival to encourage social cohesion and foster a sense of black identity broader than being an immigrant from the colonies. She wrote an amazing essay for the brochure of the first festival in 1959 called ‘A People’s Art Is the Genesis of Their Freedom’: “It is as if the vividness of our national life was itself the spark urging translation to new surroundings, to convey, to transplant our folk origins to British soil,” she wrote. “There is a comfort in this effort… for all West Indians, who strain to feel and hear and reflect their idiom even as they strain to feel the warmth of their sun-drenched islands and its immemorial beauty of landscape and terrain.”

Oddly, the first carnival (which was called the ‘Caribbean Carnival’) took place not in the streets of Notting Hill but indoors in St Pancras Town Hall – during winter. Filmed by the BBC, it featured steel-band musicians like the Trinidad All Stars and calypsonians like Lord Kitchener. Not until after Jones’ death in 1964 did the carnival move west and become the outdoor festival it is today.


Cathy Newman is an award-winning investigative journalist and Channel 4 News presenter. She is the author of Bloody Brilliant Women (2018).


Sponsored content