Victoria Drummond: trailblazing ship's engineer and war hero
A century ago, the barriers facing any woman longing for a career in marine engineering seemed almost insurmountable – but not quite. Jo Stanley introduces a woman who had the talent, bravery and determination to make her mark in the male-dominated maritime world...
One day in October 1952, an old seafarer watched warily as a uniformed woman approached his ship at Avonmouth docks, on the Somerset coast near Bristol. “Odd – must be a district nurse,” he mused, observing the older woman preparing to board. Or maybe she was collecting alms for a seafarers’ charity?
As she drew closer, he recognised the purple-and-gold epaulettes – could that middle-aged lady really be their new second engineer? The ship had been waiting for this crucial team member, but a senior marine engineer who was a woman: how could that be?
The men serving on the obscure little tramp steamer SS Markab were about to encounter a 58-year-old living legend: Victoria Drummond – god daughter of Queen Victoria, a war hero with an MBE, and one of the most path-breaking women in seafaring and engineering history.
The world’s first female seagoing ship’s engineer had overcome seemingly impossible odds to reach this position. And she did it all calmly, determinedly, and by dint of her ability, not patronage. Throughout her 30-year fight for the chance to work on ships’ engines, she’d been confident in her competence. She took it for granted that gender shouldn’t determine what people were allowed to do. She felt normal.
Born in 1894 at Megginch Castle, her ancestral home near Perth, by her teens Drummond had already developed a fancy for an oily career in the bowels of ships. Her determination was buoyed by both history and family, preceded as she was by many formidable and talented female forebears who had followed “outlandish” paths. As her wood worker grandmother contentedly observed: “That child… might even make an engineer.”
Equally fortunately, because of the demand for labour sparked by the First World War, women were allowed to undertake work outside the traditionally female sphere. For example, Eily Keary helped design aspects of seaplanes and flying oats. Other women built ships.
And in 1915, Drummond’s father gave her the green light. “Papa gave me a paint box and two Parisian sparkly shoe buckles,” she recalled, “[and] said: ‘Now you are 21, you can choose your own career.’ ‘I’m going to be a marine engineer,’ I said, but I don’t think he took me seriously.”
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It must have been a common sentiment among men. During the war, fewer than 100 women worked among the 100,000 men serving in the merchant navy. Despite the long odds, though, in 1916 Drummond donned overalls and began working her way up in engineering, starting ashore.
“Mummy got me an introduction to the manager of the Caledon Ship Works in Dundee,” she recalled. And quickly, “my fellow workmates… got used to the idea of having a woman working with them”.
During this period, doors began to open more widely. In 1919, Drummond was welcomed into the newly formed Women’s Engineering Society, and two years later she became the first ever “lady member” of the Institute of Marine Engineers (today the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science & Technology, or IMarEST).
Sexism at sea
At last, in 1922, Drummond started work at sea, joining the Blue Funnel Line SS Anchises as 10th engineer – the lowest such rank aboard – for successive voyages to Australia.
She loved her travels: savouring snow on orange trees growing on the flanks of Mount Etna, Sicily; enjoying elaborate hospitality from distant distingué relatives; gathering wild flowers in remote groves; gazing at moonlit seascapes; visiting Gibraltar, “just like the picture I had drawn… from imagination”.
Drummond’s career was dealt a blow when Blue Funnel Line, fearing a scandal, raised concerns about her closeness with the (married) second engineer on the Anchises; similar problems still face seawomen today when male shipmates mistake matey-ness for lust.
“I could have told them it was not like that, but they wouldn’t listen,” she said. Forced to change companies, she joined British India Line’s TSS Mulbera as fifth engineer for a journey to east Africa. After three years on the Mulbera, though, the second engineer’s seemingly pathological hostility drove her out of that company, too.
The following 12 years spent on dry land were hard for Drummond. She started Golden Fisheries, a small business importing tropical fish, and “tried to mend cars”. But not only could she not find work, she couldn’t advance in her chosen career, either; the route to becoming chief engineer seemed to be blocked to her.
It certainly wasn’t for want of trying. Drummond took the chief engineer exam 31 times. Her tutor at Dundee Technical College was an ally, she recalled – “It even became quite a joke between us” – but jokes mask pain. In 1936, one of the examiners admitted to the tutor that Drummond was being failed simply because she was a woman.
The stonewalling of female mariners by the Board of Trade had long been a shameful habit. To mask this unfairness, the board failed not just Drummond but all of the other candidates sitting the batches of exams she took.
The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 would surely see Drummond back at sea – or so you’d imagine. “It was time for me to get back on a ship,” she recalled, but still “no one would have me. They might be short staffed but that was no reason to employ a woman engineer. And certainly not in wartime.”
Eventually she found work – but on foreign-flagged ships, just as Canadian women gained positions as radio officers on Scandinavian ships to sidestep their homeland’s sexist rebuttals. And she proved her mettle.
Displaying huge bravery, Drummond staunched the leak alone, and managed to boost the ship’s speed by more than 25 per cent. As a result, the Bonita was able to dodge the 25 bombs that were aimed at it over the next half-hour
In 1940, she was sailing aboard her second ship, the Bonita, from Fowey in Cornwall to Norfolk, Virginia, when Luftwaffe planes attacked 400 miles out into the Atlantic. Bombs split the main water-service pipe feeding the boilers. Displaying huge bravery, Drummond staunched the leak alone, and managed to boost the ship’s speed by more than 25 per cent. As a result, the Bonita was able to dodge the 25 bombs that were aimed at it over the next half-hour.
Her courage finally brought recognition: in 1941, Drummond was awarded both an MBE and a Lloyd’s War Medal for Bravery at Sea. By this point she had gained a Panamanian qualification as a chief engineer. “Nobody seemed to want me… [but] I was immensely proud of both my medals. They reassured me that at least someone believed my work was worthwhile.”
What’s more, this tall, red-headed woman didn’t try to present herself as some kind of honorary male in order to get a “man’s job”. To grasp this point, you’d need only take a quick look at her luggage, which typically included her sewing gear and a supply of henna shampoo to mask the grey in her hair.
Indeed, while serving aboard the Karabagh in May 1944, she sought to reduce stress with the help of her needles. “While waiting off Cowes for the [D-Day] invasion to begin I started to do an embroidery map of the world,” she recalled.
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When the war was over, Drummond was able to find only lowly work on tramp ships (vessels that didn’t ply regular routes with fixed ports of call). Liners were “girling up”, with ex-Wrens working as pursers, but on cargo ships Drummond would still be the only woman aboard. Now aged 51, she felt “tired of sailing on small dirty boats with often disagreeable chiefs”. Still, that was the life.
So it was that in 1952 in Avonmouth she joined the SS Markab as second engineer; and she later served on a tanker and other smaller vessels. Finally, at the end of her career, in 1958 she was accepted as a chief engineer.
Her seagoing life finished in 1962 – after nearly 40 years and no fewer than 49 voyages. The year before the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act was passed, Drummond was moved into a care home. By then officer shortages were forcing shipping companies to recruit women as engineering officers.
But Drummond was by then largely forgotten, and was sadly no longer on hand to provide inspiration to those ground-breaking female engineers. She died in 1978, with a picture of a ship that she’d embroidered herself nearby.
It was only after her death that Drummond’s achievements became properly recognised. Now, with the quest for female role models in science, technology, engineering and maths building up steam, she is acclaimed as a true trailblazer.
The engineering block at Solent University was named after her, as is a room at the headquarters of IMarEST, the professional society to which she belonged. Today, some 9 per cent of IMarEST members are women.
Would Drummond have applauded this as progress? My bet is that she’d be cheerleading for all good engineers – never mind their gender.
Jo Stanley is an author and maritime historian, with a focus on women and LGBT+ seafarers. Her books include From Cabin ‘Boys’ to Captains: 250 Years of Women at Sea (The History Press, 2016) and Women and the Royal Navy (IB Tauris, 2017)
This article was first published in the May 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine