Rachel Mary Parsons

British Engineer

Rachel Mary Parsons (1885–1956), engineer and advocate for women's employment rights, was the founding President of the Women's Engineering Society in Britain on 23 June 1919.


Early life

Rachel Mary Parsons was born in 1885, to Sir Charles Algernon Parsons and his wife Katharine (d.1933), the daughter of William Froggatt Bethell of Rise Park, East Riding of Yorkshire. Her brother, Algernon George (Tommy) (b.1886), was killed on 28 April 1918 while a Major in the Royal Field Artillery. Her interest and aptitude for engineering and science was fostered from a young age by the engineering tradition in her family including her grandmother Mary Rosse and grandfather William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse. Her father invented the steam turbine and developed successful international engineering businesses. The family lived on Tyneside (Elvaston Hall, Ryton, and Holeyn Hall, Wylam) and later in Northumberland (Ray Demesne, Kirkwhelpington).

She was educated at Newcastle High, Wycombe Abbey, Clarence House (May 1899–April 1900) and finally Roedean from 1900–1903. In 1910 she entered Newnham College at the University of Cambridge and was one of the first three women to study Mechanical Sciences there although, like all women until 1948, she could not graduate with a degree or become a full member of the University. Nevertheless, she was able to add theoretical knowledge to the practical skills she had already obtained at her father's factory. She left in 1912 having taken the preliminary examination for Part I of the Tripos and a qualifying examination in Mechanical Sciences in 1911.

When the First World War broke out, she replaced her brother as a director at the Heaton Works of C. A. Parsons and Company in Newcastle upon Tyne. In particular, she oversaw the recruitment and training of women to replace the men who had left to join the armed forces. She became a leading member of the National Council of Women, and campaigned for equal access for all to technical schools and colleges, regardless of gender.

Life after the First World War

Following her brother's death, Rachel Parsons did not resume her role as a director of the Heaton Works, possibly because of a rift with her father. As evidence of her continued aspirations in engineering she became a member of The Royal Institution of Great Britain in 1918, continuing to be a member until she died.

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