The men serving on the obscure little liner SS markab were about to meet a 58-year-old living legend: Victoria Drummond – goddaughter of Queen Victoria, war hero with an MBE and one of the most innovative women in the history of seafaring and engineering.
The world’s first female marine engineer had overcome seemingly impossible odds to achieve this position. And she did everything calmly, with determination and by dint of ability, not clientelism. Throughout her 30-year fight for the chance to work on ship engines, she had been confident in her skills. She took it for granted that gender should not determine what people were allowed to do. She felt normal.
Born in 1894 at Megginch Castle, her ancestral home near Perth, as a teenager Drummond had already developed a taste for an oily quarry in the bowels of ships. Her determination was carried by both history and family, preceded as she was by many wonderful and talented ancestors who had followed “strange” paths. As his woodworker grandmother observed with satisfaction: “This child… might even become an engineer.
Fortunately also, due to the demand for labor brought about 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 him the green light. “Dad gave me a can of paint and two glittery Parisian shoe buckles,” she recalled, “[and] said: “Now that 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.
It must have been a common feeling among men. During the war, less than 100 women worked among the 100,000 men serving in the merchant navy. Despite the long odds, however, in 1916 Drummond donned coveralls and began working his way up the engineering ladder, starting on land.
“Mum introduced me to the manager of Caledon Ship Works in Dundee,” she recalls. And quickly, “my work colleagues… got used to the idea of having a woman working with them”.
During this period, the doors began to open wider. In 1919, Drummond was welcomed into the new Women’s Engineering Society, and two years later became the first-ever “female member” of the Institute of Marine Engineers (now the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science & Technology, or IMarEST).
Sexism at sea
Finally, in 1922, Drummond began working at sea, joining the Blue Funnel Line SS Anchis as the 10th engineer – the lowest rank on board – for successive voyages to Australia.
She loved her travels: savoring the snow on the orange trees growing on the sides of Mount Etna in Sicily; enjoying the elaborate hospitality of distant distinct relatives; pick wildflowers from remote groves; gaze at moonlit seascapes; visit Gibraltar, “just like the picture I had drawn… from the imagination”.
Drummond’s career took a hit when Blue Funnel Line, fearing a scandal, raised concerns about his closeness to the (married) second engineer of the Anchis; Similar problems are still faced by women of the sea today when their shipmates confuse camaraderie with lust.
“I could have told them it wasn’t like that, but they didn’t listen,” she said. Forced to change company, she joins British India Line’s TSS Mulbera as the fifth engineer for a trip to East Africa. After three years on the Mulberahowever, the second engineer’s seemingly pathological hostility drove her out of this endeavor as well.
The next 12 years on dry land were difficult for Drummond. She started Golden Fisheries, a small business importing tropical fish, and “tried to fix cars”. But not only could she not find a job, but she also could not advance in the career she had chosen; the road to becoming chief engineer seemed to him blocked.
It certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. Drummond has passed the Chief Engineer exam 31 times. Her tutor at Dundee Technical College was an ally, she recalls – “It even became one hell of a joke between us” – but the jokes mask the pain. In 1936, one of the examiners admitted to the tutor that Drummond was failing simply because she was a woman.
The obstruction of women sailors by the Board of Trade had long been a shameful habit. To mask this injustice, the board failed not only Drummond, but all the other candidates who passed the batches of exams she took.
The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 would certainly see Drummond put to sea again – or so you imagine. “It was time for me to get back on a boat,” she recalls, but “nobody wanted me. They might be understaffed, but that was no reason to employ an engineer. in times of war.
Eventually, she found work — but on foreign-flagged ships, just as Canadian women got positions as radio officers on Scandinavian ships to avoid sexist rebuttals from their home country. And she has proven herself.
In 1940, she was sailing aboard her second ship, the Bonita, from Fowey in Cornwall to Norfolk, Virginia, when Luftwaffe planes attacked 400 miles into the Atlantic. Bombs split the main water pipe feeding the boilers. Showing great bravery, Drummond stopped the leak alone and managed to increase the speed of the ship by more than 25%. Consequently, the Bonita was able to dodge all 25 bombs aimed at him over the next half hour.
Her bravery was finally recognised: in 1941 Drummond was awarded both an MBE and a Lloyd’s War Medal for her gallantry at sea. By this point she had obtained a Panamanian qualification as a chief engineer. “No one seemed to want me… [but] I was immensely proud of my two medals. They reassured me that at least someone believed my work was worthwhile.
Moreover, this tall, red-haired woman did not try to present herself as a sort of man of honor in order to get a “man’s job”. To grasp this point, all you would need to do is take a quick look at her luggage, which usually included her sewing equipment and a stash of henna shampoo to mask the gray in her hair.
Indeed, while serving aboard the Karabakh in May 1944, she sought to reduce stress using her needles. “Waiting for Cowes for the [D-Day] invasion to begin with, I started to embroider a map of the world,” she recalls.
One the podcast | Tessa Dunlop explores the lives of the last surviving women who served in the British armed forces during World War II:
When the war ended, Drummond could only find modest work on tramps (ships that did not travel regular routes with fixed stops). Ocean liners were “girling up”, with former Wrens working as pursers, but on freighters Drummond would still be the only woman on board. Now 51, she feels “tired of sailing dirty little boats with often unpleasant chefs”. Still, that was life.
So in 1952 in Avonmouth she joined the SS markab as second engineer; and she subsequently served on a tanker and other smaller vessels. Finally, at the end of her career, in 1958, she was accepted as chief engineer.
Her life at sea ended in 1962 – after almost 40 years and no less than 49 voyages. The year before the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 was passed, Drummond was moved to a nursing home. At that time, the shortage of officers forced shipping companies to recruit women as engineer officers.
But Drummond was then largely forgotten and was unfortunately no longer there to inspire these avant-garde engineers. She died in 1978, with a picture of a ship she herself had embroidered nearby.
It was not until after his death that Drummond’s achievements were duly recognized. Today, as the quest for female role models in science, technology, engineering and mathematics gains momentum, she is being hailed as a true trailblazer.
Solent University’s engineering block is named after her, as is a room at the headquarters of IMarEST, the professional society to which she belonged. Today, approximately 9% of IMarEST members are women.
Would Drummond have applauded this as progress? I bet she would encourage all good engineers, regardless of gender.
Jo Stanley is an author and maritime historian, specializing in LGBT+ women and seafarers. His 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)