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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

The Lady of the Engine Room: Victoria Drummond, Britain’s First Woman Marine Engineer.

It is August 25, 1940, and the Panamanian ship Bonita, sailing alone in war-torn waters with its cargo of clay bound for the United States, is suddenly attacked by a German aircraft. A neutral ship without any defenses, all the Bonita can do is maneuver and hope to exhaust the attacking plane’s ammunition. The ship’s only slim hope lies in the hands of two people - its Hungarian captain, who is attempting to time the ship’s changes of course to coincide with the plane’s bombing runs, and the person in the engine room, who is desperately coaxing the engines to perform minor miracles while the ship is being tossed among the waves by successive explosive blasts. Fortunately, that person in the engine room is a mechanical wizard of positively iron resolve, who remains alone at her post, face half covered in oil, as she finds a way to goose twelve knots out of engines that had only ever managed nine in the past, giving the captain just enough speed to outlast their attackers and, ultimately, save the ship.

On that day, Second Engineer Victoria Drummond (1894-1980), already a minor celebrity thanks to her family status and unusual choice of career, became a bonafide British hero, an exemplar of what that island nation takes to be its cardinal virtues: coolness under pressure, devotion to duty, and matter-of-fact self sacrifice. And yet, the next two decades of her post-war life were spent perpetually at the edge of bankruptcy, scrambling for engineering posts on a variety of variously sea-worthy foreign ships while her home country resolutely declined to award her the standing that her experience and knowledge so decidedly merited. Drummond, who began life as the god-daughter of Queen Victoria, spent her last voyage, at the age of sixty-six, as Chief Engineer of the Hong Kong vessel Santa Granda, a rusted and leaking disaster of a ship with grinding hull plates, over-laden with iron ore, and in constant danger of sinking.

You might ask yourself, well, how did she get there? She was born in 1894 in Scotland, firmly enmeshed from her first breath in a web of prestigious familial ties that would ensure her devoted family friends at every port of call. Her father was Groom in Waiting to Queen Victoria, her grandfather was the 1st Baron Amherst, her great-great-grandfather was the 4th Duke of Atholl, her grandparents’ housekeeper used to work for French Minister Talleyrand, and her brother would go on to inherit the indisputably goosebump-inducing title of Baron Strange. She was expected in her turn to be presented one day as a debutante to her godmother, Queen Victoria, and thence to emerge into the complicated world of privilege and responsibility that marked the British middle nobility.

Fortunately for her, however, her parents, in spite of their station and familial resources, leaned towards the practical in their parenting strategy, and insisted that the children learn useful skills and plan for realizable careers. Young Victoria, as it turned out, needed little convincing along these lines, as she demonstrated an immediate and profound interest in how things worked. As a young girl, she churned butter and crafted original toys that won prizes in regional competitions, all while taking every opportunity she could to look at machinery and ask questions of those who ran it. In her memoirs she describes leaping at any chance to deliver messages to the local blacksmith or carpenter so that she could watch agricultural machinery being repaired, or learn how welding worked, or understand how wheels were constructed.

Later, she popped her head into Morton’s Engineering Works, which lay near the local Post Office, to watch how they shaped metal pieces, and asked the owner how she might be an engineer herself someday. He told her that she must start from the bottom, as an apprentice, and work her way up, learning by experience how the different machines and tools operated. It was advice she would not forget.

As it turned out, it was advice she would also dearly need, for with the death of Queen Victoria, her father lost his position as Groom in Waiting and the income it brought, and in 1906 her grandparents lost virtually all of their resources when their financial agent gambled and lost their money on the stock market before committing suicide in shame. Suddenly, the estates that had populated her fairytale youth had to be sold for the family to survive, and the gardening which had been an instructive lark during happier times became a financial lifeline as the Drummonds cast about for a sustainable new direction.

In 1915, Drummond turned twenty-one, and the time came to choose her career, a choice made all the more important by the need for the Drummond children to begin contributing to the family finances. She had never abandoned the dream of her youth of becoming a marine engineer and thereby combining her interest in naval vessels (she had built herself a model of the Titanic as a child, then quietly put it away upon announcement of the luxury liner’s early demise) with her fundamental fascination with the processes by which machines are built and maintained. So, remembering the advice of Mr. Morton, she looked for a shop where she might serve as an apprentice, and ended up at a motor garage in Perth, where she started in October 1916 on a week’s trial.

She began her apprenticeship cleaning the shop and using paraffin baths to remove grime from machinery components. Her foreman was a Mr. Malcolm, who had once been a naval Chief Engineer and was supportive of her ambitions. He promoted her to bench assistant, where she learned the different tools of the trade and their purpose, and began learning how to dismantle engines. Soon she was making sketches of rebuilt broken parts to aid in the casting of new parts, and learning valve trimming, brazing, welding, and lathing both with metal and wood, while simultaneously learning more mathematics and engineering with a professor from Dundee Technical College.

After two years at the garage, Mr. Malcolm was fired from his position, and Drummond took it as a sign to move on to a company that specialized in marine engineering, so in 1918 she began her apprenticeship in earnest at Caledon Ship Works, where her family contacts got her an interview with the manager, but her two years of mechanical experience go her the job. From 1918 to 1922 she worked at Caledon, where she began in the pattern shop learning the art of creating machining patterns out of white spruce. It was a test of mechanical skill and attention to detail which she passed on her way upwards to a post at the finishing shop with its banks of drilling machines and detailed metalworking demands. At the end of her time at Caledon, she was set the final task, something of a tradition among European prospective engineers, of taking a cube of steel and filing it down to precisely two inches square on each side using only a hand file, a rule, and a T square.

Her cube was square to within two thousandths of a micrometer on every side, and her apprenticeship was complete. Previously, she had met by chance the director of the prestigious Blue Funnel Line of ships, who had promised her a position aboard one of his company’s vessels if she completed her apprenticeship. Though he had died by 1922, the company honored the promise all the same, and after some time ashore in the engineering recording office, she was assigned a position on the SS Anchises as Assistant Engineer. And so, in August 1922, she stepped aboard her first ship and into her first engine room, the environment where, with one extended break in the 1930s, she would spend the next four decades of her life. In September, she was hired on as the ship’s Tenth Engineer at 10 pounds a month (or about $750 in 2020 American currency), which was hardly enough to live on herself let alone support her family back home with.

Drummond stayed with the Anchises for the next two years, seeing Australia and China, and sharing a close relationship with the Second Engineer, Malcolm Quayle, whom she dubbed “hedgehog” for his prickly temper but whose advice and friendship she dearly appreciated. Her family wrote ahead to its connections in all of her ports of call, so that after a day in a boiler suit coated from head to foot in engine grime, she would emerge ashore to participate in the highest local social life, a situation which earned not a little enmity and envy from various of her superiors.

All the while, Drummond was studying for her certification as a Second Engineer, the first step on the road to a Chief Engineer certification and the livable salary that went with it. After failing her first few attempts at certification (whether because of actual faults in her work or the prejudice against giving certification to a woman that would haunt her later attempts to become a Chief Engineer), she passed at last in 1926 and was thereby her country’s first certified woman marine engineer. It was one thing, however, to have the certification, and another to find a ship willing to hire a woman as a Second Engineer, and in the end she had to settle for a Fifth Engineer position aboard the TSS Mulbera, which primarily serviced India, and where she faced repeated verbal abuse from the Second Engineer.

By 1928, Drummond had had enough of the Second’s regular drumbeat of personal invective, and was ready to devote herself to achieving her Chief Engineer certification, so she left the Mulbera and buckled down to her studies. She took her first exam in late 1929, and failed, and then took it again, and failed again. Every time the exam was offered, she sat for it, and just as routinely failed, until she had racked up thirty-one attempts. Later, she was told by a friend who had talked informally with a member of the certification committee that they had resolved not to pass her, on the grounds of her gender, no matter how many times she took the test or how well she did which, of course, might have been nice to know thirty attempts earlier.

The 1930s, then, were a time of confusion and inertia for Drummond, which escape ready comprehension for those reading about her life a century later. With Britain in the grips of Depression, her family stood in often desperate financial straits according to her memoirs, and yet at the same time those memoirs show the 1930s as an era of personal leisure travel, through Europe, through North America, punctuated by odd jobs and commissions here and there, but without any attempt to go back to sea and earn a regular income for the good of her family. Perhaps her experiences with the Mulbera Second Engineer and the Chief Engineer exams had soured her on marine engineering for a while, or perhaps the family’s finances were thin but rather more stable than Drummond reports, but ultimately it was not until the outbreak of World War II that Victoria Drummond returned to a ship’s engine room.

During the war, the ships Drummond served on had to navigate minefields, withstand the force of depth charges, put on extra steam to avoid being left behind by convoys, and, on that fateful August day in 1940, stave off death from the air by virtue of great captaining and even greater engineering prowess, which I shall now let Drummond tell in her own way:

With the bombs, the machine gun fire and the engines of the plane, the noise was terrific and magnified even more in the enclosed space of the engine room. In fact, with all the noise going on, the engines seemed almost silent.

Flying debris hit the main water service pipe to the main engine and scalding water began to gush out; the end of the speaking tube to the Bridge broke off, too. I had my ears stuffed with cotton waste to deaden the noise but pulled it out to hear the Captain’s orders. None came through. We were on our own. I got the engineers to open out the fuel injectors and the main steam throttle, and then I pointed to the door.

“Get out,” I shouted. By this time some oil from somewhere was running down my face and I could only see out of one eye. The engine was a hissing, bubbling inferno and everything that could shake or bang rattled like marbles in a drum. The ship must be doomed, I knew that by now. My duty was to keep the engines going as long as they would turn. For the rest of the crew their chance of safety lay in being outside and getting into the boats. Tommy hesitated, then he too went and I was alone. (The Remarkable Life of Victoria Drummond Marine Engineer, p. 187)

Drummond would face other bombing runs, and other white-knuckled moments when it took all of her skill to keep her ship afloat, but as a moment of pure and instinctive self-sacrifice and resolution, her saving of the Bonita is an inspiration.

Victoria Drummond survived the war in spite of a lineup of drunken and abusive officers who endangered their ships and interfered with her work, and after five years of exemplary service in wartime, it might have been expected that, with thirty-one tests under her belt, and a clear record of achievement, her home country might atone for its past behavior and grant her at last the Chief Engineer certification she had sought for a decade and a half. It declined, stating that if she wanted to achieve the certificate, she would have to sit for the exam again, for a thirty-second time, at the age of fifty-one, after eleven years of engine room experience, five of it in wartime.

Understandably, Drummond felt that she was just being set up for another unexplained failure, and declined to sit for the exam. She did, however, find work on several ships in the next decade and a half that would hire her as Chief Engineer on the basis of her experience and reputation (she also had a Panamanian Chief Engineer certificate, which counted as something to some organizations if not to the British certification board). Those ships varied in sea-worthiness from the entirely adequate to the thoroughly deplorable, the worst of which was likely the seemingly doomed Santa Granda, which took every bit of her skill to keep afloat. She also spent a happy period overseeing the building of ships in 1952, a job which used her technical and organizational abilities to their fullest, but which lacked the familiar rough and tumble of sea life.

Well into her seventh decade, Victoria Drummond finally retired from the engine room, if not from the world of marine engineering, where she was a regular attendee of meetings of the Institute of Marine Engineers, dutifully taking notes on the latest advances. Her physical and mental health during her last decade, however, went into serious decline, and as she sank further into physical isolation, her temper turned, and she made increasingly stringent demands on her two sisters who served as her caretakers, which took a heavy toll on their health as well. Ultimately, the woman whose cool resolve and technical genius had guided ships to safety through dozens of potential disasters ended her days in a largely immobile mental haze, snapping to the present only now and then when flashes of childhood memories surfaced briefly, reminding her of the happy child she was and the remarkable life she had led.

Britain’s first woman marine engineer passed away on Christmas Day, 1980.


Drummond’s niece, the Baroness Strange (which is an easily thirty percent cooler title than Baron Strange), Cherry Drummond (1928-2005), took it upon herself to gather together Drummond’s memoirs, written in the 1970s, and other notes, and publish them as The Remarkable Life of Victoria Drummond, Marine Engineer (1994), published by the Institute of Marine Engineers. When it’s good, it’s great, but if it ever gets reprinted (and it should), it desperately needs two things: (1) a glossary of naval terms, because without it Drummond’s descriptions of her work at sea is virtually impenetrable to a non-sailor or non-engineer, and (2) a reworking of the balance between the naval engineering material and the shore socializing material, because wow is there a lot of the latter, which after three hundred pages just becomes a whirl of names and local attractions that do show glimmers of Drummond’s character (particularly incidents where she is accosted by robbers and responds by attempting to beat the living hell out of them) but that make the descriptions of her work as a marine engineer, which are presumably the reasons you’re reading the book, like little islands in a vast sea of Other Stuff.



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