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STORY | Mechanic and Motorcyclist Beatrice Shilling

A Woman's Work
A Woman's Work

SYNOPSIS | In praise of Beatrice Shilling: Mechanic - Engineer - Racer

She loved motorbikes. In the 1930s, she demanded merely autonomy to race at Brooklands motor racing track and others across the country. And it appears like all petrolheads she loved speed. She clocked 101 miles per hour on her motorcycle at a Brooklands racing club meeting in 1934. She was awarded a Gold Star – an award only given to bikers who lapped the track over 100 mph. The fact that she had done this at the end of her annual holiday in August seemed entirely in keeping with her character.

Welcome to Beatrice Shilling. Hugely intelligent, gifted, mechanically minded and ingenious. Such legends as these are oft forgotten in the seismic volume of histories from this Great British island.

Born on March 8th 1909 in Waterlooville in Hampshire, she was the daughter of a butcher among three sisters. It seems the mechanics and engineering bug came early to Beatrice. She acquired a motorbike aged 14 years and proceed to ‘tinker’ with it over time learning and acquiring knowledge.

She must have been a natural.

Beatrice was picked up in her late teens by a woman who had made a name for herself during the war as part of a group advocating women in the workforce whilst the menfolk were away. On the soldiers’ return, a new group now advocated for women’s continued role at work particularly in engineering and technology: The Women’s Engineering Society. Many of their number had and continued to be associated with the Suffragette movement.

Margaret Rutherford, a highly intelligent and talented electrical engineer decided to set up her own electrical power plant in Devon. She was looking to identify potential female apprentices and Beatrice Shilling’s name was put in front of her. Beatrice was 17 years of age when she began her first professional foray into engineering. Staying away from home, she bunked in a hostel whilst learning and working. Margaret must have got lucky with Beatrice: she was a natural talent.

On the back of this, Beatrice was encouraged to apply to Manchester University to study Engineering. Women still had to fight for their place to study in universities in Britain. Life must have interesting indeed for Beatrice, in attempting to study what was perceived as a masculine subject of engineering. And Beatrice would be one of only two women to study electrical engineering there in 1929. In 1932, she finished her degree but follow it up by completing an MSc in Mechanical Engineering the following year. She worked alongside some of her professors whilst work continued to be scarce.

By 1934, Beatrice took her love of motorcycles to the max. She began racing at the Brooklands Motor Racing Track – an iconic race track. She rode a Norton M30 500cc motorcycle but making her own modifications for speed and performance including the addition of a supercharger.

Beatrice was starting to make a name for herself as a racer. She was tagged a ‘new heroine’ of British motor-racing. Her exploits on the bike including the breaking of the 100 mph speed, acquisition of the Gold Star at Brooklands and the fact that she was starting to win races were all in her favour. These racing exploits would continue for most of the rest of her life.

Professionally meanwhile she joined the Royal Aircraft Establishment (R.A.E.) in 1936 and became a specialist in aircraft carburettors. The following year she was being promoted as an Air Ministry Recruit – a few but talented number of women recruited into the Air Ministry.

There she met her future husband George Naylor, a fellow engineer and racing enthusiast and they married in 1938.

The Second World War would have a profound impact of husband and wife. George enlisted for war service – joining Bomber Command and flying in 625 Squadron as a pilot over the war. He made a ridiculous number of sorties; it was high octane, nerve-wrenching war work but was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross. Whilst her husband was making heart-gripping visits over mainland Europe, with no one knowing if he would return, Tilly stepped up.

Now, anyone who knows anything about the war might have heard of the Battle of Britain; or the role that aeroplanes played in the war of the skies. Britain’s R.A.F. against the German Luftwaffe. A game of cat and mouse. A competition of plane design, technological knowhow and individual pilot guile and talents. Where small increments make a life-saving, war-ending difference.

As the Battle of Britain raged in 1940 over the English Channel and high above in the skies, the plucky British planes - the Spitfires and the Hurricanes – were facing a serious disadvantage. Their Rolls Royce Merlin engines had a major flaw. Whenever the plane went into a dive, descending with G-force, fuel would flood the carburettor and stall the plane. Now, I’m no engineer, but even I can see how potentially problematic that might be. It was not a problem for the German Luftwaffe as they had fuel injection engines.

If Britain was going to stand any chance of fighting back in this early part of the war, ensure Britain did not fall in 1940, and make a stand for the rest of it – Britain had to win the battle in the skies.

Now Beatrice was an engineer; she understood the bones of the mechanics of a plane. She understood carburettors. She understood planes. She full well understand the predicament that the RAF pilots faced every time they went up into the skies. To make these dogfights fairer, to give these ‘flyboys’ a fighting chance, someone needed to be ingenious.

It became known by the airmen as Shilling’s Penny or Miss Shilling’s Orifice. But never to her face. She assessed the situation and worked out that Spitfire engines used to cut out if the plane was upside down or in a negative G force situation which was a massive problem in a dogfight. The spitfires had carburettors with float chambers. So, the talented Beatrice designed a small but intrinsically amazing piece of engineering.

Its formal name was a restrictor; put simply it was a small metal disc with a hole in it that limited fuel flow, fitting into the carburettor of the fighter plane. The result – it prevented the engine flooding at those pivotal air battles.

It had a profound impact, entering RAF folklore. All aircraft had this ingenious bit of kits fitted to their planes, with Beatrice and team visiting all frontline RAF bases. It was a silver lining; a beacon of light for the pilots and engineers who went up into the skies.

Beatrice would go on to develop a better solution to the problem – the RAE Hobson Carburettor.

They say that people are made by their talents, their interest, their loves and their impact – gender is irrelevant. Beatrice was awarded an O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire) for her war work in 1947 in recognition of her skill.

Beatrice would carry on her work after the war, with the safe return of her husband, with RAE. She learned to fly. But her skills and talents kept her as always knee deep in the technology, first in supersonic technology, guided weaponry and then mechanical engineering. She retired in 1969 reluctantly when she was sixty years of age. Her brain and skills as active as ever. After the action of motorcycles, she and her husband had taken to racing cars – forever tinkering.

She died from ill-health in 1990 at the age of 81. Few people recognised then the engineer that had been lost. Few recognised the pivotal role this mechanic had played in the Second World War. Perhaps without whom, Britain would never have held on. Surviving to fight another day and another…

An engineer, a mechanic, a scientist. Beatrice Shilling loved and understood engines. Some say that had she been a man, her story would have been told in technicolour in film or on television. But that because she was a woman, her impact has been downplayed.

But I say this, Beatrice Shilling needs no storytelling to tell us the role she played in the Second World War or in the advancement of talent in engineering and mechanics by women. She was just someone who loved to tinker, to engineer, to improve capability and whether on two wheels or by two wings of a plane, she made motorbikes faster, planes more capable and engineering simply more efficient.

It's all any engineer can ask for. Isn’t it?