Claudia Parsons remembers Loughborough Landladies in 1919

15 May 2015

‘This is a story of the twentieth century’, of the ‘young women’ who had ‘begun to emerge from the sheltered life to go to universities or to take any jobs that were allowed to them in a man’s world.’

So begins the memoirs of Claudia Parsons, a woman who as a teenager in 1919, set out with ‘little more than the proverbial shoestring’ to seek a job that would give her a knowledge of the world as well as an income. Her search was to bring her to Loughborough’s Technical College, an institution which had trained and employed female munitions workers during WWI and, in a period hostile to women remaining in industry, was still prepared to accept women on their engineering diploma courses.

Writing about opportunities for women which are now taken for granted, Parsons describes her first year of learning general engineering followed by two years studying the relatively new subject of automobile engineering. Alongside the male students, Claudia and her female peers were involved in hands-on learning in the College’s workshops, foundry and drawing-office.

Claudia was one of only four women at the College at this time and there were mixed reactions to their presence in the town.

‘If the [male] students paid respect, not so the landladies,’ she writes. ‘Loughborough was then a small parochial-minded town, and we were looked on with the utmost suspicion, thought to be abandoned even before we came.’ Though hostels were available for the men, lodgings had to be found in the town for the ‘lady engineers’. These were secured with a local schoolmistress, though the arrangement wasn’t to last.

‘The schoolmistress soon found us too much, and fixed us up with a nice old body who fed and housed us generously. But a postcard sent to Patience by her mother: ‘Darling I can’t bear to think of you pigging it in filthy lodgings in Loughborough’, was not unnaturally our undoing. We were out on our ears before the end of the week, and suffered thereafter a painful series of short anchorages, until Patience took refuge with a friend she had made at the golf club, and I answered an advertisement and went to see a clergyman’s widow who had rooms to let at reasonable price.’

‘Her greeting: ‘I’ve heard all about you people’ was not promising. The interview improved, however; she would take Dorothea and me on approval for a month, and in fact we stayed with Mrs Abbott for the rest of the time we were at college, and she proved a very kind friend. There was a piano in our sitting-room to which I told my secret heart, unaware that when I played, Mrs Abbott would sit on the stairs in the hall to listen. Had I known I could not have played a note, but this was not revealed till departure.’[1]

Unconventional and ahead of her time, Claudia would go on to spend almost twenty years as a courier and chauffeur-companion in an era when roads were poor or non-existent and cars dangerously unreliable. Criss-crossing the continents during her many commissions, she is reputed to be the first woman to circumnavigate the world by car.

You can read more about Claudia Parsons from the Women’s Engineering Society as well as about her friend and fellow Loughborough graduate Verena Holmes.

Read more about Women in Engineering at Loughborough here.

Click here to see an image of Claudia Parsons by Boo Beaumont (1996) in the National Portrait Gallery and here to see another by Margaret Palmer (1992) which is currently held at Loughborough University.

Monday 18th May 2015 sees Loughborough University host the 2015 Claudia Parson’s lecture, an event to encourage more women to consider a career in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). This year the lecture is to be delivered by engineer, TV and radio presenter Kate Bellingham.

Alison Mott

[1] From Claudia Parsons, Century Story, Lewes 1995