Victoria Drummond is surely worth a Fiver? #Banknotes

This post has been sitting in my draft box for a couple of weeks now. It was a post I didn’t want to rush. I wanted to do it justice. I just ended up not getting down to it.

In the meantime, what started as one or two feminist women getting a bit shrill and cross over the apparently small issue of what face (apart from the Queen) should appear on a five-pound note  has since turned into this and some of  this. Just a couple of examples of a sudden surge of radio and news features. All started by just one young woman,  28-year-old Caroline Criado-Perez who, through social media channels, has highlighted an issue of discrimination on why no woman deserves to be represented on English bank notes.  In 15 days she’s also managed to raise a staggering £13,000 in donations in order to fund a legal challenge against the bank of England under the 2010 Equality Act.

In a nutshell, Sir Winston Churchill, it was announced,  would replace the social reformer Elizabeth Fry, on the £5 note from 2016. Meaning  than our English bank notes would have no women of merit represented for their contributions to our country’s history.

The best thing, of course, is that this type of social rumble is power in people’s hands. Suddenly, through all that male blustering, they’ll have to admit perhaps they have to think again. We women folk want to be represented and not have the governor of England choosing who deserves to be depicted on our money. In 2013 women must also have equality of merit or the country takes a backward step. But  what woman to choose?

My  initial thoughts, like many other, would be a suffragette. However my husband, as a man with a career that started in the Merchant Navy, suggested a woman who inspired him and yet I’d never heard of her before. While he extolled her merits it made me think. If the men on bank notes are meant to inspire everyone in our society then the best woman to choose must arguably be as much an inspiration to men as she can be to women.

So, as suggested by the Other Half,  here’s my choice:

Victoria Alexandrina Drummond MBE (1894 – 1978),  goddaughter of Queen Victoria, and the first woman marine engineer in Britain and first woman member of Institute of Marine Engineers. During the 1st World War she became an apprentice at the Northern Garage in Perth, Scotland, then until 1922 in the Caledon Ship Works in Dundee. She then went on to join the Blue Funnel line as a tenth engineer. It is said that her engineering skills became apparent when she fixed a car belonging to Sir Alfred Holt (Founder of Blue Funnel Line). He was staying over at her family’s estate at the time and his car wouldn’t start. He was so impressed with her skills, that he made a statement akin to “We could do with engineers like you aboard my ships” never realizing that she would one day call upon him to make good his word. victoria-drummond-300px

So what? Apart from the unusual fact of a woman with royal connections working in the grimy engine rooms of ships in the 1920s… does this make her particularly unique.

One eyewitness account said of her; “I was deck apprentice on British Monarch when Victoria Drummond was 2nd. Engineer. Story at that time was that her application was submitted to Raeburn & Verel under V.Drummond and her gender only became known when she signed on. As I recall she was a good age when I sailed with her – probably just in her late 50’s though – everyone seems old when you are 18!  That was a tough ship for engineers though as the B&W engine was constantly blowing exhaust valves, and I remember many times being stopped and wallowing around in a big swell in the tropics while the engineers worked at replacing one. She was certainly a unique and courageous lady. I imagine after serving her time in the Caledon shipyard, going to sea was a walk in the park!”

During the 1930s, she sat her exam to gain a British chief engineer’s certificate 37 times and met with repeated failure. It wasn’t that she wasn’t capable, just that  the Board of Trade Examiners were unable to accept a woman as a chief engineer. To prevent any accusations of unfairness, the board would habitual fail all the other candidates who sat the examinations with her. I found a discussion thread ‘Ships nostalgia’ asking if anyone knew her or had sailed with her. One said, ” One of my father’s colleagues as a superintendent went up for his chief’s at the same time as her. Once he, and the others, found out, they all cancelled their examination applications. They all knew that they would all fail, because the examiners would fail them all in order to show that they weren’t failing her because she was a woman”.

During World War II, she sailed on many convoys including the Russian ones, as an engineering officer in the British Merchant Navy. On August 25, 1940 Drummond was serving aboard the SS Bonita, sailing for America with a cargo of china clay, when the ship was attacked by German bombers in the Atlantic, 400 miles (640 km) from land. Drummond ordered the engine–room crew out, then remained alone at her post, keeping the engines running at full power despite damage to a vital pipe  from the bombardment. Her courage was recognised when she was awarded the Order of the British Empire and the Lloyd’s War Medal for Bravery at Sea for her extraordinary bravery under enemy fire. Her MBE was awarded by George VI in July 1941.

After the war, she superintended the building of ships in Scotland and continued to serve aboard ships as second engineer. From 1959 until her retirement in 1962, she served as Chief Engineer, the first British woman to do so. Throughout her distinguished career she maintained her conviction that if you were good at something and could be of useful service, then you should be allowed to do your job. Her journey from apprentice in 1922 to Chief Engineer in 1959 must have been one of hardship and discrimination. But her tenacity got her there.

I get the feeling that ‘ feminist’ history has overlooked Victoria Drummond somewhat. As a brave and incredibly determined women she’s an inspiration and has to worth at least a fiver in my opinion.

You can also join the #Banknotes campaign by signing the petition. There’s a post to link up to on Nixdminx blog and a #Banknotes Pinterest board where all campaign faces will be featured. You can also tweet your suggestions using the #Banknotes hashtag.


4 thoughts on “Victoria Drummond is surely worth a Fiver? #Banknotes

  1. Wow – that’s a really powerful story and she sounds like someone who deserves better recognition, thanks for writing this as I feel like I’ve got something out of it as well as another great post supporting the #banknotes campaign – which by they way has just hit the funding target for the next legal round with the Bank of England

  2. What a fascinating choice! In my mind this is not really about banknotes at all, but about the wider issue of remarkable women and how we remember them. Why are there not more historical heroines for our daughters to look up to? Who are the female role models for young women of today? Sometimes it seems like they just disappear. I am very glad that this debate is happening.

    • Had I been asked in a pub quiz, apart from the Queen, what famous people appear on our bank notes, I have would struggled to think who does. Everyday cash is perhaps not the best platform to honour our ‘great’ if the majority of us take no notice. At least this debate has made me think about our choices of role model and who has a right to select them for us.

      The easy answer is to replace the idea of having our historical greats represented on banknotes at all. Much safer to choose iconic symbols of Englishness e.g. flora and fauna, recognisable views,famous structures and buildings …. cups of tea 😉 etc.

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