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I LEARNED ABOUT Beatrice “Tilly” Shilling while researching yesterday’s SimanaitisSays on the Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engine. This engine played a major role in Britain’s and the Allies’ defeat of the Nazis in the Battle of Britain. And Beatrice “Tilly” Shilling played a significant role in the Merlin-powered Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires besting the Luftwaffe in that epic air battle.
What’s more, how many women engineers do you know who made their husbands lap Brooklands circuit at 100 mph as a pre-nup?
Hurrah for Tilly Shilling! Though I hasten to add that it’s unlikely anyone had the temerity to call her “Tilly” to her face. The nickname became one of endearment by RAF pilots whose lives were saved by her engineering expertise. This is getting a bit ahead of the story, though.
A Woman Ahead of Her Time. Beatrice was born in 1909 in Hampshire, England. “As a child,” she said later, “I played with Meccano [the Brits’ Erector Set]. I spent my pocket money on penknives, an adjustable spanner, a glue pot, and other simple hand tools.” At age 14, Beatrice bought a motorbike, the tinkering with which encouraged her interest in engineering, hardly a traditional career for a young lady in the early 1920s.
Beatrice had good guidance, though, through Margaret Partridge, who was a company owner, engineer, and woman’s advocate. Beatrice apprenticed at Partridge’s electrical engineering company for three years, followed by academic study of the subject at what was then called the Victoria University of Manchester.
Beatrice earned her bachelor’s degree there in 1932 (one of only two women in engineering) and, a year later, received a Master of Science in mechanical engineering. This was during the Great Depression, and Beatrice was fortunate to secure a position as a research assistant at the University of Birmingham.
In 1936, Beatrice was recruited as a scientific officer by Farnborough’s Royal Aircraft Establishment, the R&D arm of the RAF. She came to be regarded as an extremely talented engineer, albeit not one particularly interested in being part of the “old boy” network.
A Bike Racer Too. During the 1930s, Beatrice raced motorcycles. What’s more, she occasionally beat professional male riders and earned a Gold Star on her Norton M30 for lapping the Brooklands circuit at 106 mph. The Norton had received additional urge through Beatrice’s installation of a supercharger.
This was only the beginning of her adventures, however. In Part 2 tomorrow, Beatrice Shilling contends with stuffy bureaucrats, meets the love of her life, and displays engineering prowess that earns her several nicknames. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018