What’s an extrinsic joy if you’re a historian? For me it’s the simple-but-wonderful pleasure of continually finding both heroines and beloved new friends among the people whose histories I explore. They may be living, and so we can physically meet – if only remotely. They may be long dead, which means my affection is based somewhat on illusion. But who cares? We connect – and sometimes in all sorts of serendipitous ways.
Decades of such work have shown me that such nourishing, odd, and enduring inter-generational links can happen particularly between women. How come? It’s surely partly because of our high degree of emotional literacy and our abilities to be affiliative.
My bonus this month in researching maritime women is cherishing a WW2 STEM pioneer Peggie Carmichael. She was born 95 years ago and lives 300 miles away in Surrey. We meet by email because hearing is physically hard. And we’ll probably never have a cuppa together, because of Covid-19. No matter, we still sign our emails ‘Love from.’ And my fondness deepens by the day.
How did we first ‘meet’? In 2016 I’d sent out an appeal for interviewees to help me write a history book about women in the Royal Navy. As someone keen on uncovering STEM pioneers I found her a very welcome techie. ‘Air Mech (A) WRNS Peggie Morris’, as she was then, had been among the third tranche of WW2 Wrens trained and qualified to mend the frames of aeroplanes used by the Royal Navy Air Service.
Peggie had not originally intended to take up a ‘male’ role. But she happened to be someone who made her own clothes. Her dad happened to be a carpenter. Kismet! The recruiters therefore saw her as ideal for fixing the older planes. These still were covered with dense cotton over wooden frames, not by polyethylene terephthalate that was glued not sewn.
After four month’s training at Mill Meece in 1943 she graduated and became the first Wren Air Mech (A) at RNAS Donibristle. There she fixed mainly Seafires and Barracudas, which went on to be based on aircraft carriers.
Peggie re-remembers – as a STEM pioneer
70 years later Peggie and I became friends, not least because we’d grown up in the same city. When she began writing her partial memoirs I helped with feedback. And so our e-based connection flourished. I was so delighted by her joy at writing and being published.
When I showed her the draft of this blog you are now reading she wanted me to include these words:
My grateful thanks are due to Jo, whose encouragement inspired me to write my first memoir [about Mill Meece], revealing to me skills and enjoyment in writing of which I had previously been unaware.
Now, at the age of 95, I am taking great pleasure in writing my memoir of the three years I spent serving at Donibristle, in Fife, Scotland. These have been read by the Head Teacher of a large Secondary School in Fife, and are destined to be used as the basis of a local history lesson in all the schools in the area. I have been invited to visit the secondary school and talk to the children.
In this way our WRNS story will be passed on to future generations.
So, thank you Jo. You have enriched my life.
With love from Peggie.
Machines, stitching and power
I felt a kind of uncanny thrill of recognition when I first heard Peggie’s story of what happened when war ended.
Peggie had realised she longed to train as an engineer. But the Labour Exchange told her that women couldn’t do that. What did she do about this gendered slap in the face? She joined Singer in the 1950s.
‘It seemed that my combined skills of Mechanic/seamstress, were exactly what was needed. I was appointed School Servicing Representative, replacing a man who had not been popular with the [women] teachers. I visited schools on Merseyside and the Wirral on a regular basis, servicing the machines and demonstrating machine needlework to the teachers.
Thanks to her wartime training Peggie passed on to domestic science staff the empowering knowledge of how the machines worked and how to fix them. She could give civilian women skills – and therefore agency – they hadn’t had before.
(see pic: Peggie setting off to be a Singer Rep.)
I find it particularly magical that she may well have empowered the Liverpool teachers who taught me to sew just fifteen years later at Manor Road School, Crosby. Possibly I was one of Peggie’s indirect beneficiaries.
Peggie’s STEM show
The latest stage of my story of connection with Peggie is that I’ve written the script for a one-woman playlet about her: From Spitfires to Singers. Several filmed playlets are part of the University of Leeds’ Electrifying Women project’s (www. electrifyingwomen.org). They tie in with the Women’s Engineering Society centenary (https://www.wes.org.uk).
I’ve been involved in the peculiar process of putting my words and her words into the mouth of an actor: ‘I riveted, I drilled, I fixed flaps. And – my favourite – I changed the hydraulic brake pads.’ The playlet will appear on YouTube this month, and on the Women’s Engineering Society website.
Along the way Peggie’s been consulted, with queries like ‘Urgent: how mucky would your boiler suit have been, darling?’ She even drafted a triumphant women’s song for the film, to the ‘Hey Ho’ tune from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
It’s been gratifying to show her, too, how she can digitally explore back issues of the WES magazine that, all that time, she never knew about: The Woman Engineer.
My very favourite moment this week was when Peggie sent us this photo of herself, to supplement the historic shots: ‘I was introducing my great granddaughter, Anabelle, to the tools in a Toy Workshop, which we visited last year,’ she captions it.
I happened to have just been appalled to find eBay’s toolkits for kids were colour-coded. I’m glad that Anabelle was not offered pink and blue options. I’m really glad that she has a great-grandmother like Peggie.
And it’s moving to find that being a historian sometimes means that you get wonderful reciprocal connections that go way beyond a brief professional interview.
(In the first image Peggie is at Mill Meece, she’s on the extreme right, second row back.)
About the author.
Dr Jo Stanley, FRHistS, FRSA, is a creative historian who is especially interested in exploring the way jobs can lead to transformed identities and motilities. An early member of WHN, Jo believes in being an activist so she is a STEM ambassador. A research fellow at the University of Hull and Liverpool John Moores University, her website is www.jostanley.biz and she blogs at http://genderedseas.blogspot.com.