Jeanne Rathbone

Alice Perry first European female engineering graduate Galway woman 6

Posted in Alice Perry first female engineering graduate in Europe Galway women 6 by sheelanagigcomedienne on May 2, 2018

Alice Perry 1885-1969 was Europe’s first female engineering graduate. Alice was top of her class in civil engineering, was the first female county surveyor on these islands and fought to protect women workers’ rights. How come we have hardly heard about her until recently, especially in Galway? She is Galway woman number 6.

Alice was born in Wellpark Galway in 1885, Alice was one of five daughters of James and Martha Perry (née Park). Her father was the County Surveyor in Galway West and co-founded the Galway Electric Light Company. Her uncle, John Perry, was a Fellow of the Royal Society and invented the navigational gyroscope.

After graduating from the High School in Galway, she won a scholarship to study in Royal University Galway later UCG in 1902. Having excelled in mathematics, she changed from studying for a degree in arts to an engineering degree. She graduated with first class honours in 1906. The family appear to have been academically gifted. Her sisters Molly and Nettie also went on to third level education; a third sister Agnes earned BA (1903) and MA (1905) in mathematics from Queen’s College Galway (later UCG then NUIG), taught there in 1903-1904, was a Royal University of Ireland examiner in mathematics in 1906, and later became assistant headmistress at a secondary school in London.

Following her graduation she was offered a senior postgraduate scholarship but owing to her father’s death the following month, she did not take up this position. In December 1906 she succeeded her father temporarily as county surveyor for Galway County Council. She remained in this position for a few months until a permanent appointment was made. She was an unsuccessful candidate for the permanent position and for a similar opportunity to be a surveyor in Galway East. She remains the only woman to have been a County Surveyor (County Engineer) in Ireland.

Her work then took her all over this rugged county in all weathers, inspecting roads, walls, piers, footpaths, bridges, courthouses and county buildings and arranging for repairs and upkeep where necessary. This massive workload and her amazing diligence prompted the local newspaper, the Connaught Champion, to note: “The many and arduous duties of County Surveyor have never been better or more faithfully discharged than since they were taken over by Miss Perry.”

This provincial paper seems to have been quite inspired by this amazing woman doing an exceptional job for the county. A second article stated: “…She is the brilliant daughter of a worthy father. After a distinguished collegiate course, she passed her final examination, taking the highest science and engineering degrees. She is the first lady in Ireland who has acted as County Surveyor… every member of the County Council has borne willing testimony to her outstanding ability.”

Alice perry church

The Presbyterian Church on Nuns Island (now part of the Arts Centre) where Alice Perry paid in 1968 for a plaque to be erected to the memory of her parents.

They may have all praised her ability, but the majority of the council would not back Perry when she applied for the permanent position, even though she had excelled in the role for the previous half year. She was unsuccessful in her application for a permanent role, coming joint second in the selection process. Thus, her contract with the council ended in April 1907.

After a period of unemployment Alice took stock of her life. Rural Galway provided limited employment opportunities for educated women like herself and her sisters. Her options were limited, but there was one obvious choice if she wanted a professional career: in 1908, she and her sisters emigrated from Ireland to seek work in England.

This move bore fruit and she was eventually successful in obtaining a job with the Home Office in the Civil Service, firstly to ‘His Majesty’s Inspector of Fisheries’ and then as a ‘Lady Factory Inspector’ in London. She would successfully hold this role for the next 17 years. The major requirement of this job was the monitoring of employment laws for women working in industrial factories.

Britain was a far cry of from rural Galway. It was in the middle of the second industrial/technological revolution with the development of mass-production processes, electrification and production lines. Most working-class women had no option but to seek work to support their families and increased employment opportunities were created away from the traditional occupations of servants and dressmakers.

To say industrial work was not pleasant is an understatement; it was extremely dangerous, with many being exposed to high levels of toxic materials such as lead, phosphorous, asbestos and mercury. As well as chemical dangers, lack of safety features on machinery such as guards and fences proved to be particularly hazardous, especially when combined with long shifts, excessive heat and minimum breaks.

This led to Britain having the highest number of industrial accidents in the world, with an average of 35,000 workers dying every year with multiples more sustaining injuries. Perry’s engineering training meant she had the technical knowledge to see these dangers and this made her highly effective at this role.

Perry and the other inspectors enforced the law on women’s working hours and the ‘Truck Acts’, which forbade employers paying their employees in kind rather than money, e.g. food in place of money. They battled bravely to reduce industrial poisoning, accidents, ‘bullying’ (sexual harassment), unfair dismissal, and unfair and illegal wage deductions, as well as encouraging better health and safety and proper toilet facilities.

These women proved to be highly motivated and courageous, facing intimidation and risks to their own health and safety while fulfilling their roles.

In 1915, Alice was transferred to the Glasgow office of the inspectorate and her life would begin to change immeasurably. She would change religion, changing from her born faith of Presbyterianism to Christian Scientist. She would then find love, marrying an English soldier Robert Shaw in September 1916.

But the happiness of new-found love was not to last: in May 2017, her husband would leave for the Western Front where he would die in battle, another wasted life in a needless war. After his death, Perry sought solace in her new faith and also began to express herself through poetry, publishing her first work in 1922. She would go on to have seven books of poetry published.

The children of Nazareth : and other poems (c1930)

The morning meal and other poems (1939)

Mary in the garden and other poems (1944)

One thing I know and other poems (c1953)

Women of Canaan and other poems (1961)

In 1921, she was offered a promotion to ‘Woman Deputy Superintendent Inspector’ and a transfer to the city of Leeds. She chose not to take it up and instead resigned her post. Then she moved to the headquarters of Christian Science in Boston, remaining there for the next 45 years until she died in 1969 at the age of 83.

In Boston, she worked for the Christian Science church, firstly in the publishing department and as then as poetry editor for the religion’s various publications.

Alice returned to Ireland on three occasions and visited the Department of Civil Engineering in her old Alma Mater during her 1948 visit. It is unknown if she was shown, or if she remembered, the demonstration theodolite still being used in the department up to the 1950s.

This beautiful, accurate and precisely made surveying instrument had one very special feature. Part of a rib of hair from Perry’s head formed the cross hairs in its reticule – a fitting token of Ireland’s first female engineer who smashed through not one but two glass ceilings and who dedicated a large portion of her life to protecting women’s rights in the workplace.

(My father Tommie Egan was a Civil Engineering UCG graduate in the 30s and we had the same professor in physics when I studied there in 1964/65).

The new new Engineering Building at NUIG was officially named the Alice Perry Engineering Building on March 6th 2017, in recognition of Alice as a role model and inspiration for staff, students and visitors.

However, the very low numbers of women in engineering is still a great problem’.

Century old attitudes are precluding Irish women from pursuing careers in engineering, according to the industry’s representative body.

“The statistics in Ireland are stark: if you are in a room with 10 engineers, the likelihood is just one will be female,” Engineers Ireland’s director general Caroline Spillane has said.

Ms Spillane, who marked the naming of an NUIGalway building after Ireland’s first female engineering graduate, Alice Perry, has called for action to attract more women into the sector.

A recent report byEurostat showed that 85 per cent of engineering, manufacturing and construction graduates in Ireland were male in 2014, compared to the EU average of 73 per cent.

Over half (54 per cent) of engineers believe strong communication, project management, analytical and design skills are now as important as maths understanding for the modern engineer, the survey found.

The gender imbalance needs to be tackled to ensure specific creativity and innovation skills shown by women are harnessed, Ms Spillane said.

“It is these skills, combined with a formidable intellect and remarkable work ethic, that Alice Perry displayed in abundance across her illustrious engineering career,”she said.

An All-Ireland medal has been named in her honour, The Alice Perry Medal, with the first prizes awarded in 2014

So, another fascinating, pioneering Galway woman who was forced to emigrate because of misogynistic attitudes in Ireland but who achieved much in the support of women and their safety in factories in Britain.

Tagged with: Alice Perry Civil Engineer, Galway County Surveyor, Galway graduate

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