It’s quite likely that you are unfamiliar with the name of Beatrice ‘Tilly’ Shilling. Yet she was a remarkable woman who deserves much wider recognition for her achievements, both in her working life and for her love of fast motorbikes and cars.
Beatrice was born in 1909 in Hampshire, UK, the daughter of a butcher. As a child she developed an aptitude for mechanical activities and by the age of 14 had purchased her first motorbike, which she maintained. In an interview with the Woman Engineer magazine she recalled:
"As a child I played with Meccano. I spent my pocket money on penknives, an adjustable spanner, a glue pot and other simple hand tools."
She had decided that she wanted to be an engineer – an extremely unusual occupation for a young woman at that time – and on leaving school in 1926 she worked as an apprentice in an electrical engineering company run by Margaret Partridge. Margaret was a founder member of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) and she was eager to encourage more women into engineering roles. Beatrice showed great promise as an electrical engineer and Margaret persuaded her to apply to study at Manchester’s Victoria University. WES also helped Beatrice get her maths knowledge up to the required standard and gave her an interest-free loan for her tuition fees.
Beatrice was one of only two women engineering undergraduates at the University and her student record card referred to her as Mr. Beatrice Shilling! She graduated with an honours degree in Electrical Engineering in 1932 and then studied for another year to gain a Master’s in Mechanical Engineering. She had made such an impression on the staff when studying for her Master’s that she was taken on as a research assistant for G F Mucklow’s work on single cylinder, supercharged engines.
She then went on to join the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough – initially as a technical writer and later as in an experimental engineering role, before becoming a Senior Technical Officer and a leading specialist in aircraft carburettors. It was in this role that Beatrice solved a problem which had been affecting the Rolls-Royce ‘Merlin’ engines which powered Spitfire and Hurricane fighter aircraft. There was a tendency for the engines to cut out, or stall, when the aircraft was in a dive – putting both the plane and crew in danger. This problem was caused by fuel flooding the carburettor when the plane dived and was experiencing negative gravity. Beatrice’s solution was to insert a diaphragm into the fuel inlet which prevented fuel from surging into the carburettor under temporary negative ‘g’ conditions as the plane dived. The device became known, rather unfortunately, as ‘Miss Shilling’s orifice.’ Her ingenuity undoubtedly helped the Royal Airforce win aerial battles with the Luftwaffe, but she was never promoted to a higher grade at the RAE, perhaps reflecting the attitudes of the time.
But it wasn’t all work for Beatrice - at university she had joined the motorcycle club and taken up racing. After graduation she started racing at the Brooklands circuit in Surrey, which was the world’s first motor-racing circuit. Beatrice owned a Norton motorcycle which she had modified, no doubt using knowledge from her earlier work on supercharged engines! In August 1934 she became the second woman to be awarded a Brookland’s Gold Star for lapping the track at 100 miles per hour. She later became the fastest female racer ever at Brookland’s with a lap speed of 106 mph. It’s rumoured that she refused to marry George Naylor, a mathematician she’d met at the RAE, until he too had achieved a Brookland’s Gold Star!
Beatrice’s work was recognised by the award of an OBE in 1947 and she continued to work at the RAE until her retirement in the 1969. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Surrey in 1970.
In her retirement she continued to race cars with George and according to her biographer, Matthew Freudenberg1:
‘Her idea of relaxation was to drive a fast car at full throttle, and if the car was not fast enough, her workbench was there in the back room to machine new parts to make them faster.’
There’s no doubt that Beatrice Shilling was an incredible woman and a gifted engineer who provides inspiration today.
1Freudenberg, M. Negative Gravity: A Life of Beatrice Shilling, Charlton Publications, 2003