Alice Perry – the Galway woman who became Europe’s first engineering graduate
20 June 2017
Alice Perry - the Galway woman who became Europe's first engineering graduate
The beginning of the 20th century was a seismic historical period in which advances were made in philosophy, political thinking, science, literature, engineering and equality. In particular, gradual strides in female equality were made in accessing third-level education (for those that could afford it) and subsequently in employment.
As these ground-breaking women entered the workforce, they proved more than equal to their male counterparts. At first, this manifested itself by way of the ‘fairer sex’ studying the arts, philosophy, religion and humanities. The hard sciences and engineering remained a male-only bastion for considerably longer, but gradually these barriers were broken down and women began to siphon into these areas of study.
Alice Perry was the first woman in Ireland – and, indeed, Europe – to graduate as an engineer, specifically in the field of civil engineering. She obtained first-class honours in the process.
Born on 24 October 1885 in Wellpark, Co Galway, Perry was one of five daughters of James and Martha Perry (née Park). Engineering was the family trade; her father was the county surveyor for West Galway and her uncle, John Perry, was both a Fellow of the Royal Society and a noted mechanical engineer, developing the navigational gyroscope, which replaced the old magnetic compass. Together, they co-founded the Galway Electric Light Company.
Education was very important in the Perry household, with all of John’s daughters attending Millbrook House (run by the effective Ms Chestnut) and then the High School in Galway. Three of the Perry sisters would go on to university.
Perry excelled academically, winning a scholarship to study in the Royal University Galway in 1902 (formally Queen’s University Galway, now NUI Galway). This university was extremely progressive and exhibited this by being the first university in Ireland that could grant degrees to women on a par with those granted to men.
Perry began her third-level career in 1902, studying for a Bachelor of Arts degree, but her excellent ability at maths prompted a change to the Bachelor of Engineering (Civil) degree the following year. In 1906, she graduated top of her class with first-class honours and became the first female engineering graduate in Europe.
Subsequently, the university recognised her ability not just on paper, but in deeds too, by offering her a senior postgraduate scholarship. Alas, it was not meant to be. The following month, her father died and circumstances led to her not taking up this position as she was offered and accepted the temporary role of filling her father’s shoes as county surveyor for West Galway.
First female county surveyor on these islands
She was the obvious and best choice to fill this role. Her father’s job had involved travelling around West Galway, inspecting public buildings and infrastructure. As she studied for her degree, Perry gained significant practical experience acting as her father’s personal assistant as he carried out his duties.
By unanimous decision, the council appointed her as acting county surveyor for the west of the county, for a period of five months – at the same salary her father had received (400 pounds and 100 pounds expenses). This was to be another first for Perry, making her the first female county surveyor on these Islands.
During this time, Perry worked diligently, travelling widely around the county. She took over and completed the tasks that had been left unfinished by her father’s sudden death, specifically the problems with Kilbeg Pier on Loch Corrib.
She was busy with the engineering problems arising in the Western Division of the county when, three months into the position, the county surveyor in the Eastern Division also died. Perry stepped up to the plate by taking on some of the duties of that role as well.
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.”
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.
The main reasons, it seems, were that she did not fulfil the criteria set down for experience, age and Irish language ability. No doubt her gender would also have been considered negatively for this ‘man’s job’. Similarly, she was unsuccessful when she applied for the same position in Galway East.
Protecting women’s rights in industry
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.
Major life changes
In 1915, Perry 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.
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 passed away 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.
Perry 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.
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