Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Queen's goddaughter who swapped her debutante gown for a boiler suit

One notable thing about Queen Victoria's goddaughters is that they were usually - and obviously! - called Victoria Alexandrina. Godsons were variations of Alexander, Albert and Victor.

Victoria Alexandrina Drummond might have preferred Victor Albert if she'd had the choice, given her future career as the first fully-qualified female Marine Engineer. Summaries of her amazing life at sea can be found in various online links and also in the extensive article from The Daily Mail of 22 April, 2006 included at the end of this post.

Also, Cherry Drummond (Baroness Strange) wrote a biography about her enterprising aunt which was published on the centenary of Drummond's birth in 1994: The Remarkable Life of Victoria Drummond, Marine Engineer

Some of these sources state that Victoria is commemorated by The Victoria Drummond Award, the highest honour given to women members of  NUMAST, the marine officers union, for work in raising the status of women members of the marine industry. However, NUMAST was absorbed into Nautilus International about five years ago and I can find no recent recipients of this award listed or otherwise easy to access and I would be interested to find out if it is still in operation.

My cousin Edward Kirton, a retired Chartered Marine Engineer, has offered the following extra information:
In the early 1950's - perhaps 1953, whilst serving my apprenticeship at D.R. Dowson's & Co, Ship Repairers & Engineers, East Side, Tyne Dock, I recall one of the old hands saying that Victoria Drummond was the Chief Engineer (CE) on a Turret Ship then loading coal in Tyne Dock. The ship must have been under foreign flag for much to her annoyance she never did sail as CE under the Red Duster.
Also I remember attending a meeting in the Institue of Marine Engineers Memorial Building in London, in about 1965, and recall Victoria being in the audience, but I never met her. She was a regular attendant at London meetings by all accounts since she lived in London at Kennington Road.
Sadly, it seems Victoria's twilight years were not pleasant and she was looked after by her two faithful sisters, who found her to be a trial. After becoming ill Victoria was taken to St. Thomas's Hospital, but her two sisters also became ill and died within two days of each other in the same Hospital. With her mind gone, Victoria was transferred to special care in Kent, where she spent the last years of her life gradually becoming more frail and silent. She died in 1978 (erroneously 1980 in some references) and is buried at Megginch.

More about Victoria Drummond here:

and photo of the the Drummond family graveyard at Megginch Castle

The Daily Mail (London, England) , April 22, 2006


She was the Queen's goddaughter,raised in a Scottish castle to a life of privilege.But Victoria Drummond dreamed of travelling and shocked 1920s society by training to be an engineer,joining the Merchant Navy and winning medals for her wartime feats of courage
OUT in open water and completely alone, the ship was a sitting duck. As the German bomber swooped in low, poised to attack, the crew on board the SS Bonita knew there was little chance of survival if they took a direct hit.
Were it not for the extraordinarily brave actions of the Second Engineer, they might never have made it to tell the tale. It was that engineer who, deep in the bowels of the vessel, singlehandedly kept the engines running during the heavy bombardment, enabling the ship to dodge the shells and gunfire that pounded down for more than half an hour.
Thanks in no small part to this outstanding effort, not one of the 25 bombs found their target. Little wonder that the courageous seaman of the engine room was given a hero's welcome and made headlines around the world.
But what really captured people's imagination was not so much the tale of extreme bravery but the fact that the engineer in question was a woman. Not just that, but she was upper-class and a former debutante from one of Scotland's oldest families.
How Victoria Drummond ended up spending her life in a dirty engine room doing a job so physically gruelling that most men would struggle is a fascinating story. As her niece, Baroness Strange, once remarked: 'She was a wonderful woman. My family thought she was unusual but they were very proud of her.'
Victoria was born into privileged circumstances and with Royal connections - she was christened with the name of her godmother, QueenVictoria - and spent her childhood living in a Scottish castle.
She set her heart on going to sea - a career unheard of for a lady in the 1920s.
Yet, against all the odds, she not only succeeded in becoming the first woman to qualify as an engineer in the Merchant Navy but won the respect of her male peers.
In 40 years at sea, she completed 49 voyages, circumnavigating the world many times over. Her colourful exploits could have come straight from the pages of a Boy's Own adventure book.
SHE would survive travelling through minefields with Atlantic convoys during the Second World War, was involved in the sea rescue of British forces in Marseille, risked her life to save refugees and witnessed some of the most memorable episodes of her time, including Hitler's march into Vienna and the rise of Communism in China.

Her devotion to duty would be honoured with a MBE and she was awarded the Lloyd's War Medal, presented for exceptional gallantry at sea in time of war and never before won by a woman. Incredibly, she would continue sailing into her 60s.
Her remarkable story, retold in the new Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, is inspirational.
Hers was a very traditional upbringing. Home was Megginch Castle, the 15th-century family seat in Errol, Perthshire.
The sea was in her blood. Her great-grandfather was Admiral Sir Adam Crummond, while her great-great-uncle, Robert Drummond, was a captain in the East India Company.
From a young age, Victoria nurtured a somewhat unfeminine fascination with the workings of machinery. At playtime, the little girl with pigtails would slip off to the nearby blacksmith's forge and watch as the horses were shod and agricultural machinery fixed.
One day, she summoned up the courage to ask the owner of the local engineering firm how she could learn to be an engineer and go to sea. He replied that she would have to serve an apprenticeship.
' He smiled at me in my holland pinafore and pink sunbonnet and I don't think he believed for a moment that I meant what I said,' she would later write in her diary.
At 18, she made her society debut in London, dressed in a floaty, white dress. But she was more comfortable in a dirty boiler-suit and tinkering around with machines.
When she turned 21, on October 14, 1915, her father told his daughter: 'Now you are old enough to chose a career.' She would recall: 'I told him that I wanted to be a marine engineer but I don't think he took me seriously'.
Despite her parents' reservations, she landed a week's trial at the Northern Garage in Perth. It was quite a sight to see the goddaughter of Queen Victoria dressed in overalls, scraping oil and grease from gearboxes. At the end of the week, she was offered an apprenticeship for the princely sum of three shillings a week.
Three times a week, she studied maths and engineering with a tutor from Dundee Technical College.
Work at the garage was hard, backbreaking and could be dangerous. One of the worst accidents left her nursing a broken collarbone and ribs after she was crushed by a ten-ton lorry when it slipped as she worked underneath it.
YET she was determined to succeed and eventually moved to Dundee, working in the Caledon Ship Works, as the only woman among 3,000 men. Her workmates gradually got used to the idea of having a woman working with them and, in 1920, she finished her apprenticeship, top of her group.
It took another two years before she would achieve her dream of going to sea, when she was offered the post of tenth engineer with the Blue Funnel Line, sailing from Glasgow to Australia for [pounds sterling]10 a month. In her memoirs, she describes the 'thrill' of being measured for her first uniform, with the shiny gilt buttons, epaulettes and company badge on the cap.
Before she left, her father told her: 'A good voyage, Vicky. Write home from every port and go to church when you can. You have been brought up to know what is right, so do it.'
Hours were spent in the engine room, amid the hiss and roar of the boilers and the overpowering stench of thick, sulphur-smelling steam. In a man's world, there was no place for femininity. Her hair was cut short and her fingernails were more often than not caked black with grime.
Despite the toil - often working from 7am to 5pm, seven days a week - and the grim, cramped conditions during four months at sea, she loved it. In all, she made four voyages on the Australian run with the SS Anchises and one to China.
She was in Singapore in June 1924 when a telegram arrived, breaking the news that her father had died of pneumonia. The message ended: 'He was so proud of you.' On the Anchises, Miss Drummond had struck up an affectionate friendship with her second engineer, whom she refers to in her diary formally as Mr Quayle. On board, however, they gave each other nicknames. She called him Hedgehog, because of his sometimes prickly manner, and he called her Kate, because of her shrewish manner.
Her diary leaves little doubt that she was in love with him. When their last voyage came to an end, she was distraught at the thought of never seeing him again.
SS Anchises (State Library of New South Wales)
'I did not want to go on sailing without my dear Second constantly to supervise, advise and protect me,' she wrote.
'Although we came from different backgrounds, our minds were perfectly attuned: we loved birds, the sea, engines and the British Empire. We shared the same wry sense of humour, the same love of travel. If there had been no Mrs Quayle, it is possible our relationship would have ripened into romance.'
She and Mr Quayle continued to correspond, on different ships and often on the other side of the world. She was at sea when she heard her beloved Hedgehog had died from pneumonia on the way to Cape Town in April 1927.
THE news left her devastated: 'I could not believe I would never see him again. It just knocked the bottom out of things for me and my whole career felt like a collapsing pack of cards. Everything in the engines reminded me of him, every tool, every job, it was almost more than I could stick.' She would never marry or have children. Determined to get on, she sat the second engineer's qualification and passed at the third attempt. By her next sailing, on the TSS Mulbera to East Africa, she had worked her way up to fifth engineer.
Yet, despite taking the chief engineer's exam 37 times, she failed each time and became convinced it was because of her sex: 'They would not pass me because I was a woman.' When war broke out in 1939, she fought against prejudice: 'No one would have me. They might be short-staffed, but that was no reason to employ a woman engineer. And certainly not in wartime.'
Eventually, she had to sign on as second engineer with a small international ship, sailing under a foreign flag. In wartime, crossing the seas was a perilous business with minefields, torpedo attacks and the constant threat of the German Luftwaffe.
She describes one particularly fierce night of bombardment, with gunfire and mines exploding all around: 'The ship was in a complete blackout and every now and then there would be a fantastic bang, which shook the whole ship. I kept thinking, "The next one will be us."' On one run, taking refugees from Gibraltar to Casablanca, she stood on deck and watched a ship sink in two minutes after striking a mine in front of them.
While she would earn the respect of her men, the British naval establishment-found it harder to accept her. On one Navy inspection, she wrote of how the officers saw her and 'looked amazed and disgusted.
I could almost hear them thinking: "Fancy having a woman Second, you can see it's a foreign ship." I was rather amused.' On August 25, 1940, after leaving Cornwall on the SS Bonita, the ship came under attack from a German bomber. Below deck, it was down to Miss Drummond to keep the engines going.
She would recall: 'I realised our only hope of survival was to dodge the bombs, so I gave her all the speed she could. I counted eight separate bursts of firing from the guns and bombs. All the lagging came off the pipes and fell like snow.
The feeling was as if the ship were lifted up and dropped each time.
'With the bombs, the machinegun fire and the engines of the plane, the noise was terrific. Flying debris hit the main water service pipe to the main engine and scalding water began to gush out. I had my ears stuffed with cotton wool to deaden the noise. There were no captain's orders. We were on our own.' Ordering her men to leave to safety, she remained alone in the engine room: 'The engine was a hissing, bubbling inferno and everything that could shake or bang rattled like marbles in a drum. The ship must be doomed.
I knew that now.
MY duty was to keep the engines going as long as they would turn. Was this the end, I wondered, banged and buffeted in the inferno of noise and steam?
It didn't seem a good way to go.' Through sheer determination, she managed to coax 12.5 knots out of the engines, a speed never before recorded in all the ship's 18 years.
Her efforts undoubtedly saved the ship and crew. Back on dry land, the brave engineer was met by journalists and cheering crowds. The ship's mate would describe her as 'about the most courageous woman I ever saw'.
After the war, Miss Drummond was on the first ship into Kiel and escorted the German prize ships over to the Forth. Bursting with pride, she wore her full Merchant Navy uniform in the Victory Parade. Of her two honours, she said: 'I was immensely proud of both my medals. They reassured me that at least someone believed my work was worthwhile.' She would continue sailing into her early 60s - taking her henna shampoo on every voyage to maintain her hair colour. And in 1959 she went through the Suez Canal as chief engineer, having at last attained the rank she had wished for all her life.
Her last voyage was in 1962 to Hong Kong. In later life, the highlight of her year was going to the Institute of Marine Engineers in London for their annual meetings.
Few knew the identity of the old lady at the back, listening avidly to all the lectures. She would have been thrilled to know the institute would later name a Victoria Drummond Room in her honour.
Her last six years were spent at a rest home in Kent. Gradually, she became more and more frail and stopped telling the stories of her time at sea. She died on Christmas Day, 1980 [sic], aged 86, leaving her unfinished memoirs. Her niece, Baroness Strange, would turn them into a book about her aunt.
Baroness Strange, who saw her aunt a week before she died, wrote: 'Victoria Drummond was finally Finished with Engines. Or perhaps as her spirit left the land and floated out to the open sea, she was at last Full Away.'
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2006 Solo Syndication Limited. The Daily Mail.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Asking the right questions

On a recent visit to the Royal Dockyard Museum at Chatham, I read the intriguing story of Sarah Forbes Bonetta (Davies), a West African princess brought to England as a "gift" for Queen Victoria. Some sources state that Sarah was a goddaughter of the Queen as was her own daughter, Victoria Davies (Randle).
The "Dahomian Captive"

Sarah's extraordinary life is fully covered in this Youtube interview with Claire Kittings, Learning Manager at the National Portrait Gallery, but I'm now on the hunt for more stories about the Queen's numerous godchildren, especially those with unusual backgrounds. Who were they, and what happened to them?
A Wikipedia list can be found here, from which it is soon apparent most of these people came from the privileged upper echelons of British or European society (with the notable exception of Prince Albert Kamehameha of Hawaii) and does not include any godchildren from the middle or lower orders, or people of "colour" who came from the Empire like Sarah and her daughter, Victoria.
For example, the children of Maharajah Duleep Singh are not shown, neither is the Maori, Albert Victor Pomare. Could there be others? If anyone reading this knows, I'd love to hear from you.
One goddaughter who will be the subject of a future post is Victoria Drummond, the first female qualified Marine Engineer.
In the meantime, my quest continues. As Claire Kittings says in the interview, finding hidden history is all about asking the right questions.
Sarah was the subject of a book by Walter Dean Myers entitled At Her Majesty's Request: An African Princess in Victorian England 

Some links:
Sarah Forbes Bonetta
Victoria Davies
Duleep Singh