Verena Holmes was an extremely talented female engineer and inventor in the early to mid-20th century. Alongside her own work as an engineer, she was a strong advocate for the movement of women in engineering. Her remarkable achievements include her work during the first and second world war, helping found the Women’s Engineering Society in 1919 and being the first women to be admitted as an Associate member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
Verena Winifred Holmes was born on the 23rd of June 1889, at Highworth house in Maidstone Road, Ashford, then a private home but now part of Highworth Grammar School.
Verena was baptised at St Mary’s Church in the centre of Ashford on the 20th July 1889.
Her father was a school inspector and the family moved to Oxford in her early teenage years, where she attended Oxford High School for Girls.
Upon leaving school she began studying photography, despite her true interest laying in engineering. It wasn’t until the 1st world war that she got the opportunity to begin work in this field.
Due to men being called up to fight in 1914, Verena, alongside other women, was hired to cover men’s work whilst they were away. She built wooden propellors for the Integral Propeller Co. in Hendon during the 1st World War and took evening classes at Shoreditch Technical Institute.
Later on, she went up to Lincoln where she began working at Ruston and Hornsby, and attended the local technical College. Before the end of the war Holmes successfully secured an apprenticeship at the firm, where she trained up to become a draughtsman.
In 1919 she co-founded the Women’s Engineering Society alongside Caroline Haslett.
In 1922 she graduated with BSc from Loughborough Engineering College.
After the war, due to employment scarcity, Verena worked in several different sectors, including technical journalism in the USA and work at a Marine Engineering Firm.
In 1924 she was admitted as an Associate member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and of Marine Engineers.
She also began working for the North British Locomotive Co. in this period and was the first female admitted to the Institution of Locomotive Engineers in 1931.
At the same time, she was also elected President of the Women’s Engineering Society.
Between 1932-39 Verena worked at Research Engineers Ltd. as a designer, here she invented the poppet vale for steam locomotives.
During the 2nd World War, she used her engineering talents to support the admirality. She made apparatus such as rotary gyro valves for torpedoes and new supercharges.
She held the role of headquarters technical officer with the Ministry of Labour between 1940-44.
In recognition for her war work, Verena was finally promoted to Member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1944.
In 1946 she founded her own female only engineering firm named with fellow WES member Sheila Leather. ‘Holmes and Leather’ was based at Beresford Works, Beresford Road, Gillingham, Kent.
She became a Member of the Education Advisory Committee of the Air Ministry in 1948.
She spent her later life continuing her work as an engineer, and pushing for the movement of women into engineering. This included creating ‘the Women’s Technical Service Register’, which allowed for young women to apply to become apprentice draughtman and laboratory assistants.
She retired from the role of Honorary Secretary at the Women’s Engineering Society in 1961.
In 1964 Verena Holmes passed away aged 75 in Sussex.
A Final Note on Verena Holmes
Verena Holmes was a dedicated individual; her numerous achievements illustrate her determination and selfless work in the movement for women into engineering. She gave her whole life to her love of engineering, resulting in her becoming a crucial figure in the history of the field. Despite never seeking fame, it is important that the full extent of her work is acknowledged, as her work influenced and eased the path for young women into engineering. Verena Holmes’ birth and early childhood spent in Ashford, gives the town an important connection to the history of women’s engineering. This is something which the town should recognise and commemorate with pride.