Beatrice poses on her Norton for a photograph used in the 1935 Norton catalogue
(image: WikiCommons)

by Imogen Graham

Every year in June, International Women in Engineering Day is celebrated, albeit, however, without the story of Beatrice ‘Tilly’ Shilling – an extraordinary insight into the role of women within the aeronautical engineering industry, which I believe should be shared all year round.

Born on 8th March 1909 in Waterloo, Hampshire, Tilly had always had a fascination with engines – often spending her pocket money on different tools and parts for fixing and tweaking them. “As a child, I played with Meccano,” she recalled during an interview with Woman Engineer magazine in 1969. “I spent my pocket money on penknives, an adjustable spanner, a glue pot and other simple hand tools.” At 14, she fell in love with motorbikes; eventually leading her down the path of racing, which she would then develop later in her life.

Tilly left school in her teens and took up an apprenticeship in electrical engineering under Margaret Partridge, who would later encourage her to enroll at Manchester University in 1929, where she was one of only two women studying engineering. “From a child, she was pulling engines apart,” said Dr Christine Twigg, a member of the engineering faculty at Manchester. “Her real passion was mechanical engineering.” With women being so underrepresented at the time she graduated, Tilly’s student record card didn’t even have any female titles for her to be recorded under, with her being referred to as ‘Mr Beatrice Shilling’. 

Although, she wasn’t content with just learning the theory of engineering. She then enrolled in, and graduated with, a Masters in Science, having continued at Manchester. After her graduation in 1932, Tilly pursued her love of motorbike racing. After modifying her own bike (to her own very high standards!), she could achieve speeds of 106mph; later being recognised with a Brookland’s Gold Star for outstanding performances in track and road racing. 

In 1936, Tilly was employed by the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE), in Farnborough, Hampshire – later becoming a leading specialist centre in aircraft carburetors. When war broke out in 1939 and the Royal Airforce began to develop, a major issue was identified within the engines of the Spitfires and Hurricanes – which both shared the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. In an interview with the BBC, Keith “Mad Dog” Maddock (a chief engineer at a World War Two aircraft hangar, now being used to reconstruct old Spitfires), explained that when the planes were in negative g-forces, the carburetor would flood; causing the engine to stall or completely cut out – putting the pilots in ‘grave danger’. Incidentally, the Germans had no such problem, and could execute steep dives with little-to-no problems.

The issue had been causing concern for months, with the RAF losing more dogfights than it was winning – heightening the concern that the Luftwaffe would gain air superiority over Britain.

Tilly came and, after taking one look at the engine, ultimately knew how to solve the issue. She fitted a small but ‘very, very important’ piece of metal into the engine (a ‘baffle’), which acted as a diaphragm to stop the fuel flooding into the engine. Maddock commented that the RAE Restrictor was “a war-winning modification, without which we would have suffered…defeat. Beatrice Shilling helped us to win World War Two – of that, there is no doubt.”

I think that only just puts into words the significance of Tilly’s ingenuity and achievements in the RAE. She was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire award) in recognition of her work in 1947, and continued working with the RAE until her retirement in 1969. Tilly then passed away in 1990, leaving nothing less of an extraordinary legacy behind her, having sparked millions of women’s interest in the engineering industry and saving countless lives – as well as helping the Allies win World War Two.