Secrets of the Drawing Office (2)

This is the second part of an account by Pickle S. Finkerbury - railway historian and time traveller - describing certain key events in the evolution of GWR wagon brakes at the turn of the last century. Part one is here.

Just as the bewildered L.R. Thomas was about to regain composure, an elegantly dressed man approached them. It was none other than...

…George Jackson Churchward, at this time the Chief Assistant to William Dean at Swindon Works.

'Ah, Thomas’ said Churchward, ‘I see that you are entertaining yet another young lady with your brake design. Have you also informed her that it is in fact rather impractical to operate, and has never been widely applied on our railway?’

With a sly wink at Miss Havisham, Churchward continued: 'Now if I may, Miss Havisham, I think that you had better come with me. There are certain things I would like to discuss with you in private'.

And with that, Churchward directed Miss Havisham firmly away.

Thomas remained behind, alone and humiliated. How he hated Churchward! So confident, so charming, so progressive. And such a genius, an undeniable genius. And now he had gone off with Miss Havisham. It all seemed so unfair!

Then a voice called out from the shadows.

It was the Great Man himself: William Dean, Chief Locomotive Engineer of the GWR.

Speaking softly, Dean said: 'Thomas, walk with me a little, will you?'

As they strolled around the yard, Dean continued: 'I know how you feel, Thomas. That painful realization that one has been surpassed by someone younger and brighter. It happened to me the first time I met Churchward. He was only 19, but I knew immediately that he would eclipse me one day. I have come to accept it. Indeed, I have made it my special mission to harness new talent, rather than fight it. Speaking of which…'

Dean hesitated a moment, then went on: 'Thomas, it is time I confided in you. That young lady, Miss Havisham, she is not the first of her gender to display a talent for engineering. Yet we obviously cannot employ women as proper engineers! To do so would damage the reputation of our great company, and make it impossible to get anything approved by the Board.'

Pausing to shudder at the thought of the Board, Dean continued: 'So Churchward and I have devised a little, ahem, working arrangement. Churchward recruits the most talented young ladies and employs them as clerks, secretaries and tracers. But in reality they spend most of their time supplying us with ideas and inspiration, which we then put to good use in our designs.'

Thomas, finding it all rather hard to believe, exclaimed: 'So Churchward is now in the process of recruiting Miss Havisham?'

'Well, ah, not quite', said Dean, 'Miss Havisham has actually been working with us for some time, developing our new wagon brake design. The design that will replace your own, er, valiant effort. We have great hopes for her. So far we have mainly employed these talented women in locomotive development, but we have plans to roll out their skills in the Wagon & Carriage department too. Assuming of course that you, as Manager of the Carriage & Wagon works, agree?'

Thomas hesitated. When Dean saw this, his voice became suddenly icy: 'I can assure you, Thomas, that this arrangement is proving to be very productive for the company. And we must always consider the interests of the company before our own, must we not?'

And with that, Dean walked away.

For a moment, Thomas felt utterly lost and abandoned, sensing the advent of a new world that he did not understand, and which did not seem to need him.

Then the clouds parted, the saddle tank whistled, and Miss Havisham appeared in a burst of steam.

She looked straight at him, smiled, and said: ‘Thomas, we are leaving. Will you join us?’.

And he saw in her eyes a thousand ideas and all possible futures imaginable. He forgot the jealousy and the craving for recognition, and realized what could be achieved if they worked together. He saw the furnaces burning, the blacksmiths sweating and the shining steel of a million well-oiled wagon brakes. And he said: 'Yes, I am coming, it is time to move on!'


So there you have it, Ladies and Gentlemen. Thanks to my impeccable research, you now know the true story of a critical moment in the evolution of GWR wagon brakes. A few further notes are in order:

In December 1902, Dean and Churchward patented a wagon brake which soon became widespread across the GWR wagon fleet. It has since become known as the DC1 brake, but the real designer was of course Estella Havisham. She remained in her clandestine position at Swindon Works for the rest of her career, and went on to develop many other innovative designs for the company.

The fate of L.R. Thomas is less clear, but it is known that he vigorously implemented Estella Havisham’s ideas for the remaining period of his time at Swindon. Their relationship seems to have remained strictly platonic. Rumour has it that he retired early, moved to India, grew a three foot long beard and became the first European to teach the Karma yoga, a principle of selfless action.

Meanwhile, Dean and Churchward’s scheme went from strength to strength. Over the years, dozens of women were employed as de facto engineers at Swindon, developing one innovative design after the other. Like so many of those who work in the shadows, they remained unknown - but helped change the world.

Mikkel’s PS: 
For those who think this sounds too fantastic to be true, I offer the following:
  • Firstly, consider Olive Dennis, a female engineer on the Baltimore & Ohio, whose story has certain similarities with that of Estella Havisham.
  • Secondly, there is this photo, posted on Twitter by STEAM. Officially it shows the “Mileage Office” at Swindon Works, but note the stamp…