History12.04.21

IWD2021: Celebrating Beatrice Shilling

Norton

More women are ditching the backseat of the bike in favour of riding solo. A recent survey discovered that 19% of all motorcycles were owned by women, and in just a few years, a quarter of all motorcycle owners will be women. To celebrate this growing trend on International Women’s Day, we wanted to share the story of Beatrice Shilling: a Norton racer, female engineer, military hero, and innovative genius.

Beatrice Shilling was born in 1909, just one year after the seeds of International Women’s Day were planted, and six years after the British suffragette movement. At a time when women demanded gender equality, Shilling made history in both motorcycle racing and the field of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). She bought her first motorcycle at just 14-years-old and learnt to strip and rebuild the engine to take her bike to its ultimate limits. And in 1936, Shilling became one of only three women to ever win the Gold Star at the Brooklands circuit, completing a lap with an average speed of 106mph on her Norton M30 500cc. The fastest it had ever been achieved in her time.

Unafraid to follow her dreams in a male-dominated industry, Shilling studied electrical engineering at The University of Manchester in 1929. She then landed a job within the publications department of the Royal Aircraft Establishment in 1936, writing manuals for aeroplane engines. Soon, she began working on the aircraft engines herself, and was promoted to technical officer in 1939, the year Britain entered the Second World War.

This is when Shilling became an essential element in Britain’s defence against invasion… The Rolls-Royce Merlin engine of the famous RAF fighter planes, the Spitfire and Hurricane, had one fatal flaw. When the pilots needed to make a steep dive, fuel would flood the carburettor, making it splutter or cut out, and giving the German aircrafts the advantage in the attack. Shilling designed the R.A.E. restrictor, a washer that could be fitted into the fuel pipe of the plane’s engine, to reduce the flow of fuel when the pilot made a steep dive. Drawing on the knowledge she gained from manipulating the fuel pipes of her Norton engine, Shilling’s innovation was ground-breaking. The Royal Aircraft Establishment and pilots alike put all their faith in Shilling’s invention, nicknaming it "Miss Shilling's orifice." Beatrice Shilling was awarded the OBE in 1947 for her work during World War II, and worked at the Royal Aircraft Establishment until her retirement in 1969.

The number of women in engineering is drastically growing. There was a 77% increase in degrees awarded to women in engineering fields between 2010 and 2016. And whilst women made up just 1% of all engineers in 1960, that number rose to 11% by the year 2000. What’s more, the number of female motorcycle riders has doubled in the last decade, and that’s led by the younger generation.

Historic photo of Beatrice Shilling on an early Norton

In just a few years, a quarter of all motorcycle owners will be women

Motorcycle Industry Council 2018

Beatrice Shilling paved the way for women to take to the road on two wheels. She challenged gender bias by innovating in the field of engineering, propelling Britain towards military success. Her achievements demonstrate just how crucial women are to this industry. Today, and every day, we choose to challenge inequality in the workplace and on the tracks, and celebrate women’s contributions to STEM. Join us in honouring the legacy of Beatrice Shilling, and all the women that continue to make a difference.

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