Go back to article: Engineering and the family in business: Blanche Coules Thornycroft, naval architecture and engineering design


The case of Blanche Thornycroft is interesting for many reasons, not least her achievements in an era when women as professional engineers and mathematicians were rare. Primarily it shows how female family members might contribute to their business at a time when both the world and social mores were changing rapidly. The one commentator from the era whose written opinion of Blanche’s role within the company can be traced in the archives is Kenneth C Barnaby. Barnaby described Blanche as her father’s ‘…devoted assistant’ (Barnaby, 1964, p 92). Whilst the authors acknowledge the possibility of bias – Barnaby worked for the Thornycroft Company and the quotation comes from his official centennial history of the company – there is sufficient evidence in the archives to suggest that he held her in high regard.

Neither did the lack of a formal education seem to prevent Blanche from acquiring skills that enabled her to contribute to the business of designing ships. As discussed above, learning by doing within the family and the works was an already well-established method of producing an engineer. The premium apprentice (by payment) and normal apprentice system were based upon it. The difference in the case of Blanche Thornycroft is that she is an early example of her gender being taught by such means. Her father, John Isaac Thornycroft seems to have been a good mentor. The letters from her brother and employees of the firm examined by the authors defer to her in terms of the actual detailed mathematics of testing and one can infer that she was the expert upon whom they all relied.

Cathleen Folker’s notion of a daughter finding her raison d'être in caring for her father in the family firm (Folker, 2008, p 160) is interesting. Equally so, Gillis-Donovan and Moynihan-Bradt’s thesis that women who appear to those outside to be invisible in a family company, actually wield power and influence could also fit this case (Gillis-Donovan and Moynihan-Bradt, 1990, p 153). The archival evidence underpinning this paper suggests that Blanche Coules Thornycroft made a significant contribution to her family’s business, the wider field of naval engineering, and the position of women within the field.

Figure 18

Pastel portrait illustration of Blanche Thornycroft

Portrait of Blanche C Thornycroft



We would like to thank Hampshire Cultural Trust and in particular Ross Turl and Jo Bailey. John Jeffries, John Askham and all at the Classic Boat Museum at East Cowes were very supportive of our research. John Margetson and Hamo Thornycroft discussed the family with us, and the former showed us around the testing tank at Bembridge. We would also like to thank our referees for their comments. The AHRC provided the funding for the original research.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/1851009/008