Special thanks to Pauline Gower’s son Michael Fahie, for permission to quote from his biography of his mother ‘Harvest of Memories’ and from ‘Women With Wings’ and for permission to use his photographs.
Eighty years ago a groundbreaking event took place in East Cowes. During the 1933-34 winter, hidden from view in a draughty Spartan Aircraft hanger, a lone young woman was working along side men at Saunders-Roe (SARO). She was secretly training for the Air Ministry Engineer’s certificate or ‘B’ licence. This certificate would qualify her in rigging and constructing an aircraft and to to repair and certify a aeroplane after service overhaul. Its incredible that she managed to avoid publicity, as women were barred from training at Technical Schools in this discipline. Dorothy Spicer had already gained the Ground Engineer ‘A’ in 1931, then the ‘C’ licence, at London Aero Club (LAC). There she became friends with Britain’s heroine aviatrix, Amy Johnson. Amy had also gained ‘A’ and ‘C’ aero engineering licences at the LAC, but no woman in the UK had the ‘B’ licence.
Pauline Gower and Dorothy Spicer were already in the public eye, having toured the country as part of a Flying Circus. Pauline was the pilot, Dorothy the engineer. At the end of the flying season in October 1933, Dorothy settled into her ‘digs’ in Cowes and began six months practical and theoretical training in the SARO workshops. There she learned about rigging and constructing aero frames. (Harvest of Memories)
From 1931 Saunders Roe manufactured Spartan Aircraft at Cowes, with the company registered at East Cowes. Each Spartan was constructed in workshops north of Somerton Airfield. The planes were then moved by road to the airfield for flight-testing. Dorothy would have trained in the wing construction hangers. She may also have done some training in SARO East Cowes workshops.
Pretty young blonde Dorothy Spicer somehow managed to persuade SARO that allowing her to train for her ‘B’ licence, was a good idea. Considering it could have incurred the wrath of legions of working men, inside and outside of aviation, SARO’s Board of Directors showed bravery and great faith in Dorothy. It’s possible Sir Alliott Verdon-Roe sactioned it for sound business reasons. Dorothy and her business partner Pauline Gower already operated a two-seater Spartan aeroplane G-AAGO, previously owned by Flt. Lt. George Stainforth of Cowes.What good publicity it would be for SARO to promote their Spartan planes as, ‘so easy to maintain, a woman can do it!’
She completed her training in March. In May 1934 the Air Ministry approved her qualification. Flight magazine lauded her achievement saying, ‘Miss Dorothy Spicer now has distinction as the only woman holder in the world of this certificate.’
John (Sydney Maurice) Baker was training at Spartan during 1933 but he can’t recall seeing Dorothy there. In 2012 John told me, ‘She must have been based in another workshop. How it remained a secret is a mystery. The workmen would’ve noticed her.’
John’s instructor and mentor at Spartan was chief engineer Frederick Jeans. ‘Freddie had a brilliant brain. He taught me everything I needed to know about the aircraft. Dorothy Spicer would almost certainly have been trained by Freddie. He was a fine gentleman and scholar. Jock Bain was an engineer with Fred. Jock may have worked along side Dorothy at SARO.’
In 1934 Fred Jeans married Marjorie Maker of East Cowes. Her mother Dora ran an off-licence. Her father Edward was an aircraft fitter.
In 1937 Fred was appointed chief engineer to all Whitney Straight aerodromes throughout the UK. Fred recruited John Baker to work for him.
During the war, tragedy struck in May 1942 when Fred’s wife Marjorie and their 2 year old daugher, Anne Elizabeth died. Dora and Edward also perished when a German bomb hit Yarborough Road. East Cowes.
John Baker continued, ‘Freddie was spared because he was away from the Island working. The tragedy broke him. It was as if all the life went out of him. His hair fell out with the terrible shock of it all.’
Fred Jeans survived the war and become managing director of Western Airways in Somerset. John Baker worked along side him. Fred retired in 1960 due to ill health.
Who would have thought that the very training Dorothy so coveted would be provided in, of all places, the Isle of Wight? Many people consider the Island to be fifty years behind mainland UK. But on this occasion the Island lead Britain and the world.
Another world first:
SARO helping Dorothy get her ‘B’ licence opened the door for her to progress the following year to enter Napier Engineering in Acton, London and then Cirrus Hermes works in Hull. There she gained her ‘D’ Ground Engineer’s Licence. Once again she was the only woman studying amongst several hundred men. Amid a blaze of publicity in 1935 Dorothy Spicer was hailed as setting another record. She became the first woman in the world to hold all four Air Ministry Ground Engineer’s Licences. The ‘D’ licence qualified her to certify aero engines after repair and overhaul. The news went around the globe.
Saunders-Roe played its part in all this. Dorothy held the world record for a number of years.
Pauline and Dorothy set another ‘world first’ in 1934 by becoming the first all female Air Ambulance crew, with Mrs. Victor Bruce as Commandant. Pauline’s Spartan three-seater G-ABKK was part of the Surrey Red Cross Brigade, who were the proud owners of the first Red Cross Air Ambulance detachment to be formed anywhere in the world. (Harvest of Memories)
Dorothy’s praise for SARO:
So why have Dorothy’s achievements been forgotten on the Isle of Wight, especially as she was full of praise for SARO men? In ‘Women With Wings’ Dorothy wrote: “I think that some of the happiest and most contented days of my life were spent in the works of the aircraft-builder Saunders-Roe and Napiers’ aero-engine factory. At these two places I met some of the real gentlemen of aviation, those whose brains conceive the machines and whose hands bring them into being. Although I have a real admiration for the men of the sky, I have a warmer feeling for the “Marthas” of aviation who do so much work and get so little of the glory. The people among whom I worked, without exception, were unfailingly courteous and gave me freely of their time and knowledge.”
Dorothy also enjoyed the humour of the men working there. She recalled that all of her landladies during these training periods were real characters.
Pauline’s praise for Dorothy:
Pauline Gower wrote: ‘During the winter of 1933-34, Dorothy set about getting her engineer’s ‘B’ licence. At first, knowing the difficulties in her way, I had doubted her capacity to overcome them, but I had underrated her perseverance. Her intellectual ability I had never questioned. For six months she toiled in the works of the Spartan Aircraft Company at Cowes, Isle of Wight. Here she was treated with the greatest consideration and she made many firm friends.’
Amy’s praise for Dorothy:
Amy Johnson wrote the preface to ‘Women with Wings’. She acknowledged Dorothy Spicer’s accomplishments, describing her as a woman who, by holding all four licences was “authorised to inspect, pass out, and to make major repairs to both engines and airframes. It is worth noting that there were no fatalities in any aircraft serviced by Dorothy, so Saunders Roe trained her well!”
In 1936 Alan Cobham appointed Dorothy chief engineer to British Empire Air Displays. This flying circus toured the country (touching down in Cowes).
Dorothy modestly described herself as one of the ants of aviation – the little workers who stay on the ground while the butterfly pilots soar in the sky. But she then cautioned any aspiring ground engineer that when qualified, they carried an enormous responsibility – that of the safety of all who would fly in aircraft certified by them. She hoped her words wouldn’t discourage the aspirant but would instead inspire them to play an important role in aviation.
Air Ministry Job:
After Dorothy married Richard Pearse, she was appointed to a technical post with the Air Ministry at Farnborough, in 1938. This was quite extraordinary as in the 1930s women were expected to give up work once they married. Dorothy continued in this job during the war years.
Dorothy and Richard died in 1946 in an aeroplane crash near Rio de Janeiro. They were passengers travelling there to start a new life. Their daughter Patricia survived them.
Dorothy’s story didn’t end there. The aviation world held her in such high regard that a Dorothy Spicer Memorial Award was created by the Society of Licenced Aircraft Engineers (SLAE) to perpetuate her memory. She was a founding member of SLAE.
Memorial donors included SARO and Sir A. Verdon-Roe:
The impressive list of donors to the Memorial Award fund included the Spicer family, Air Registration Board, British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), de Havilland Aircraft, In-Flight Refuelling, Sir Alan Cobham, Rolls-Royce, Shell and B.P Oil, Fairey Aviation, Guild of Air Pilots and Navigators (GAPAN), Percival Aircraft, Dowty, Dunlop, and from the Isle of Wight – Mr. A.C. Jack, (chief engineer of A.V.Roe), Sir Alliott Verdon-Roe and Saunders Roe Co.Ltd.
Well-known Memorial Award Winners:
The first Memorial Award Winner in 1949 was Mr.R.A.Fry, chief ground engineer of Airspeed Ltd, for his winning paper on ‘The Servicing and Maintenance of Aircraft’.
The 1966 winner of the Dorothy Spicer Award was David Pettit Davies, OBE, DSC. He was chief test pilot for the Civil Aviation Authority. Davies tested aircraft from the ‘Comet’ jet airliner, to the supersonic ‘Concorde’.
The 1975 Spicer Award winner was Freddie Laker of Laker Airways for “outstanding service to air safety”. He pioneered cut-price Trans-Atlantic flights in that era.
Some years later the Dorothy Spicer Memorial Award ceased. This may have been when the Society of Licensed Aircraft Engineers and Technologists (SLAET) was incorporated into the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1987.
The winners received a replica of the original Dorothy Spicer Memorial Trophy.
New Memorial Award?
Wouldn’t it be a good idea if the Isle of Wight did something to revive the Dorothy Spicer Memorial Award but in a different form? Perhaps as an apprenticeship award for young Islanders – maybe at GKN Aerospace? Or as a school prize for ‘student of the year’? Or Island Air Cadet of the year?Do you have any memories of Dorothy being at SARO? Do you have any stories handed down through your family, about her training in East Cowes?
Below is a list of winners of The Society of Licences Aircraft Engineers – Dorothy Spicer Memorial Award: (Can anyone fill in the gaps?)
Dorothy Spicer Memorial Essay Contest established in 1949, held annually was established to further one of the ideals of the late Miss Dorothy Spicer, namely the advancement of aircraft engineering, particularly in improving airworthiness and the safe operation of aircraft.
1949 – Mr. R.A.Fry, Airspeed Ltd., chief ground engineer instructor, for his winning essay on the Servicing and Maintenance of Aircraft.
1950 – Mr. Horace.
1953 – Mr.R.H.Nettell received his award from Mr. John D. Profumo M.P., Government Secretary to the Ministry of Civil Aviation.
1954 – Mr. W. T. Truscott, instructor, A.S.T. Hamble. He received his award, for a winning paper on high-speed aerodynamics, from Mr. A.C. Jack, engineer-in-charge of Avro’s technical department, new president of Society of Licensed Aircraft Engineers.)
1955 – Mr. R. A. Fry, A.R.B. surveyor, for the third time, for a paper on Inspection Aspects of Aircraft Fatigue.
1956 – F. Lindale for his Maintenance Economics and General Aviation essay.
(Award lapsed for a number of years.)
Award reinstated in 1964.
1964 – A. S. Lucking for his contributions to air safety.
1965 – Gerald E. Ottaway, BOAC engineering supervisor, for his outstanding contribution to remedial action to correct a fault likely to endanger fleet aircraft.
1966 – David P. Davies, Civil Aviation Authority chief test pilot, for establishing techniques for the handling and performance of modern jet aircraft and for his moral courage in flight testing. (Davies, whilst CAA test pilot, tested of all new aircrft, from the Comet to the supersonic Concorde.)
1967 – F. H. Jones, Accident Investigation Section, RAE Farnborough, for his outstanding work in aircraft accident wreckage analysis. His dedicated work made valuable contributions to the practice and science of accident investigation.
1968 winner (unknown) Dorothy Spicer trophy award became bi-annual.
1969 – A. W. Fielder, of BOAC non-destructive testing, for his inspection technique of turbine blades. He was responsible for halving the overall engine in-flight failure rate with civil aircraft.
1971 – Captain Brian Powell of British Caledonian Airways for his high standard of airworthiness flight-testing.
1973 – J. M. Ramsden, Flight magazine editor, for his outstanding contribution to all aspects of flight safety, in connection with accident statistics and mandatory defect reporting.
1975 – Mr Freddie Laker of Laker Airways for outstanding service to air safety.
1977 winner (unknown) award made for an outstanding contribution to increased flight safety. Nominations were invited.
Do you known of any other winners after this? Contact me.