Lives, like games of football, sometimes fall into two distinct portions. In the beautiful game the division is institutionalised but in real life the events which cause the incisura may be seemingly inexplicable and touched with tragedy. Rachel Parsons was born towards the end of the nineteenth century. Her grandfather was William Parsons 3rd Earl of Rosse who, as well as being a noted astronomer at Birr Castle in Ireland, owned much of Heaton and Shipley in West Yorks, including the land on which my house now stands. Her grandmother Mary (daughter of John Wilmer Field of Heaton Hall) was a scientist and pioneer photographer. Rachel herself was the daughter of Charles Parsons, inventor of genius and developer of the steam turbine which had revolutionized the power plants of warships. His business, Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Co., was based at Heaton, Northumberland near Newcastle.
Coming from such a successful family you would imagine that Rachel would be offered the finest education available, and so it proved. At home her father fostered her engineering skills and those of her brother Algernon (‘Tommy’). She was sent to England’s best girls’ public schools starting at Wycombe Abbey, like my wife, but soon moving on to Roedean in Sussex where she was at the time of the 1901 census. In 1910 Rachel entered Newnham College, Cambridge, being then one of the first women to read engineering at that university. It doesn’t appear that she completed the usual three years of study and in any case regulations at the time prevented women at Oxford or Cambridge from receiving a degree. By the time of the 1911 census she was back at the family home of Holeyn Hall, Wylam where nine servants looked after four family ‘upstairs’. When the Great War broke out in August 1914 Rachel was 29. Her education was now complete and she was appointed a deputy director of her father’s company, while her brother joined the Royal Field Artillery and went off to fight.
Engineering companies were kept very busy in 1914-18 providing munitions and war material. Rachel was particularly involved in the instruction of the many new women employees who entered engineering to replace the missing men. But the war brought the Parsons family great sadness as well as great profits for Tommy Parsons was killed in action in 1918. After the war Rachel, who was a member of the National Council for Women, campaigned for equality of opportunity in engineering education and, with her mother Katherine (a noted supporter of women’s suffrage), established the Women’s Engineering Society. She was also a member of the Royal Institution and became a LCC councillor. Finally in 1923 she stood for parliament as a conservative although she was not elected. Nevertheless she became a noted society hostess at her house in Grosvenor Square and also travelled widely.
So what went wrong for this extraordinarily gifted woman? There are two vital areas of her life which have not featured in any biographical account I have had access to. The first missing area reflects her mental health. I found her travelling to Gibralter in 1932 when she seems to have understated her age by not less than twelve years. This seems to be taking natural reticencce too far. Then again did her brief period at Cambridge university imply that she had little more to learn or could she have had some type of breakdown? At the end of her life she was considered ‘eccentric’; what did this actually involve? The second area of ignorance reflects her sexuality. She never married and lived alone. In the years leading up to the war, she was in her twenties and (from her photographs) very attractive. There was certainly a shortage of men following the slaughter in the trenches but in her early thirties Rachel was intelligent, well-known in society and one of the wealthiest heiresses in England. It’s hard to believe that she couldn’t have found a satisfactory partner if she had wished.
Leaving these areas aside, as I must, I can see that some of her disillusionment seems to have resulted from ‘wills and graves and epitaphs’. After her brother’s death Charles Parsons apparently refused Rachel a full directorship in his company which caused a rift between father and daughter that was never fully bridged. She started her own company with other women engineers but this failed after seven years. Her father died in 1931 and although Rachel was left a very wealthy woman indeed but she received nothing like the sum she, as his only living child, might have reasonably expected. This caused further family breaches with her paternal cousins. When her mother died two years later she was again left relatively little and in consequence broke off contact with her maternal relatives. She did not attend her mother’s funeral. Her political career stalled, although as late as 1940 she still hoped to find a parliamentary seat.
At the age of 55 Rachel needed a new interest. She bought a country estate and seven years later started owning and training racehorses. She had some success but fell out with the Jockey Club and had to buy another estate for training purposes. She was generally regarded as difficult to please and eccentric. Her ideas on the training of horses did not coincide with those of her professionals. At the end of her life she was living at Branches Park and Lansdowne House, near Newmarket Suffolk. Her favourite insult was to call her employees ‘guttersnipes’, apparently a 1950s alternative to ‘pleb’.
In July 1956 Rachel was murdered by one of those employees, a man called Dennis James Pratt. In a triumph for his barrister, Michael Havers, but not perhaps for justice, Pratt was convicted of manslaughter (not murder) on the grounds of diminished responsibility. He may have been a dull and rather simple man but he was not seemingly insane. The judge at her trial described Rachel as ‘unpleasant and quarrelsome’ although, as a victim of the crime, she was not present to defend herself. There was never any real doubt that Dennis Pratt had beaten his employer to death but his stated motive, that she owed him two weeks wages, seems somewhat inadequate although with a young family he certainly needed money. Pratt got 10 years inside and died in 1990 aged 60. The murder was an unlooked for and tragic end to a gifted grandchild of the 3rd Earl of Rosse. If any reader has heard of Rachel I would be very interested to learn more about her life.
A website devoted to Rachel is to be found at: http://www.rachelparsons.co.uk/