To aviation enthusiasts, Shilling is perhaps best known for her work on carburettors at the RAE. At the beginning of the Second World War it became clear that the Rolls-Royce Merlin would cut out when subjected to negative-g, such as when a fighter nosed over into a dive; this was because of fuel floating clear of the feed pipe in the carburettor. Spitfires and Hurricanes were therefore at a disadvantage when trying to follow fuel-injected Bf 109s and 110s through such a manoeuvre. The RAE were asked to come up with a fix, and Beatrice came up with a restrictor plate that would ensure continued fuel flow to the engine under temporary negative-g. Perhaps inevitably, the modification became known to the RAF as ‘Miss Shilling’s Orifice.’1
But her other achievements are perhaps even more interesting. She was born to a middle-class family, and as a child showed a great aptitude for mechanical pursuits (amongst others, maintaining her own motorcycle.) By the age of 15, she had decided she wanted to be an engineer. This was not an easy profession for a young woman to enter, but fortunately her school had been sent a job advertisment for an apprenticeship in electrical engineering.
This had been sent by Margaret Partridge, who ran an electrical engineering company, and who was also involved with the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). At the time, County Councils were tendering for the installation of electricity supplies in country areas, and Partridge’s company had a number of contracts in Devon. Shilling joined the company in the summer of 1926, and spent the next three years installing wiring and generators, both domestic and industrial. Beatrice showed great promise as an electrical engineer, and Partridge convinced her to apply for an engineering degree at Manchester’s Victoria University. The WES was also able to offer Shilling support, by helping her get her applied mathematics up to the entrance standard, as well as providing her with an interest-free loan for her tuition.
She enrolled on the Electrical Engineering degree as one of two women students in 1929; the first year that any had joined the course. Whilst there, she took up motorcycle racing with the university club, using her engineering skills to keep her bike in racing trim. Graduating with honours in 1932, she stayed on at Manchester for another year to do an MSc in Mechanical Engineering, which had developed into her true passion. Having impressed the Mechanical Engineering staff and looking for a job, she was taken on as a research assistant for GF Mucklow’s work on single-cylinder supercharged engines. She was still racing motorcycles, and had started racing at Brooklands. Beatrice was determined and a skilled rider, and in August 1934 she became only the second woman to gain a Brooklands Gold Star for lapping the track at over 100mph.
She continued to race bikes and cars until the 1960s along with her husband George, an RAE mathematican whom she had met shortly after joining the RAE in 1936. He was also a keen racer and mechanic; Beatrice supposedly refused to marry him until he gained his Brooklands Gold Star, which he achieved in 1938!
In her time at the RAE she worked on engine accessories, and then later in the Mechanical Engineering department on problems of heat transfer, working on projects such as ramjets and on the Blue Streak IRBM (and, as a side project, designing a bobsleigh for the RAF team!) Although well respected as an engineer by her peers, Shilling never achieved high rank at the RAE. She did not suffer fools gladly, and although she could display tact when working with industry representitives, her manner generally tended towards the brusque. She was contemptuous of bureaucracy and impatient with hierarchy; qualities which did not endear her to the management. There was also prejudice against women engineers, and the fact that she was seen as ‘difficult’ on issues such as pay and conditions meant she did not have an easy relationship with her superiors. She retired in the late 1960s, being awarded an honorary doctorate in 1969.
In retirement, she continued to race cars with George until their health made this impractical; instead they took up target shooting. She died in 1990.
For more information on this extraordinary person, see Matthew Freudenberg’s Biography Negative Gravity: A Life of Beatrice Shilling (Taunton: Charlton Publications, 2003)
1. According to her biographer, this may have been coined by Stanley Hooker, and was intended as friendly informality rather than disrespect.