Victoria Drummond

Victoria Drummond was also a second world war hero who bravely saved the lives of 49 of her ship mates. She sailed as a ship engineer on many dangerous convoys across the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. Victoria smelled the gunpowder in World War Two before most other woman and men.

It was World War that opened new opportunities for women, and it gave Victoria the chance to pursue a career in engineering. Whilst her parents were shopping in Perth, she went for an interview and was given a week’s trial as an apprentice in the Northern Garage, 71 South Street, Perth (where the Salvation Army Citadel is now). She started on 18 October 1916, receiving her first weekly wage of three shillings, of which sixpence was deducted for National Insurance. Her first job was to sweep up the shop floor and put the tools in order on the benches for the day’s work. She would wash parts of machinery in a large paraffin bath and scraping of the oil and grease from gear boxes.

Perth at this time of war, was when many long troop trains passed through, many displaying the Red Cross. Victoria took her bicycle with her to Perth and often cycled home the ten miles due to delays caused by additional military trains. In 1914, Suffragettes had been on hunger strike in Perth Prison and were horribly force-fed so that they could carry out their sentences. Perth’s Cricket Club Pavilion had been burned down by Suffragettes in 1913 and 3,000 women had marched on the jail in 1914 in support of the incarcerated women. There is no evidence that Victoria was involved, rather, that she was busy her role of doing war work and learning her trade. Her sister Jean went off to do highly dangerous war work as a supervisor in the acid section at an explosive’s factory in Gretna. She was one of the famous ‘munitionettes’ or ‘canary girls, which was caused by using poisonous nitric acid in TNT production, it yellowed the hair and skin. Her brother John joined the Grenadier Guards as a cadet.

Victoria took evening classes at the Dundee Technical College and special correspondence instruction in Maths and Engineering subjects. Moving on from the Northern Garage after two years, her father got her an introduction to the Caledon Shipbuilding & Engineering Company. At its works at Lilybank, Dundee, she started as a pattern maker for metal casting, the only woman in a company of 3,000 men. In 1919 she was promoted to the finishing shop, joined the Woman’s Engineering Society, and completed her apprenticeship in 1920. She stayed on at Caledon until 1922 as a journeyman.

Accidents in engineering shops were something Victoria had her fair share. From a big lump of molten solder falling on her hand, to being crushed when a 10-ton lorry slipped off its jacks and came down on top of her. Fortunately, she survived that accident, but with a broken collar bone and two broken ribs.

When Victoria completed her apprenticeship as an engineer at Lilybank Foundry in Dundee, in the celebration of the event, she followed the long-established custom of “standing treat” to her 70 odd workmates in the form of a night’s entertainment at the King’s Theatre Music Hall. Seats were reserved in the grand circle and Victoria sat proudly in the center of her foundry mates.

By 1922, she was tenth Engineer on the 10,000-ton passenger liner SS Anchises (Blue Funnel Line). In two years, she voyaged four times to Australia and once to China. Victoria Drummond then left to study and attained a Second Engineer’s accreditation in 1926.

In the 1930’s there was little demand for Marine Engineers and Victoria found it difficult to find work. In March 1938, Victoria and her sister Francis were visiting Vienna just as German Infantry Divisions marched into the city. From there hotel window, they observed the crowds lining the streets and Adolf Hitler go past in a triumphal parade. Back home Victoria was involved in a car accident and again broke her collarbone. Later in 1938 they were in Holland and Belgium, the atmosphere was very tense, it just days before the second world war was about to begin.

At the start of the Second World War, not being able to get a position on a British ship, she worked as an air raid warden in London. The only solution was to serve on a foreign registered vessel. Victoria signed on as the Second Engineer on the Palestine Maritime Lloyd Ltd. SS Har Zion. On 21st March 1940 the convoy they had joined lay off Gravesend. Three ships that had sailed earlier were hit by mines and sunk. In the middle of a minefield, they had to stop to make repairs and a torpedo just missed them by about 15 feet. After dry dock repairs in Antwerp, they returned across the Channel. Victoria witnessed three mines blow up as they passed. Back at Gravesend with the convoy they went through two air raids, with mines exploding in the harbour. A few days later another ship moving anchorage hit a mine, Victoria watched it sink in 2 minutes.

Next, they were off to Lisbon, Gibraltar, Beirut, and Haifa. Victoria broke one of her fingers in her right hand which needed to be put in a splint. From Haifa they went to Port Said, Alexandria and then on to Marseilles. The cargo they collected there was human, the Consul, his staff and the remains of the British Expeditionary Force were loaded and taken to Casablanca. The convoy was attacked by German aircraft on the way home, it returned to London on 20 July 1940. There is mention in some accounts of Victoria’s life that she took part in the Dunkirk evacuation. At that time Victoria would have been onboard ship in the Mediterranean.

Three weeks after returning Victoria, at the age of 45 joined the Panamanian registered 3,500-ton SS Bonita as Second Engineer at Southampton. On 6 August 1940 the ship set sail for the United States. At Portland they were bombed by German aircraft, Victoria hit her head on an oil box and her watch was smashed. One bomb had missed the ship by only 10 feet, and they were only 20 feet away from having one come down through the engine room skylight. The ship anchored at Fowey in Cornwall until 23 August 1940 when they set off into the Atlantic. As a Panamanian ship with a Hungarian Captain, in effect an enemy alien, they were not thought of as in need of convoy protection.

The next day they saw a dozen or so, St. Malo fishing boats with their sails strung out in a long line. The following day the ships Mate was concerned, the water was too deep for fishing, they were 300 miles out from the nearest land, and he wondered if they were spying on them. He had hardly expressed his concerns when there was a burst of machine-gun firing from an aircraft, it was 8.55am.

Within 2 minutes, Victoria returned to the engine room just as a bomb struck near the ship. She was flung by the shock against the levers of a control panel. Bruised, she struggled to her feet and gave the ship all the speed it could. This was the only hope of survival, to dodge the bombs from the aircraft. Terrific vibrations began shaking the ship, lagging came off the pipes and fell like snow. The ship felt as if it was being lifted and dropped each time the bombs exploded. The noise drained out the sound of the engines and in the confined space of the engine room it was a lot worse. The bombs were big enough to lift the Bonita and could still cause damage by their near misses. The Radio Operator sent the message: BEING ATTACKED, BEING BOMBED AND MACHINE-GUNNED, SEND FIGHTERS QUICK!

Flying debris hit the main water service pipe to the main engine and scalding hot water was gushing out. The speaking tube to the bridge broke off, no instructions could be received, the engine room was on its own. Victoria ordered everyone out of the engine room. There was fuel oil running down her face and she could only see out of one eye. The engine was a hissing burbling inferno, and everything was shaking and banging in an inferno of noise and steam, and she was alone. It was her duty to keep the engines running, the danger was tremendous, but she protected her hands and held back the escaping steam from the damaged joint, her actions maintained the power of the ship.

When the noise of the aircraft warned her that they were about to attack, she eased down the engines, when she heard them circling overhead, she increased steam. The SS Bonita had never exceeded 9 knots, but in 10 minutes, Victoria had managed to increase speed to 12.5 knots. With the extra speed the captain used to avoid being hit. Victoria stated later that 25 bombs were dropped, and many machine gun bullets had hit the ship; this suggests that 6 or 7 Luftwaffe long-range Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor aircraft took part in the attack, each could carry four kg bombs.

Thanks in no small part to Victoria’s actions the SS Bonita survived the attack. Victoria was commended for her bravery by Captain Herz, and First Mate Warner as “the most courageous woman I ever saw”.  The Times newspaper would quote the official report, “Her conduct was an inspiration to the ship’s company and her devotion to duty prevented more serious damage to the vessel.” Victoria’s action saved the ship, and she was awarded an MBE and a Lloyds’ war medal for bravery.

Once the damage to the engine room had been repaired and without further incident, they reached Norfolk, Virginia in the United States. Victoria’s heroism was reported in all the newspapers. Whilst in Norfolk, Victoria learned that her sister’s home in Lambeth, London had been bombed. Victoria spoke at various charitable events in Norfolk and enough money was raised to build a green painted Victoria A. Drummond British-American Restaurant in Lambeth, for people who had been bombed out of their homes. With gifts of food, over 350 people a day were fed there. This canteen served hot meals for sixpence a head and remained open for the rest of the war. In April 1941, £400 had also been raised towards the provision of the Victoria A. Drummond Ambulance for the people of Lambeth.

The near sinking of the SS Bonita did not deter her, and Victoria Drummond worked on several ships for the duration of the war crossing the Atlantic many times, and on convoys to the Soviet Union. She was on ‘Special Ops’ duty ferrying stuff back and forth to the beachheads in Normandy on D-Day. Victoria was still to come under fire on more than one occasion and suffered many injuries in the course of her duty, including dislocating her jaw and collarbone twice.

Victoria was encouraged by her father to choose her own career; she chose to be a marine engineer. Born into a privileged but incredibly supportive background, as a debutante she was presented during her coming-out at Buckingham Palace in February 1913 to King George V and Queen Mary. The respect she earned from her peers and her country made her one of the greatest women of the last century.

By her ground-breaking drive, ambition, grit, and sheer determination, and without any concessions made because of her gender; she became the first Chief woman Marine Engineer. Victoria Drummond was a very highly regarded trailblazer who opened doors for many other women to follow. No woman had done that before at the time, nobody had ever imagined or thought that a woman could.

The war over, Victoria Drummond returned to Scotland. She found employment in the ship building industry and on various cargo ships. The period 1952-57 saw her again as a Second Engineer and finally from 1959 until 1962, she was a Chief Engineer. Thirty-seven attempts to gain accreditation as a Chief Engineer all ended in failure. Undaunted, she finally managed to obtain a Panamanian Chief Engineer’s certificate.

Miss Victoria Alexandrina Drummond (1894-1978) was the daughter of Captain Malcolm Drummond and Geraldine Margaret Tyssen-Amherst Drummond of Megginch Castle near Erroll. Victoria had a brother John, and a sisters, Jean, and Francis. Victoria was the granddaughter of first Baron Amherst of Hackney and was named after godmother, Queen Victoria.

Victoria Drummond retired after forty years at sea and died in 1978 aged 84, She is buried where she was born, at Megginch Castle. A plaque at Abertay University in Dundee commemorates Victoria Drummond’s achievement as a marine engineer. Victoria was also the first woman engineer of the Institute of Marine Engineers and has the distinction of being the first female chief engineer in the Merchant Navy.

Research by Ken Bruce


There is no evidence of Victoria being given an easier time by her shipmates, in truth she had to fight and work very much harder to prove to everyone her competency as an engineer. Entrenched sexist attitudes within the maritime industry operated against Victoria Drummond throughout her career. What she had to put up with on the way to becoming a Chief Engineer is best summed up by these lines published in the Shields Daily News:

“Women are no substitutes for men in the engine room of a ship at sea,” said Mr. C. Booth, district secretary of the Amalgamated Marine Workers Union at Liverpool in January of 1923.

He believed Miss Victoria Drummond will be the last as well as the first woman ship engineer.

“The owners of the Blue Funnel Line allowed Miss Drummond to sail in the SS Anchises to enable her to complete her 18 months at sea and qualify to become a fully certified engineer, and there is not the least chance of their repeating the experiment,” said Mr. Booth.

“She is not likely to go to sea again, I should imagine.”

How wrong he was, Victoria was to set sail again and yet again over the next forty years.