“I have a pretty well developed sense of curiosity which I’m glad about because life would be pretty dull if you didn’t want to know more about what was going on.”
Sheila Holgate-Wright, a fifteen year old girl, arrived in Wolverhampton from Liverpool in the summer of 1944. She had a flair for Science, but little idea of the life journey her passion would cause her to embark on.
Sixty nine years later, it is only health concerns that have made the pursuit of an MSc award unwise.
Sheila had wanted to capitalise on her enthusiasm for the subject at school age – that was until the war had intervened. Her school in Liverpool had to be evacuated, resulting in her remaining at home and receiving tuition of just one hour a day from local nuns. When the school reopened, the majority of teachers had left for the armed forces or munitions factories.
To add insult to injury, her beloved school laboratories suffered a relentless bombing.
It was in Wolverhampton that Sheila began to look for a job, “I had to find another way of taking up the things I was interested in”. To equip herself when entering the scientific field, Sheila enrolled at what was then the Wolverhampton and Staffordshire Technical College to study Physics and Chemistry whilst simultaneously improving her Mathematics. At the end of the year she won a scholarship to put towards her fees for the next level.
Sheila had got a job in a laboratory of one of the local metals industries and was on the lookout for a variety of classes to aid her work. It was the Head of the Science Department who gave her the “best piece of advice anyone could have had”. He recommended she undertake a properly constructed metallurgy course which, in five years, would result in a qualification. Sheila had doubts about her credentials for a predominantly male course and questioned whether a woman would have the capabilities. The Head offered her reassurance in abundance and, as a result, Sheila became the first woman to graduate from the course.
At Wolverhampton, Sheila studied part-time with ‘day release’ from work as well as two evenings of college a week.
Part-time attendance meant little contact with people on other courses. Even a reason to leave the basement laboratories was hard to come by. But in the tea-breaks, Sheila and her colleagues would ‘nip across Queen’s Square to Lyons and have a 1d (penny) bun and a cup of tea’.
Sheila retained contact with a handful of female pharmacy students and one or two women science students. However, a majority of the time, Sheila’s fellow students were men, some her own age, the rest older who had just come back from service. They “teased me unmercifully, the lads” and she had “to fight for survival”. The thought of giving up crossed her mind on more than one occasion but she always came to the decision she would ‘battle on however hard it was’. Sheila became published in her professions’ journals and won the essay prize of the Birmingham Metallurgical Society – “this being the first time a lady had taken one of the Society’s prizes; the President gave a few words of congratulations and trusted other ladies would emulate the example.”
Fortunately, study and employment went hand in hand. Local “industry was still virtually producing as it did in the war” and there were a variety of opportunities for trained scientists. Sheila moved from her first job as a young laboratory assistant to becoming a research assistant and, before she knew it, she was heading an entire research department.
However, women still hadn’t established themselves in the metallurgical industry. One visiting Canadian told her that she was “the first metallurgist I’ve ever seen wearing lipstick”. This later became the opening lines in Sheila’s published survey of women in the industry.
College and life in the community similarly had a social side. Sheila opted to “join Dr Percy Young’s choir” and, in 1946, she joined the Wolverhampton Musical Comedy Club that performed at the Hippodrome and the Grand Theatre. It was here that Sheila began to nurture a life-long pleasure for the theatre and singing. Alongside these ventures, she joined the local photography club in 1948. Film had remained gold dust after the war, but her laboratory dark room was available for use after work.
The arrival of young children and a move down south put paid to Sheila’s laboratory work. But, as her children became older, she reignited her passion by becoming a mature student at a College of Education and embarked on a second career as a teacher.
Although in her eighties, Sheila regularly attends lectures with an on-going interest in emerging technologies, reinforcing the notion that a passion for your chosen subject is a commitment and a hobby that really does last a lifetime.
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