Category Archives: Biographies

The latest news on iconic names in British Industrial History…

From rags to riches: The story of a real life Dick Whittington

Benetfink and Co was a great London emporium in it’s time, and its impressive storehouse dominated curious passers-by in popular Cheapside. Describing themselves as “furnishing ironmongers” they offered shoppers everything from baths and stoves to tea-trays and cameras, and won over gentry with a variety of goods to stock any mansion. They successfully traded for the best part of 60 years from their establishment in the 1840s to 1908 when they were merged with A. M. Gamage of High Holborn – perhaps better known as Gamages, arguably one of the most successful and renowned toy stores in Britain.

The story of the founder started far from the fine commodities of his business. Samuel Alexander Benetfink was a foundling. He was discovered on the steps of the St Benetfink church, of which he was named after. Despite his uncertain start in life he strived for an education. When he reached 28 years old, after serving an apprenticeship to the ironmongery trade, had saved enough to enable him to start business.

Benetfink Advert

And so Benetfink and Jones were founded as furnishing ironmongers in Cheapside, and subsequently became Benetfink and Fox before Benetfink and Co in 1855. By 1860 the business had gained an international reputation and millions were attracted to visit notorious Cheapside.

After Mr Benetfink passed away in 1869, his legacy was continued by Mr George Evans for almost a quarter of a century. The store maintained its successful reputation and enjoyed being a pinnacle of London’s retail trade.

When Mr A. W. Gamage acquired the business in 1908 the business had already developed additional departments devoted to cycle and motor accessories, sports and athletics. He became governing director of Messrs Benetfink, and the company became Gamage’s City Depot.

The London City Press once compared Benetfink’s story to that of the literary legend Dick Whittington. It certainly is a powerful reminder and inspiring example that proves every child can achieve success in life, no matter how humble their origin.

Rachel Parsons – A woman ahead of her time

Rachel Mary Parsons was an extraordinary woman, born ahead of her time into an illustrious family. She had a remarkable impact on women’s rights in the engineering world,  founding societies and well-known in the highest of social circles for her glittering parties and grand houses in London and Suffolk. Sadly, wartime sorrow and estrangement haunted her life until she met her tragic end.

She inherited the talents of her father, Charles Algernon Parsons, and shared his interest in the world of engineering, accompanying him aboard the Turbinia during trials and sailing with him aboard the Mauretania in 1909.  She was the first woman to read Mechanical Sciences at Cambridge University in 1910.

During the hardships of World War I, women were called to work in the munitions factories, replacing the men fighting on the front line. Taking on the role of director of the family’s Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Company, Rachel trained thousands of women assembling aeroplane components and making searchlight equipment to scan the skies for aircraft. As the supply of war materials became more and more urgent, Rachel trained more and more women to excel at intricate, physically demanding and highly important tasks, from installing electrical wiring on battleships, to working hydraulic presses.

See our previous blog on Women in Engineering

Parsons Women Labourers during WWI (ref: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums)

Rachel had no intention of following the conventional path expected of a young lady. Inspired by her experiences and determined to prove her worth she, with the help of her mother, founded the Women’s Engineering Society and became its first president. She was a keen member of the Royal Institute of Great Britain, and in 1922 joined the London County Council standing as a candidate for the Conservatives the year after during a time when only two female MPs were in office.

Later life hampered her political ambitions and faded her career aspirations. She found renewed lifestyle and enjoyed her parent’s inheritance, throwing grand parties and attending horse races.

She eventually moved to Newmarket and bought a stud farm in the surrounding Suffolk countryside.

It was here she met a brutal end when she was struck down and murdered by a stable worker and ex-employee of hers. He escaped the death penalty when he was found guilty of man-slaughter in the face of unendurable provocation.

Her story, though with a terribly tragic end, tells one of a lady’s determination to succeed and prove herself in times of great challenge.

Read more about Rachel Parsons here:


Nearly 30,000 British Engineers on Grace’s Guide – It’s Time to Find out Who’s Who.

Who's Who Spotlight

We’re approaching 30,000 biography pages on Grace’s Guide… 

Which means there are even more engineer’s records you can freely access on the site, whether for historical and reference studies, or family history research.

Since digitizing our publications of Who’s Who in Engineering (1921-22) and The Engineer’s Who’s Who (1939), we’re busy uploading up to one hundred more engineers a day, so it’s worth checking back now and then to follow our progress.

View The Engineer’s Who’s Who (1939) or  Who’s Who in Engineering (1921-22) now to find out names you may recognise.

Can you help?

If you have any family records, memories, old photographs or accounts of any of our engineers or companies, we want to hear from you. Please get in touch with anything you’d like to contribute via our contact form here.

Amy Johnson: One of the Greatest British Female Pilots

Did you know on this day back in 1903, one of Britain’s greatest female pilots was born?

Amy Johnson (1 July 1903 – 5 January 1941)  was a pioneering English aviatrix that set numerous long-distance records  and became a leading role model for women around the world.

"Believe nothing to be impossible"
“Believe nothing to be impossible”

Born in Hull, to a wealthy fish merchant, she was educated at Hull’s Boulevard Municipal Secondary School and graduated in 1925 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics from Sheffield University.

She was introduced to flying as a hobby, gaining a pilot’s A Licence No. 1979 on 6 July 1929 at the London Aeroplane Club under the tutelage of Captain Valentine Baker. In that same year, she became the first British woman to obtain a ground engineer’s ‘C’ licence.

Her father was one of her strongest supporters. With funds from her father and Lord Wakefield she purchased a second-hand de Havilland Gipsy Moth she named “Jason”, and with Jason she achieved global recognition when in 1930 she became the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia, covering some 11,000 miles.

Only a year later in July 1931, she flew with co-pilot Jack Humphreys from London to Moscow within one day. This was a journey, never achieved before. They continued to Siberia and on to Tokyo, smashing another record time for flying to Japan from England in a de Havilland Puss Moth.

Amy set a solo record from London to Cape Town in 1932, and further record duo flight with her husband Jim Mollison  in 1934 as part of the Britain to Australia MacRobertson Air Race. Her last-record breaking flight was made in May 1936 flying again from London to South Africa.

Amy Johnson tragically lost her life on 5th January 1941 when the Airspeed Oxford aircraft she was flying from Blackpool to RAF Kidlington went off course and crashed into the Thames Estuary.  She was flying in very poor weather conditions and was way off course. Her body was never recovered. Even today there still remains much controversy over the cause of the crash, although in 1999 it was reported she was shot down after failing to give the correct identification code during her flight.

She was a remarkable role-model in the engineering and aviation world inspiring people across the globe.

“I am an ordinary woman who did extraordinary things. The first to qualify as a ground engineer. The first to fly to Australia single-handed. A million people lined the streets of London when I came home. I waved to them from an open-topped car like the queen, the queen of the air.” Amy Johnson

A collection of souvenirs of her was donated by her father at Sewerby Park, Bridlington and The Science Museum, London also has an archive.

Continue to read about Amy Johnson


To celebrate the life and achievements of Amy Johnson, look out for the Amy Johnson Memorial Air Show at Herne Bay this year on Saturday August 15th. The show will feature the world famous Red Arrows and the Battle of Britain Memorial Team amongst other must-see attractions.





Sir Nigel Gresley Remembered with a Statue at King’s Cross

Sir Nigel Gresley

Most of us have heard of the famous Flying Scotsman, celebrated ‘Cock O’ the North’ and the record breaking Mallard, but how many people know of the engineer behind Britain’s most famous steam engines?

Born in Edinburgh and raised in Derbyshire, Sir Herbert Nigel Gresley quickly rose from working as an apprentice at the Crewe Works under F. W. Webb to become The London and North Eastern Railway’s first Chief Mechanical Engineer.

He paid extraordinary attention to railway service demands and awareness of locomotive design development, selecting a ‘Big Engine Policy’ for the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) and observing the effect of wind resistance on train performance.

The Flying Scotsman Class A3 locomotive was built in 1923 to be employed on long-distance journeys. Notably it’s now broken two world records for steam traction officially reaching 100 mph on 30th November 1934 and then setting a record for the longest non-stop run by a steam locomotive, running 422 miles on 8th August 1989 while in Australia.

The Gresley Class P2 No 2001 ‘Cock O’ the North’ was completed in 1934 at the LNER Doncaster Works and was the most powerful express steam passenger locomotive ever built for a British Railway.

The A4 Pacific-type demonstrated an aerodynamic design never built before, and in 1938 one train of this type – The Mallard set a world speed record of 126 mph.

This month, it was announced that there are plans to unveil a statue at King’s Cross Station for Sir Gresley. It will stand a proud seven feet tall in the station’s Western Concourse, near to the West Offices where Sir Nigel worked until the outbreak of war.  This memorial will be constructed in cast-bronze by sculptor Hazel Reeves, holding a copy of The Locomotive magazine and accompanied by a mallard – the symbol of his world famous speedy locomotive.

The statue will be unveiled on the 6th April 2016 – marking the 75th anniversary of his death.

References:, and in addition to the Grace’s Guide pages.

A Remembrance for ‘The Greatest Engineer of the 19th Century’ – Robert Stephenson (1803–1859)

Robert Stephenson

“Few professional men have attained such well-deserved celebrity as Robert Stephenson, and his works will remain to attest his well-earned reputation” – a fine sentence taken from his 1860 obituary in The Engineer remembering the works of a man who has been described as ‘The Greatest Engineer of the 19th Century’.

In addition for being the first inventor and constructor of tubular plate-iron bridges, he was a great pioneer of locomotion design, and has gone down in railway construction history as a mechanical genius with his father George Stephenson (also known fondly as the ‘Father of the Railway System), with his contributions to the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and London and Birmingham Railway amongst many others. Together they founded ‘Robert Stephenson and Co’ the first company set up specifically to build railway engines, where many early locomotives such as the famous ‘Rocket’ improved the outlook of locomotion production forever.

During his lifetime, he was a member of Parliament for Whitby, President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, a Chief Engineer for many endeavours, and a great traveller for his works, admired globally for his generous and kind personality as well as his successful projects and innovations.

Influencing countries from Belgium and Denmark to Canada and Egypt, his talents were felt worldwide, and many will probably remember his works through his important influence on bridge design and construction from the High Level Bridge at Newcastle-upon-Tyne to the Victoria Tubular Bridge over the St. Lawrence River at Montreal. Being a rival of Isambard Kingdom Brunel  didn’t stop a friendship with him and they often helped one another at work.

His death was deeply mourned throughout the country and he was rightfully granted a resting place at Westminster Abbey. He left behind a legacy of engineering achievements and should always be remembered for his well-earned reputation both privately and professionally.

The 12th October 2014 signifies the 155th anniversary of his death.

Alex Shear (1940-2014)

I read today of the death of Alex Shear (1940-2014) in the US. Alex described himself as the ‘Broker of Nostalgia’ with a vast collection of memorabilia put together over many years. Starting with a few everyday pieces bought at flea markets and car boot sales he ended up with eleven warehouses across three American states full of these items. He collected everything from kitchenware, matchboxes (10,000 of these), toys and almost any consumer goods. Parts of his collections were loaned to museums and his plan was to open his warehouses to the public. If his plans are carried on by his sons then that is one museum I shall want to see.