Women in History

Having changed career a couple of times in my life and gained formal qualifications up to MSc I am an advocate of remembering women that changed our world but received little, if any recognition. Education for women wasn’t a priority and the struggles to be heard and listened to must have felt insurmountable. This leads me to write about Sarah Maria Beach who was born in Birmingham, England to parents Richard and Mary Beach on the Monday 5th November 1770.  

(Stencil by Stewy from a portrait by Isambard Kingdom Brunel)

Setting the scene

Women had no say in society and no right to vote until the 19th Century. Education was for men only. What must that have been like if you were a woman that had ideas and wanted more than the society norms?

Women were perceived as inferior to men and their role in society was that of childbearing, needlework and to please their husband! Women could not own properties or leave the house without a chaperone and were confined to the home, filling their time with knitting, sewing and their children.  Women were considered intellectually inferior to their male counterparts. This seems incomprehensible in our society today. I have been educated and have had the opportunity to study at university and gained many qualifications to my name. Much of the change we see now came about through women like Sarah and the suffragette movement in the 19th century.

(Photo Glasgow Women’s Library)

There were women that broke the mould in the 1700’s and strived to be heard, wanting education like their male counterparts. Sarah Maria Beach was born in this era of suppressed women but clearly wanted her ideas and inventions to be recognised.

Sarah married Samuel Guppy in 1795 and in 1811 Sarah had patented the first of her inventions, although Sarah could not file for a patent under her name as she was a woman! Now considering the lack of formal education and society’s views about women, this was a remarkable achievement. Sarah had patented a method of making safe piling for bridges. Thomas Telford gained Sarah’s permission to use her design for suspension bridge foundations. Sarah did not get any financial renumeration from Thomas as she waived any fee. I wonder why she did this? Was it pressure from her husband about earning an income or was it that she hadn’t fully appreciated her role in this invention? Monetary gain could have been seen as indecent in the society of that time. There appears to be little evidence that Sarah was given any credit for her inventions by the engineers that used them. Sarah was ahead of her time with her designs and inventions.

(First page of Sarah Guppy’s bridge patent of 1811)

Sarah was a family friend of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and she became involved in the Great Western Railway. In 1841 Sarah wrote a letter to the committee, recommending planting willows and poplars to stabilise embankments. Sarah had written about the unpleasantness of speaking about herself as it was considered boastful. This gives an insight into how even though she had patented her ideas, Sarah was still bound by society and how they perceived a woman.

Sarah was fortunate to grow up in a wealthy family, she was educated and had around her many innovative thinkers. Sarah learned how to run a business and learned about the engineering industry due to her husband Samuel being a machinery builder. Samuel clearly did not feel threatened by his wife taking an interest in his manufacturing and engineering business and encouraged Sarah to get involved with negotiating business deals.

Sarah Guppy also contributed to female education rights, public health issues and agriculture and used her social status as a platform for the welfare of vulnerable groups. Sarah encouraged progress and positively reinforced the need for change to ensure equal rights for all.

In later life the widowed Sarah married Richard Eyre Coote, 28 years her junior. Unfortunately, he spent all her money and she eventually left him, living on her own before she died at the age of 81.

Sarah’s suspension bridge design has paved the way for modern infrastructure and the Clifton Suspension Bridge would not exist without her design. I am uncertain whether Sarah was too modest to take credit and financial renumeration for her designs or whether the pressure of society did not enable her to take ownership of them. The one thing that is certain is that Sarah made a positive change for women throughout the world.

Karen Wells

Avalon Legal Blog, Copyright June 2022