CBE HonFRAeS18 April 1923 – 1 February 2015
The Baroness receives her Royal Aeronautical Society Honorary Fellowship certificate from the RAeS President Charles Masefield in 1994.
Beryl Platt was a tremendous role model throughout much of her adult life, and particularly from mid-life onwards was committed to the practical implementation of equality of opportunity for women from all backgrounds, and particularly wished to persuade more girls to take up careers in science and engineering – not least because these jobs were ‘such fun’.
Beryl Catherine Myatt was born in Leigh-on-Sea, the daughter of a bank clerk, and grew to be a tall, highly intelligent, energetic but shy girl. As a child, she met Stuart Platt, who was later to be her husband of 54 years, but it was not a particularly auspicious start to the relationship – his parents held her up as an example, while he simply regarded her as a swot. She attended Westcliff High School in Essex, but was later evacuated to Slough, where she received active encouragement to apply to study mathematics at Girton College, Cambridge, the first member of her family to attend university. However, she switched to aeronautical engineering, as subjects which contributed to the war effort attracted a bursary, and later said that this choice had led to a much more interesting path through life.
At Cambridge, she found herself to be one of only five women engineering students in her year, with only nine having studied before them. To add insult to injury, Cambridge did not at that time (1943) award full degrees to women, but she was admitted to “the title of degree”, and went on to a job in the experimental division of Hawker Aircraft, who built the Hurricane, and this remained a point of pride throughout the rest of her life. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when meeting young women apprentices, she was able to empathise with the experience of being heavily outnumbered by much older, and cynical, men on the shop-floor, and the need to never be found wanting. She emphasised the necessity of maintaining one’s femininity, even when in overalls in a machine shop, and never, never to learn to type, as this was would lead to being exiled to secretarial duties.
She met Stuart Platt again in 1948, by which time he had enlisted in the Navy under age and had commanded a tank landing craft on D-Day, and they married the following year, at which time she left paid employment, as was usual in those days. Stuart was working in the family textile business, and they moved to Writtle, near Chelmsford in Essex, where Beryl remained for the rest of her life. She had a son Roland and daughter Vicky, of whom she was hugely proud, but the roles of wife and mother were never going to fully utilise her formidable energy, and there was a certain amount of relief when she became firstly a rural district councillor, and later a county councillor for Essex.
As chair of the education committee, she headed a local education authority second only in size to the London Education Authority, which was confronting an explosion in pupil numbers, with record numbers of families moving out of London and needing new schools. In the midst of a huge school-building programme, the introduction of comprehensive education necessitated a radical re-think of many of the schools under construction, but this was achieved successfully, with the sole legacy in many schools being assembly halls which were too small to accommodate the whole school population. Beryl also actively promoted the introduction into school governing bodies of members who were neither politicians nor parents, but men and women with experience of business and industry, incidentally encouraging a number of young women to themselves become involved in public life.
In 1981, at the age of 58, she received a life peerage, and became immediately active in the House and on select committees on science and engineering, bringing experience and common sense, as well as formidable intellectual grasp and compelling speaking ability, to the debates. Because of her combination of experience, she was often able to bring a real-world perspective to discussions which sometimes failed to recognise the relevance of the topic under discussion to the general public. On a practical level, she facilitated a joint address to the Parliamentary and Select Committees in a cross-house presentation by WISE attended by over 100 MPs and peers. She was also one of the first members of the Engineering Council when it was established as the umbrella body for the profession; her contribution ensured that there were always women amongst the membership thereafter, but her successors sometimes found her a hard act to follow.
However, a lot of people (including Beryl) were surprised when she was offered the chance to become the second chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission in 1983, at the age of 60. She said she was starting her first paid job since 1949 at an age when most women were contemplating retirement. Some cynics said that she was appointed in the expectation that a relatively unknown Conservative peer would be less active than her predecessor. If that was the plan it was a complete failure; Beryl threw herself into the role, becoming very familiar with the Sex Discrimination Act, and travelling, by train, between London, Manchester (where the EOC was based) and Essex on a weekly basis. Although she had encountered prejudice as a young woman engineer, she had never experienced the sort of outright discrimination and ill-treatment that she heard about in her new role, and she was appalled, and intent on improving things.
Even with these two new roles, she never lost touch with the organisations and people with whom she had been involved over the years, and she did the very opposite of ‘pulling up the drawbridge behind her’, as other prominent women were accused of doing. She was the first woman President of the Chelmsford Engineering Society, and her Presidential Dinner included highlighting the local woman engineers who were following in her footsteps. As Chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, she spearheaded Women into Science and Engineering (WISE) 1984, working with Professor Daphne Jackson, President of the Women’s Engineering Society and the first woman Physics professor in the UK, and some of the younger members to raise the profile of careers for women in industry and education. The campaign included WISE buses equipped with technology workstations, which toured the country visiting schools and offering the experience first to girls, not boys. She remained a patron of the Women’s Engineering Society, attending as many meetings and events as she was able, and of the WISE campaign, operating under the aegis of the Engineering Council, for the next 25 years. She also continued to encourage, mentor and support women on an individual basis, inviting small groups to visit the House of Lords for lunch or tea and a tour which included the boiler room and the roof space, and taking an interest in the careers and families of women she had met many years earlier.
One of Beryl’s outstanding characteristics was that she remained as passionate about her family and domestic life as she was about her campaigns and public life. Her children were brought up to encompass the full range of domestic and practical skills, with Roland following his father into the family firm, and Vicky having her own chartered accountancy business. They presented Beryl and Stuart with six grandchildren and Beryl was vocal in her pride in all their achievements, but particularly her delight that one of her grand-daughters was studying engineering at Cambridge. Stuart’s early passion for messing about in boats continued throughout his life and Beryl often joined him, although she would sometimes fly to join him as she suffered from sea-sickness. Beryl had a tapestry with the legend ‘This is an Equal Opportunities kitchen’ in her house, and Stuart was a very competent cook, but when she was at home, he was firmly excluded from the kitchen. Beryl was devastated when Stuart died in 2003, and Roland also predeceased her, dying of pancreatic cancer in December 2014.
Beryl Platt will be missed by many people, for her good humour and energy, for her public service to organisations local and national, big and small, and for the very many kindnesses and good advice she gave to individuals. She made a difference.
Barbara M Stephens OBE MIET IEng