Obituary: Baroness Beryl Platt of Writtle, CBE, DL

BORN: 18 April, 1923, in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. Died: 1 February, 2015, in Hertfordshire, aged 91.

Engineer and equal opportunities advocate whose expertise in "unladylike" areas brought honours. Picture: Contributed
Engineer and equal opportunities advocate whose expertise in "unladylike" areas brought honours. Picture: Contributed

Beryl Platt was a trailblazing pioneer in all facets of her life, becoming one of the first female aeronautical engineers during the war, before embarking on a second career in another bastion of male domination, politics, where she went on to chair the Equal Opportunities Commission and co-found Women into ­Science and Engineering (WISE).

A fervent advocate of equality in education and at work, she reportedly always carried a copy of the Sex Discrimination Act and a screwdriver in her handbag, explaining: “It’s the symbol of my trade, and it is also jolly useful when the lights fail.”

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Despite being described by her father as a bookworm, cack-handed and “bloody pig-headed”, Platt’s smile and bubbly nature belied her steely determination to succeed in areas deemed “unladylike”. On completion of an engineering degree, she embarked upon a career at Hawkers Experimental Flight Test Division at Langley, Berkshire, in top secret work on fighter aircraft, where she was the only engineer of three women working alongside more than 50 men; she refused to learn to type so as to avoid any risk of secretarial work. Platt worked 65-70-hour weeks on the testing and production of the RAF’s outstanding fighter planes of the era: the Hurricane, Typhoon, Fury and Tempest V, the latter being the first conventional aircraft to counter the German V-1 pilotless rockets.

She was present when the Last of the Many, the last of the 14,533 Hurricanes built, rolled off the production line in July 1944. The fighter, the brainchild of chief designer Sir Sydney Camm and Sir Tommy Sopwith, Hawker’s chairman, shot down more enemy aircraft in the Battle of Britain than the rest of UK air and ground defences combined.

Born in Leigh-on-Sea in 1923, Beryl Catherine Myatt was one of two children of Ernest, a bank clerk and veteran of the Great War, and Dorothy, a housewife. Beryl attended Westcliff High School for Girls in Southend-On-Sea, Essex, where she excelled in mathematics and the headmistress predicted a university future ahead of her at Cambridge.

After initial resistance, Platt’s parents agreed to fund her university education and she was set to read mathematics at Cambridge when, due to the Second World War, in July 1941, the government announced a state bursary, including £25 per week pocket money, for ­engineering undergraduates in order to help the war effort. Platt recalled that this was “a fortune to me at the time”, and switched her studies to Aeronautical Engineering.

Arriving at Girton College, Platt was one of only five women among 250 men doing Mechanical Sciences. During her intensive two-year degree, she enjoyed a three-week work placement on the shop floor of the Hawker Aircraft Company, where she shone among her somewhat stunned male counterparts, who initially thought she was there as a secretary. As women did not receive full membership of the university until 1948, she graduated in 1943, with a “titular” degree.

Upon the advice of novelist and chemist CP Snow, in his role on the University Appointments Board ­(careers advice), Platt chose to return to the Hawker factory – “the best ­advice I ever took”.

Post-war, despite being offered a continued role by Camm at Hawkers, Platt declined, preferring to move into aviation safety investigation with British European Airways, where she quickly established herself as a perfectionist and a distinguished engineer. However, as was customary in those days, she relinquished her job in 1949 when she wed Stewart Platt, a textiles manufacturer, whom she had known since childhood. The couple settled in Writtle, near Chelmsford, and had two children.

Perhaps somewhat frustrated by village life, Platt, now in her early thirties, decided to pursue a career in local government. Approaching it with the same zeal and determination, by 1958 she was a member of Chelmsford Rural District Council, and by 1965 of Essex County Council. As chairman of Essex County Council’s Education Committee between 1971 and 1980, she rose to vice-chairman of the authority between 1980 and 1983.

Once described as “the real Essex girl – just without the white stilettos” – Platt’s reputation for getting things done and her drive for equality for women in education and the workplace resonated with then PM, Margaret Thatcher. She recalled “preparing thoroughly” before meeting her for the first time. In 1981, Platt was made a Conservative life peer by Thatcher and in May 1983 was appointed chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, established after the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, a position she held until 1988. A month after joining the Lords, her maiden speech was on a “subject very close to [her] heart”, that of higher and further education.

In 1984, former Chancellor of Stirling University Sir Harold “Monty” Finniston produced a report into the shortage of qualified engineers. With encouragement from the report, the EOC, together with the Engineering Council, established WISE, with Platt very much at the helm, highlighting the career opportunities for girls and women in science and engineering professions.

An active member of the House of Lords, between 1990 and 2008 Platt served on a number of committees relating to science, technology and engineering, including the Select Committee on Science and Technology. The recipient of more than 20 honorary doctorates, Platt received numerous awards, including becoming a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering; an Honorary Fellow of Girton College; and a Fellow of the RSA, while receiving the Freedom of the City of London.

Always proud of her Essex heritage, Platt described herself as “an Essex girl made good”. In her free- time, she enjoyed family holidays to Walton-on-the-Naze and Maldon, sailing with her husband despite suffering from sea-sickness. She delighted in teaching her son and daughter to make pastry and instilled in them that “hard work was a one-way ticket to success”. Both children became accountants, but Platt was particularly pleased when one of her granddaughters chose to read engineering at Cambridge.

She wanted to change people’s attitudes towards women in general and lived just long enough to see the first woman bishop appointed to the Church of England, which thrilled her.

Platt died after contracting gangrene shortly after Christmas and is survived by her two children.