Portsmouth High juniors pay tribute to pioneering engineer Hertha Ayrton

On 6th February, the Junior School Chamber Choir from Portsmouth High School, alongside Headmistress, Mrs Prescott, and VIP guests attended the unveiling of a plaque to female pioneer Hertha Ayrton. 

Hertha, an engineer, mathematician, physicist and inventor was born in Portsmouth in 1854. Hertha’s achievements are inspiring – she studied at Cambridge at a time when women were not allowed to be formally awarded degrees, and was eventually awarded a science degree from the University of London. 

Most notably, Hertha Ayrton carried out her own investigations in the field of physics and was the first female member of the Institute of Electrical Engineers.

She was a close friend of Marie Curie’s, and both women were often accused of ‘riding the coat-tails of their husbands’, leading Hertha to write to Marie Curie, “An error that ascribes to a man what was actually the work of a woman has more lives than a cat.”

Ayrton made significant contributions to the technology of the electric arc. During World War I she invented the Ayrton flapper fan, used on the battlefront to dissipate poison gas attacks, and later adapted to improve ventilation for mine-workers.

She was also an active suffragette and her activism included working alongside Emmeline Pankhurst and Elizabeth Garrett-Anderson. Hertha has a link to the GDST too; she taught maths at Notting Hill and Ealing High School.

Leader of the Portsmouth City Council, Donna Jones, Professor June Purvis, Emeritus Professor of Women’s and Gender History, University of Portsmouth, Ms Olivia Pinkney, Chief Constable, Hampshire Police and Mrs Prescott gave short speeches about the history and importance that Portsmouth played in women getting the vote 100 years ago on 6 November 1918.

‘The introduction of the Representation of the People Act 1918 saw some women and all men able to vote in elections in the UK,’ said Councillor Jones. ‘In local government women had been able to vote for a few years. Women have a key role to play in shaping both central and local government; the lives of future generations is dependent on the UK government making decisions that will ultimately improve people’s lives. I am delighted that in Portsmouth we will be celebrating this key milestone by unveiling a plaque commemorating Hertha Aryton the scientist and author who was born in Queen Street Portsea and was a leading figure in the Suffrage movement.’

Ella Patterson, 10, who sang with the Portsmouth High School Chamber Choir said;

‘Today is about remembering women who helped us get the vote.  When I turn 18 I want to vote and if hadn’t been for women like Hertha, I might not have been given that opportunity.’

Headmistress of Portsmouth High School added:

‘Portsmouth High School was founded in 1882 by the enlightened gentlemen of the city looking for a suitable education for their daughters. Two pupils listed on our honour boards reflect the changing attitude towards educating girls. Lily Flowers went on to read Mathematics at Cambridge University and Kate Edmonds became the first woman councillor in Portsmouth. I think it is fair to assume that these women were likely supporters of the suffragette movement. Those that invested their time and money in PHS believed in the empowerment of women which still holds true today.’