University honours pioneering female engineer: the Verena Holmes Building

View of new building

Canterbury Christ Church University’s new multi-million-pound facility for science, technology, health, engineering and medicine, one of the largest STEM facilities in the county, will be named the Verena Holmes Building, in honour of one of the country’s most pioneering female engineers.

Born in 1889 in Ashford, Kent, Verena became a trailblazer for women in the industry as arguably the first female in the UK to have a full-time career as a professional mechanical engineer.

An advocate for women in engineering and dedicated to the development of female engineers, she represented a breakthrough for equal rights in the early 20th century. In 1919 she was a founding member of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), became the first female member elected to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE ) in 1924 and in her own engineering firm, set up in 1946, she employed only women.

As a creative and talented mechanical engineer, Verena’s technical specialities included marine and locomotive engines, diesel and internal combustion engines. She was also a prolific inventor with strong medical links and took out a dozen patents for medical and safety devices and internal combustion engine improvements. Her inventions include a poppet valve for steam locomotives, a rotary valve for internal combustion engines and a pneumo-thorax apparatus for treating patients with tuberculosis. Her engineering firm also created the first practical safety guillotine for paper, making it suitable for introduction into schools.

Verena Holmes on a motorbike, Nancy, Helen and Pam Johnson 1934 Pulham. Copyright Andrew Fox, Private Collection Verena Holmes on a motorbike, Nancy, Helen and Pam Johnson 1934 Pulham. Copyright Andrew Fox, Private Collection

Professor Rama Thirunamachandran, Vice-Chancellor of Canterbury Christ Church University, said: “We are delighted to announce that our new £65 million pound STEM building will be named in honour one of the country’s, and Kent’s, most pioneering female engineers, Verena Holmes.

“Verena led the way for women, creating a successful career not only for herself as a mechanical engineer, but also encouraging, advocating and training other female engineers at a time when the world of industry was dominated by men. It is especially poignant to make this announcement on International Women’s Day, during British Science Week, to recognise and celebrate her achievements, and all those women who have followed her into engineering and the STEM industries.

“The building is also home to the first Kent and Medway Medical School (a joint venture between Canterbury Christ Church University and the University of Kent), providing a centre in the region for medical education and research to develop the area’s health workforce, and transform health care provision in Kent and Medway. We are sure that all our students and staff, from engineering to science, health, medicine, psychology and policing will take great pride in their new facilities and enjoy what the building has to offer them during their studies and time at Christ Church.”

Professor Helen James, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (and also a mechanical engineer), said: “Verena Holmes was a trailblazing mechanical engineer, and we are proud to honour her today with the naming of our new STEM building. As a fellow mechanical engineer, it is important to acknowledge and celebrate Verena’s achievements and legacy, not only for her work in engineering and innovative designs in medical safety, but also for her advocacy in supporting women in engineering.

The University received funding from the South East Local Enterprise Partnership (SELEP), former Higher Education Funding Council for England, and Garfield Weston Foundation for this major science, health and engineering facility in Canterbury.

“What a fantastic way to celebrate British Science Week, with the official opening of this crucial facility for Kent and Medway. We are delighted that students will be able to start using this space—a welcome development as the country slowly gains a sense of normality following the pandemic. The skills and qualifications taught at the Verena Holmes building will be invaluable to the SELEP area, further boosting our skilled workforce and providing the means to attract high-quality inward investment to Kent and Medway. It is especially pleasing to hear that Canterbury Christ Church University will be focusing on increasing diversity in STEM education and careers, with a particular focus on more women in STEM, as we celebrate International Women’s Day.”Christian Brodie, South East LEP Chair

Philippa Charles, Director, Garfield Weston Foundation said: “We are delighted to support the important work of Canterbury Christ Church University and its new STEM building. As well as a centre for industry collaboration and education that directly responds to employers’ needs, it will champion widening access for women and students from disadvantaged backgrounds to increase graduate and workforce diversity. The creation of these specialist, industry-relevant facilities will produce the next generation of much needed highly skilled graduates in engineering, science and technology careers across Kent and Medway. We hope that this grant will help to ensure that students from a wide range of backgrounds are represented within critical UK STEM professions, to make a lasting difference to society.”

Built on the former Canterbury Prison site, which the University acquired in 2014, the building houses innovative teaching and research facilities for engineering and technology, health and social care, the Kent and Medway Medical School, life sciences, sport and exercise science, psychology and policing. It has also been designed to be available for use by local technology and engineering firms and is the home to the Kent and Medway Engineering, Design, Growth and Enterprise Hub (EDGE Hub), a partnership between Canterbury Christ Church University and industry.

Becky Thomson, Christ Church Students’ Union President, said: “Christ Church has always been a place that people from all backgrounds have the opportunity to engage with higher education. The new STEM building is a fantastic investment in the future of all students, particularly those who have traditionally been underrepresented in medicine and engineering such as women and those from a low socio-economic background.

“The state-of-the-art facilities will provide an incredible underpinning for students’ future careers, providing unique opportunities which are unmatched in the South East. As a Students’ Union, we are extremely excited and pleased that the University has chosen to invest in disciplines that are vital to the local and national economy, and to focus on improving the diversity of these key professions. We look forward to welcoming our students to their new building and continuing to support them to have a fantastic student experience.”

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