Jeanie Dicks (25 September 1893 – 6 July 1980) was responsible for the first permanent electrification of Winchester Cathedral in 1934. She was the first female member of the Electrical Contractors Association and President of the Winchester Chamber of Commerce.
Maude Jeanie Dicks was professionally known as Jeanie Dicks, and Mrs I. McVean after marriage. She was born in Winchester, Hampshire to parents Philip and Frances Maude (née Henning) Dicks and baptised at St Maurice’s Church on Wednesday 17 January 1894, alongside her older brother Philip John.
After the death of her father Philip, Dicks took over the family firm of Messrs. Dicks Ltd of Winchester, a company specialising in gas and electric lighting installation. In 1934 she managed the first permanent electrification of Winchester Cathedral in Hampshire. Her firm also installed new heating and later a sound system. She had won the contract against competition from well known British and continental firms.
The Lancashire Evening Post reported on 27 February 1934 on a "Woman's Cathedral Job"
"A woman is in charge of the job of installing electric light and heating in Winchester Cathedral. She is Miss Jeanie Dicks, Winchester, and in a month’s time she and her engineers will have completed the first part of their task. Miss Dicks who on the death of her father, took over control of his business, secured the contract in competition with famous British and Continental firms."
It was a complicated job, and she supervised each element herself. It was discovered that to replace the choir-stall gaslights with electricity that cables would need to be run through the crypt. Electrifying the nave was the largest part of the operation but Dicks reduced the task by laying the cables at the same time as new central heating pipes were put in. This had necessitated removing and reburying coffins – except for that of Jane Austen, whom they managed to move gently to one side.
To ensure that the lighting was correct, Dicks and two of her staff, foreman Charlie Wicks and Ralph Slade, spent many evenings in the cathedral with the two men up in the roof experimenting with different types of lighting for Dicks to judge for effectiveness down in the nave. The extensive trials resulted in her recommendation for lights hidden by frosted glass. She had a reputation for knowing what “looks right”.
The electrification contract alone was worth £3,000 (the equivalent of around half a million pounds in 2018). Her work won coverage in press across Britain.
On April 11, 1934 The Illustrated London News ran an article announcing
“FLOODLIGHTING’S NEW ECCLESIASTICAL FORM: A CATHEDRAL INTERIOR. The magnificent reredos of Winchester Cathedral floodlit, as it can now be at any time. The Screen, which is of white Caen stone, transformed into the likeness of old lace. The recent installation of electric light in the Cathedral Choir, involving the use of no less than 5 miles of electric cable, includes permanent arrangements for the floodlighting of the [reredos] screen whenever desired. The Dean and Chapter are making a special effort to raise by the end of this summer the £10,000 required for the heating and lighting of the cathedral.”
Also in 1934 she gained an even bigger contract when West Riding County Council accepted Dicks Ltd's tender for the electrical work for a new sanatorium for women and children at Scotton Banks. The total project would cost £100,000, Dicks Ltd. part was £14,498..
As Managing Director of Messrs. Dicks Ltd, she employed a staff of 75–90 people and directed not only the electrical contracting part of the business but also the radio, water engineering and plumbing departments. She encountered a certain amount of sexism where clients insisted on speaking with her male staff but rose above it to ensure that her firm was hired by well-heeled clients. Ralph Slade later said that "she wasn’t an easy lady to work for but she was always a fair one and her employees stayed with her".
It was noted in Bournemouth Graphic on Friday 9 April 1937 that
"One of the few women who are qualified engineers, Miss Maude Jeanie Dicks, was married in Winchester Cathedral to Mr. Ivan McVean, [a misspelling of Ian by the newspaper] of Glasgow, on Monday. Miss Dicks is the daughter of the late Mr. Philip Dicks and Mrs. Dicks, of St. Giles' Hill, Winchester. Her firm has been responsible for a number of important engineering contracts including the installing of electric lighting in Winchester Cathedral."
The Dean, Gordon Selwyn, who had commissioned the heating and electrification work, married them in Winchester Cathedral and all the staff were invited to the service. As a wedding gift the Dean gave the couple an inscribed a copy of his book The Story of Winchester Cathedral, which had been especially bound in white vellum.
In March 1939 the journal The Woman Engineer reported that "New ground has been covered by Mrs I. McVean who has been elected President of the Winchester Chamber of Commerce".
The 1939 England and Wales Register (Census) taken on 29 September, records that she and Ian lived in Flat 3, Lansdown House, Winchester, with Alice Rance employed as their live in housekeeper. As well as recording her position as Managing Director of "Heating engineers, Electrical engineers, Plumbers" she is listed as an ARP Ambulance Driver as part of the Home Front war effort at the beginning of World War Two.
In 1954, she was president of the Electrical Industry Benevolent Association, Hants and Dorset branch.
In 1960, she decided to retire. She sold the business in two parts, with four staff members (including Ralph Slade) buying the electrical contracting side from her for one pound and naming the new firm Dicks (Electrical Installations) Ltd. The firm continues to operate in Winchester today.
She died on 6 July 1980.
Winifred Holtby, the novelist and journalist, referred to her in her seminal 1935 book Women and a Changing Civilisation as "without thinking too much about it they have as successfully broken the line between "women's interests" and "men's interests", as the English woman electrical engineer, Miss Jeanie Dicks, who secured the contract for rewiring Winchester Cathedral".
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