Rachel Parsons (1885–1956) was one of the most remarkable and trailblazing women of her generation, but – like so many women who achieved greatness and notoriety in their own time – she has disappeared from the pages of history. When she was bludgeoned to death in July 1956 at her Newmarket racing stable, Rachel was numbered among the richest people in Britain, well known in the highest social circles. She loved fast cars, fast boats and fast horses – and she had a passion for the movies. With her flame-red hair, and often festooned in furs and jewels, she might once have imagined herself a goddess of the silver screen.
A scion of the Anglo-Irish earls of Rosse, Rachel seemed in her youth to have the world at her feet. From both sides of her family she inherited brilliance, ingenuity and a fearless iconoclasm. In 1910, she became the first woman to read Mechanical Sciences at Cambridge University. She sailed the Atlantic aboard Mauretania, a record-breaking passenger liner driven by steam turbines – an invention of her father, Charles Parsons. She became a director of Charles’s engineering business on the River Tyne, and during the First World War helped to train some of the million women who entered the munitions factories, where they learned to do everything from assembling aircraft to making telescopes, periscopes, searchlights and shells.
After the war, when most working women were expected to return to their homes, Rachel became a founder and first president of the Women’s Engineering Society. She was elected to the London County Council, stood for Parliament in the election of 1923 – when there were only two female MPs – and campaigned energetically throughout her life for women’s employment rights.
On the death of her parents, Rachel, their sole heir, inherited a large fortune. Disappointed in love, and thwarted in her professional and political ambitions, she began a new life as a society hostess, throwing glittering parties at her homes in Belgravia and Mayfair, enjoying highlights of the social season such as Royal Ascot and Cowes, and wintering in Bermuda and Palm Beach. A growing interest in racehorses prompted a move to Newmarket in Suffolk, the home of British horse-racing, where she bought a town house as well as a palatial mansion and stud farm in the nearby countryside.
So what led to Rachel Parsons’s miserable end in the quiet back street of an English provincial town? What prompted a callow stable lad to lie in wait for her in the dark and smash her on the head with an iron bar before dragging her bleeding body into the larder and hiding it under a pile of sacks? Charged with murder, her killer escaped the death penalty when his defence counsel Michael Havers (the future attorney-general and lord chancellor) convinced the jury that he had committed manslaughter in the face of unendurable provocation.
A new book by Henrietta Heald tells the fascinating story of the woman believed capable of such provocation – of actions so monstrous that, in the manner of classical tragedy, they led inexorably to her own death. In doing so, it explores the intricacies of social class and the professions in Britain in the first half of the 20th century, including the shocking hostility towards powerful women who dared to flout convention.