Benest, Cleone de Heveningham [pseud. C. Griff]
- Nina Baker
Benest, Cleone de Heveningham [pseud. C. Griff] (1880–1963), motorist, engineer, and metallurgist, was born at 40 Hampton Road, Forest Gate, London, on 13 June 1880, the only child of George Philip Benest (1853–1930?), house proprietor, and his wife Edith Maria, née Powell (1857–1930). Shortly after Cleone’s birth, her mother took her to live with her maternal grandparents, Thomas and Eliza Powell, in St Aubin, Jersey. Her father seems not to have been part of the family from then on.
By 1891 the family had moved to Ryde, Isle of Wight, where, in her early twenties, Cleone Benest became well-known as a pioneering female motorist with her own cars which she maintained in her well-equipped home workshop. She owned a 1906 12 hp Lanchester tonneau and a 12 hp Fiat, and also persuaded the short-lived Isle of Wight Express Motor Syndicate Ltd to let her drive their Milnes-Daimler and Thornycroft buses, an exploit featured in the Illustrated London News (13 June 1908). By then she had gained certificates from the London City and Guilds (having been the only woman to take the examination in motor car engineering), and passed the Royal Automobile Club’s examinations in driving and car mechanics.
As well being as a keen car rally and hill-climb competitor, Benest also competed with the British Ladies’ Fencing teams (1907–11). All these activities speak of a young woman with access to considerable money, and photos show her dressed in the high Edwardian style. She passed the Portsmouth Municipal College’s local examination in ‘heat engines’ (1910), suggesting that she was seeking a more formal engineering education. In 1910 she entered a competition in Flight magazine, to design ‘A speed alarm for flyers’, and her design was printed in the magazine; the only woman entrant among thirty-eight men.
Benest attended meetings of the Incorporated Institute of Automobile Engineers, meetings under special invitation: ‘Despite the official ban we shall always be pleased to see you’ (letter from Douglas MacKenzie, Ryde Social History group archive). She was friendly with eminent engineers such as Colonel Rookes Crompton, the electrical engineer, and Sir John Thornycroft, both of whom were supporters of women in engineering. When the Institute changed its rules Cleone was one of the first women admitted as an associate member, in 1920.
In 1915, as Miss C. Griff, the name she adopted (either as Cleone Griff or Clayton Griff), she set up a short-lived business as a consultant engineer, offering expert advice on automobile, electrical, and mechanical engineering. Her garage workshop for lady motorists, behind 48 Dover Street, Mayfair, did mechanical repairs, and gave courses in motor mechanics and factory practice for women supervisors in munitions factories. Her friend, the Hon. Gabrielle Borthwick, had a similar establishment nearby. Also as C. Griff she contributed an article on ‘Engineering’ to the Englishwoman’s Year Book for 1915, in which she observed that ‘owing to the ever increasing use of machinery in this the twentieth century, there is an equally growing need and place in the professions for the woman engineer’ (p. 105). While Russia, Switzerland, the USA, and Canada already had women working as engineers, she believed that she was the only woman in practice as a consulting engineer in England.
Benest’s war work was as an Aircraft Engine Inspector at the time that British Thomson-Houston Co. were first making an English magneto for Air Ministry requirement, and became Government Aircraft Inspector with Messrs Vickers Ltd (Woman Engineer, 2.9). This work took her to the Midlands and she remained living and working in the Birmingham area until at least 1928.
Griff’s increasing engineering and metallurgical expertise led to her election to the Birmingham Metallurgical Society (1920) and (as Cleone de Heveningham B. Griff) to the Iron and Steel institute (ISI) and the Cast Iron Research Association (1921), each of which published her research articles. She gave a paper on stainless steel, representing ISI at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition Conference of Engineering Societies. In 1922 she established The Stainless Steel and Non-Corrosive Metals Company Limited, at 14 Weaman Street, Birmingham, assisted by former foundry manager, Miss C. Davis. Other directors were the Hon. Gabrielle Borthwick and Lady Gertrude Crawford. The company made small, cast ornamental items, railway fittings, lamp reflectors, and tin openers, using Griff’s own stainless steel colouring method. This enterprise, managed by and employing women, attracted worldwide press coverage, but was not a financial success and was wound up in 1925.
The Women’s Engineering Society (WES) was formed (1919) to combat the postwar job losses for women engineers. Benest joined in 1920, using the name Miss C. Griff throughout her membership, and became chair of the WES Committee in 1922. She was active in the society until 1928, organizing the Birmingham branch from her home in the Four Oaks suburb of Birmingham. She regularly wrote for the Woman Engineer on motoring and aviation (1923–7), and broadcast six talks (1926–7) on BBC Radio’s ‘Afternoon topics’ programme for housewives, on various aspects of engineering and the use of electricity in the home. She cut her ties with WES without explanation (1928) and seems not to have used the name Griff again. Her sudden departure may have been to allow her to go back to Ryde to look after her widowed mother, who died in 1930 leaving almost no money.
At the outbreak of World War II Benest (using her birth name again) was living in Olney, Buckinghamshire, with Frederick J. Crinage, also a mechanical engineer, describing herself as a ‘Gyrotillage executive’, mechanical engineer, and metallurgist, as well as member of the Women’s Land Army (1939 Register). Gyrotillers were heavy agricultural machines for ripping up land to be brought into food production. It is not clear whether she was an adviser on its use and maintenance, or whether, at the age of sixty, she was able to drive one of these monster machines.
Benest lived in Olney until 1953 and then at various addresses in Parkstone and Lymington, Dorset. She died at Poole General Hospital, Poole, Dorset, on 23 December 1963. Despite having little formal technical education, she carved out an engineering career for herself. Her story retains many mysteries: why she went under the name Griff for several years, and how she funded what must have been extravagantly expensive activities in her younger years. While she did not contribute significantly to technical advances, she must have been a conspicuous role model in the press for the next generation of young women engineers.
- Woman Engineer, vols. 1 and 2 (1919–1929)
- Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining archives, membership records
- National Fencing Museum archives
- Illustrated London News (13 June 1908)
- Flight (30 Dec 1910)
- L. Doan and J. Garrity, eds., Sapphic modernities: sexuality, women and national culture (2006)
- BBC Genome Project, 1926–7, genome.ch.bbc.co.uk, accessed 13 April 2018
- Journal of the Iron and Steel Institute, 104 (1921), 456
- LondG (1925), 8674
- Sutton Coldfield Local History Society archives
- census returns 1881, 1891, 1911
- photograph, 1920, repro. in Woman Engineer, vol. 1
- photograph, 1908 repro. in Illustrated London News