Until recent times, women were incredibly restricted in what they were allowed to learn, and to achieve. Most had to make do with dabbling in the fine arts or literature, so when one breaks through into the world of engineering, she really must have been special.
Sarah was born in Birmingham, and married a wealthy Bristol merchant. Her son became a great friend and the family were major supporters of Isembard Kingdom Brunel, the engineer responsible for Bristol’s suspension bridge, the Great Western Railway and the SS Great Britain, all of which are promoted as icons of Bristol’s past.
In 1811 Sarah patented a design to make the piles of bridges safe, and allowed the famous engineer Thomas Telford to use the design for free, so marking her as a person promoting public good works. She also promoted the idea of planting willows on embankments to stabilise them against collapse.
A further 10 contracts were taken out by the family, including a plan to keep ships’ hulls free of barnacles, so gaining them a government contract worth £40,000. Barnacles were a major problem on ships as they added weight to the ship and obstructed the flow of water past the hull, so they considerably slowed down ships in transit. The only method to control them was to put the ships in dry dock and to physically scrape them clear of the creatures.
whilst she clearly had the mind of an engineer, much of her interest was still directed towards domestic improvements, as was acceptable for her gender at the time. She invented a coffee urn that would cook eggs and keep toast warm, and a bed with exercise equipment, a fire hood for stoves, and an improved candlestick that allowed candles to burn longer.
She later became an author, producing ‘The Cottagers and Labourors’ Friend’ and Dialogues for Children’.
In 1837 she was a widow, and married a man 28 years younger than her, and they lived for a time at the fine mansion, now a hotel, Arnos Manor on the road to Bath, but he spent much of her money, and in 1842 she moved to Clifton and bought a piece of land for public use which is still a pleasant open space on Richmond Hill.