With her hair teased into a tight bun, a neatly buttoned coat and frilled collar, Isabella Twaddle certainly looked the part of neat Victorian lady; someone who might not care to sully soft hands with dirty, hard work.

Yet in 1880s Glasgow, should the misery of a blocked pipe, dodgy heating system or, heaven forbid, loo that simply won’t flush blight your home, it might well have been a woman plumber like the fair Isabella who came to the rescue.

The unlikely story of how plumber and gas fitters like Isabella kept Victorian Scotland’s homes flowing with crystal clear water, well flushed and cosy has emerged in new research which highlights how women once thrived in construction trades which these days remain almost exclusively male.

According to researcher Dr Nina Baker, who trawled Victorian records and directories to find a surprisingly flourishing number of women plumbers, it would have been far easier to track down a female to unblock the loo in old Glasgow and Edinburgh, than now.

“The building trades are the last bastion for men,” she says.

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“Running my own eyes down the tiny print of those old trade directories, I found women in quite a variety of construction and metal trades in the 19th century.

“You can see women listed as coppersmiths, gas fitters, tinsmiths, plumbers.

“It seems ironic that… it could actually be harder to find one today than it might have been in Victorian Scotland.

“Now if you are looking for, say, a woman painter and decorator, you’d have a hard job finding one.”

Her research – which appears in a blog published by Historic Environment Scotland – helps explode the myth that Victorian women’s work was confined to domestic service, laundry work, needlework and semi-skilled trades such as straw-plaiting.

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Instead, it paints a picture of women like Isabella, who ran her business from a yard in London Road, succeeding in trades that would come to be viewed as ‘men only’.

“The Twaddle plumbing company was very successful,” says Dr Baker, who has traced at least 15 women plumbers and gas fitters – and the same number again specialising solely in gas fitting - working in Edinburgh and Glasgow in the mid to late 1880s.

“Women often became known as plumbers in their own right when their husbands died, presumably because there were no adult sons to take over the business,” she adds.

“Even so, replacing their husbands would only have been possible if they had absorbed a lot of technical knowledge, perhaps from assisting around the workshop.

“It’s hard to know how ‘hands on’ they would have been, but they would have to know their way around the business, and the people in the trade would know them.”

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One, Elizabeth Pearson, ran her business in Canongate, Edinburgh for nine years, and even advertised in 1863 for an apprentice.  On her death in 1869, she still considered herself to be a plumber, and amongst her possessions were the “stock in trade, shopfittings and tools” from her workshop.

Now uncovered, it’s hoped the Victorian women plumbers could help to reboot the masculine image of construction trades, boosting the battle to encourage more young women into jobs such as plumbing, gas fitting, roofing and building.

That could help plug a yawning skills gap that has crippled the construction sector, and is leaving householders often waiting for months for repairs and building work to be carried out.

Even singer Lewis Capaldi has struggled: he recently told a US radio programme how his £1.6m property on the outskirts of Glasgow has been left “a shell” for months while he searches for tradespeople to carry out the work.

Enticing women to become plumbers could also help fill soaring numbers of vacancies: huge numbers are needed to fit and maintain an estimated 600,000 heat pumps which have to be installed by 2028.

The Herald: Fiona HodgsonFiona Hodgson (Image: Newsquest)

However, a recent survey carried out by the Scottish and Northern Ireland Plumbing Employers’ Federation (SNIPEF), suggests the challenge to encourage women into the trade is hampered by outdated stereotypes and poor career advice.

Just 2% of its apprentices are women - although that represents an increase of 50% since 2020 which the organisation says reflects a growing demand from women to train as plumbing professionals.

Its survey found nearly 40% of respondents believed sexist and outdated stereotypes are the main barrier to women entering the UK plumbing industry, with 21% stating poor career advice and 12% citing a lack of respect for women.

Fiona Hodgson, Chief Executive of SNIPEF, said: “It is unbelievable that in 2023 outdated and sexist stereotypes continue to be made about what women can and cannot do, often reinforced by misguided career advice that the trades are men-only professions.

“SNIPEF is finding a small but growing number of women who are challenging these misconceptions and entering the plumbing industry, finding it an attractive and lucrative career option.

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“We need to encourage greater diversity into our industry, helping us address the current skills shortage and meet the demand from 30% of customers who have stated their preference for a women plumber.”

Among the new cohort of young women trainee plumbing and heating professionals is 17-year-old Naomi Watson from Aberdeen, studying at Dundee and Angus College and about to enter the second year of her apprenticeship with SNIPEF member E H Parker Technical Services.

She said: “I absolutely adore my job, and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. As a commercial plumber, I visit new places with new challenges each month. This week I am heading to Inverness to work on renewable technologies.

“I couldn’t ask for a more supportive team. This job has made me incredibly confident. I feel now that there isn’t anything I can’t achieve if I put my mind to it.”

SNIPEF is now preparing to unveil a new Equality, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion action plan, aimed at confronting industry misconceptions and encourage more girls and women to consider training as a plumber.

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It is also currently developing a school outreach toolkit so STEM Ambassadors can provide learning and activities aimed at encouraging students to consider plumbing as a career. The pack will also aim to dispel lingering sexist stereotypes and highlight the opportunities and lifestyle benefits of a career in the trade.

Meanwhile, WaterSafe’s Get Girls Plumbing campaign is designed to encourage women not to be put off by the out-dated stereotype that plumbing is a job better suited to men.

Kevin Wellman, of Watersafe, a water industry funded online search facility to help customers find qualified plumbers, says: “Less than 3% of plumbing and heating engineers in the UK are women – that’s disturbing.

“It’s not because the equipment they use is too heavy – it’s easier than ever to install appliances like boilers. The work is flexible, which means male or females could do it around childminding and choose their hours accordingly.

“We have to get the message across that it’s a really good career.”

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Historic Environment Scotland, which has published the research on its Engine Shed blog, says there is a crucial need for more people to enter the construction trade.

“Nearly one in five of Scotland’s buildings is traditionally constructed, and more than half of these buildings need urgent repair.

 “It’s important we have the specialist skills required to maintain and conserve our built heritage, which is why HES supports a range of opportunities to learn crucial building conservation skills. We offer apprenticeships in a variety of key trades, including stonemasonry, joinery, painting and gardening.

“As an organisation, we’re also committed to improving diversity and inclusion across our workforce to ensure that careers within the historic environment sector are accessible to all.”