The UK Civil Service

Facts, Analysis and Comment.

Beryl Power

Beryl Millicent le Poer Power was born in 1891. Her father, a stockbroker, was convicted of fraud shortly before she was born and she subsequently had very little contact with him. Her mother died when Beryl was about twelve. Beryl was educated at Oxford High School and Girton College, Cambridge where she studied history from 1910 to 1913. On leaving Girton, she became an organiser and speaker for the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. This work was terminated by the outbreak of the First World War and she became an inspector in the Board of Trade, under the Trade Boards Act, which dealt with minimum wages in what were known as the 'sweated' industries; now known as sweatshops. As a woman, she was generally only permitted to investigate employers of female labour.  She became a leading light in the Council of Women Civil Servants and was one of the small number of women promoted to Principal out of the executive grades, and so reached the Administrative Class before the 1925 removal of the direct recruitment ban.

Highlights of a varied career included her 1929 appointment as the only woman member of a Royal Commission set up to investigate the condition of workers in industry and in industrialised agriculture in India and Burma.  Although it was expected that she would deal only with the womanly aspects of the inquiry, she used her expert knowledge across the whole remit of the inquiry, and was an incisive questioner, prompting one of the British officials billed to give evidence to exclaim 'I have heard about Miss Power. Now I must pull my socks up.'

On her journey home via Persia and Palestine, Beryl was asked by the company to visit the the Anglo-Persian Oil Company [later the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and eventually British Petroleum] to study its welfare arrangements for its large staff of 28 nationalities.

With the threat of war in 1938 she was transferred to the task of identifying and allocating scientists to defence work, including compiling a Central Register for Persons with Scientific, Technical, Professional and Higher Administrative Qualifications. William Penney, director of Britain's postwar atom bomb project, recalled 'the theory was that the UK wasn't going to make the same mistake as in the First World War when some of our most brilliant scientists went in and were shot almost immediately'. The university vice-chancellors and the Royal Society submitted lists of qualified scientists to an 'Earmarking Committee' run by Power, ('a very forceful person') while new graduates were interviewed by representatives of the Register. By late 1939 7000 people had been listed, believed to be some 90 per cent of all the qualified scientists in the country.

In the spring of 1940 Beryl transferred to the Children's Overseas Reception Board and took charge of the selection of children who were to be evacuated overseas to escape the bombing raids. She then spent six months with the Ministry of Food organising a scheme to supply the larger air raid shelters with the wherewithal to supply hot drinks and simple foods during blitz conditions. After this she was put in charge of the Ministry of Supply's Housing and Welfare Department, a wartime department which, inter alia, ran hostels for the workers of the Royal Ordnance factories.

From 1938, plans were laid to identify and allocate scientists to defence work. William Penney, director of Britain's postwar atom bomb project, recalled 'the theory was that the UK wasn't going to make the same mistake as in the First World War when some of our most brilliant scientists went in and were shot almost immediately'.

At the end of war, she was released by the Ministry of Supply to join the staff of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in China, as a consultant on administrative and welfare policies, in Chungking and Shanghai, for fourteen months from November 1945. When this work finished she spent a further fourteen months with the Chinese Government's Ministry of Social Welfare to advise on Employment Exchanges and Youth Training, based in Nanking and travelling through all the major cities of China. Her last task as a civil servant was to travel once more to India, Ceylon and Burma, this time under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East, to prepare a report on 'Fields of Economic Development Handicapped by Shortages of Trained Personnel'. Beryl Power's interests in retirement included the Institute of Race Relations, the Women's Council (co-operating with the women of far eastern countries) and the Over Forty Association for Women (which assisted older women of slender means in the Greater London area to reorientate themselves after misfortune or to find suitable work and lodging).

She died in 1974.

Alix Kilroy described her as "an alarming character, an obviously highly intelligent woman with pince-nez and a severe expression".