Before Hidden Figures there was Dora Metcalf
Based on a true story, as shown on this website. When Dora’s fiancé is killed at Gallipoli in 1915, she rejects the role of ‘surplus woman’ and overcomes heartbreak, revolution, war, misogyny and illness to build an international tech empire. Her story inspires her friend Jeanie, a young woman with a troubled past and an uncertain future.
Historical Fiction, Reading Group Fiction, Biographical Fiction.
We meet Dora Metcalf, her husband John and her young friend Jeanie, as the Metcalfs are packing up their remote home in the Scottish Highlands in 1970. Dora hints at a glittering international business career which intrigues Jeanie, who assumed that Dora was a housewife. Jeanie was ‘boarded out’ to the Highlands as a child, after her father died in Glasgow’s docks. She has lost touch with her family but dreams of finding her baby sister Violet. Dora tells of losing her own Irish father and how this made her determined to become independent, gaining a degree in mathematics in 1911 when this was rare for women.
Following the death of her fiancé at Gallipoli in 1915, Dora was faced with a stark choice: join the ranks of ‘surplus women’ or forge her own path. Supported by pioneering women in revolutionary Ireland, powerful friends in Northern Ireland and her cousin Everard, who co-founded British Tabulating Machines (BTM) in 1907, Dora chose to build an information services business that spanned the British Empire and made her fortune. She founded the Service Bureaux division at BTM in 1934 but was denied directorship. She married John Metcalf in 1935, a Naval officer who didn’t interfere with her ambitions. Dora encourages Jeanie to pursue her ambition of becoming an astronomer and helps her apply to Glasgow University.
In the Second World War BTM built over 200 ‘bombe’ machines for the Bletchley Park codebreakers. Dora muses on her top secret project management role and how it led to her lowest ebb, when stress, worry about her loved ones and her own serious illness all conspired to defeat her. Worse still, her beloved deaf sister Hilary died on the anniversary of their mother’s death.
Post-war, thanks to encounters with nature and with her Irish women friends’ help, Dora’s reputation was restored and she made her mark on the electronic computing era before retiring. She explains to Jeanie that her success was hard won and never celebrated. Jeanie is inspired by hearing Dora’s story and the women part, with Jeanie feeling self-confident about her future. She at last hears from Violet and arranges to meet her.