Ethel Todd Shiel - The Write Stuff

Curator of Transport and Technology, Neil Johnson-Symington tells the fascinating story of Ethel Todd Shiel, private secretary to Sir William Burrell in the 1930s.

'Delving into dusty tomes and archival papers is one of the joys of this job. But the real privilege is when you meet people with a primary link to moments in history. Whilst researching one of Sir William Burrell’s staff at Hutton Castle – his private secretary Ethel Todd Shiel – this is exactly what happened thanks to my colleague, curator Pippa Stephenson. She had been in contact with Ethel’s son, Robert Shiel, and now the door was open to gaining a unique perspective on working life at Hutton.

Meeting Robert and his wife, Alison, at their home in Newcastle on Tyne, no amount of years doing this job could have prepared me for the delight not only of ‘hearing it from the horse’s mouth’, so to speak, but actually perusing personal artefacts which bring someone and their story to life.

The Past made tangible

'In 1935 Sir William was looking for a recommendation for someone to be his private secretary and approached Mary Hicks, who ran the Secretarial College in Berwick. When I saw Ethel’s notebooks with such beautiful handwriting, and the signed certificates for her skills in Pitman’s Shorthand, (speed of 100 words per minute), and Book-keeping, (first class with distinction), it suddenly became clear why Miss Hicks had no hesitation endorsing the 20-year old Ethel to him.

The interview with Sir William, then about 75, inside Hutton Castle, a place steeped in history, festooned with priceless artefacts, must have been daunting for the country girl. But she made the right impression – Ethel was told to start the next Monday.

Committed to the commute

Ethel had quite the journey to make each day – a 16-mile round-trip to Hutton Castle across the Tweed by the Union chain bridge from her Thornton Mains home. But she did it, setting off by bicycle at 8.20am, for six years. In her memoirs Ethel wrote of the numerous tasks she would undertake in the Library, a place she described as ‘lovely… magnificent, the colours so bright & beautiful’. Whether dealing with correspondence, accounts, managing the diary, writing cheques, donating to charity, ordering plants for the gardens, taking dictation as Sir William would hop from one letter to another, paying wages… as Ethel said in her memoirs: ‘I loved my work at Hutton Castle’.

It seemed that locals loved seeing Ethel go to work. Robert showed me a remarkable poem sent to the Berwick Advertiser about his mother praising her for simply saying ‘Hello’ as she passed folk on her commute: ‘Wet or fair always there / A smile aye on her face / A wearied look she will not brook / But courtesy and grace’.

A picture worth a thousand words

Next, being shown Ethel in a 1937 photograph with her bicycle, I could almost see what the poet saw, as her personality appeared to shine out from where she stands on the right, her two friends to the left. The glistening step-through safety cycle tells a story too – it’s a reminder of Ethel’s mode of transport as well as the kind actions of Sir William’s chauffeur, Duncan Rankin, who would clean, oil and polish her bicycle, and even prompted an upgrade.

Robert recalled the story: ‘One day while Mum was working with Sir William, the butler ushered in the chauffeur who explained to Sir William that “Miss Shiel’s bicycle is, in my opinion, no longer safe, Sir! Can you get her a new one?” The bicycle that arrived was a brand new Raleigh with a 3-speed Sturmey-Archer gear and a hub dynamo with lights – the Rolls-Royce of bicycles… The bicycle survived into the 1950s and was fitted with a child seat on which I rode pillion.’

Lasting tribute

Ethel left Sir William’s employment in 1941 to help the war effort, working with the Ministry of Aircraft Production’s Aeronautical Inspection Division. Then in 1946, out of the blue, Sir William sent the newly married Ethel a wedding gift. It was a small silver casket inside of which were housed two silver inkwells – a fitting tribute by Sir William to a person he regarded as a highly valued secretary, but also a revelation of his sense of humour: after all, the reason he insisted Ethel handwrite everything was he detested the racket made by a typewriter!

During my fleeting visit to Newcastle Robert generously returned his mother’s original gift from Sir William to the city which proudly holds his collection. Donating Ethel’s silver casket has meant more than simply adding a beautiful artefact to Glasgow Museums’ collections. We have been afforded a unique glimpse into professional life at Hutton Castle, and an understanding of the enduring positive impact working there had upon Ethel. It has also brought us that bit closer to knowing the normally elusive Sir William Burrell himself.'

With sincere thanks to Robert S Shiel.

Neil R. Johnson-Symington
Curator of Transport and Technology
Glasgow Museums


Article images, from top to bottom:

Portrait photo of Ethel Todd Shiel

Ethel (on the right) with two friends and that trusty Raleigh bicycle, courtesy of Robert S. Shiel.

Silver inkwell casket, possibly made in the Netherlands, given to Ethel by Sir William Burrell as a wedding gift in 1946. Kindly donated back to The Collection by Ethel’s son, Robert S. Shiel.

Alison and Robert Shiel with the silver casket, at home in Tyne & Wear

Neil R. Johnson-Symington

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