top of page

Trailblazer - Winnie Drinkwater

Updated: Oct 31, 2023

Winnie Drinkwater receiving an award in front of an aeroplane.
Winnie Drinkwater receiving an award in front of an aeroplane.

Winifred Joyce "Winnie" Drinkwater, a pioneer aviator, was born at Waterfoot, East Renfrew

shire on 11th April 1913. Encouraged by her father, an engineer, she developed an interest in flying at a young age and in 1930, at 17, she became the youngest aircraft pilot in Scotland. By then living in Cardonald, she qualified under the instruction of Captain John Houston at the Scottish Flying School in Renfrew. In 1932, at 19, she gained her commercial licence at Cinque Ports Flying Club at Lympne in Kent, making her the youngest professional pilot in the United Kingdom and the world's first female commercial pilot. By 21, she was also qualified as an instructor and a ground engineer.

Yet despite these ground-breaking achievements her career only lasted four years. To start with she was confined to giving joy rides from Prestwick beach because there was doubt that anyone would wish to be flown by a female! Once this bizarre concept was accepted, she was able to get more substantial jobs, such as working for Midland & Scottish Air Ferries on charter flights delivering newspapers to the Scottish islands, press assignments including flying photographers over Loch Ness as they searched for the Loch Ness monster, air ambulance work on the Western Isles, and undertaking an air search for a boat of kidnappers. More prosaically, she became the first woman pilot in the UK to fly the inaugural Glasgow to London service.

The end, when it came, was romantic. One day she was dismantling an engine, covered in grease and wearing dungarees, when Francis Short, director of Short Brothers, the Belfast aircraft manufacturers, visited Renfrew Aerodrome. The attraction was instant and the couple married in July 1934 after a whirlwind romance. Winnie more or less gave up flying, and she and Francis brought up two children together until his death in 1954. Her second marriage to Bill Orchard, a fisherman, took her to Cornwall, and when she was widowed again, she returned to Scotland to live near Turnberry. After being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, she went to live in New Zealand to live with her daughter, Ann, where she died on October 6th, 1996, aged 83.

Although Winnie’s career was short, she certainly blazed a trail for the many women who followed her. She is commemorated in Clyde View Park, Renfrew, with the bronze bust shown above, one of a series of local history sculptures created by Kenny Munro in 2005.

Sculpture of Winnie Drinkwater, image © John Marsh
Sculpture of Winnie Drinkwater, image © John Marsh

Winnie also features in Renfrew's Town Hall Museum - a photograph of her portion of the information board on Renfrew airport is shown below. Recently, local politicians in Cardonald announced plans for her to feature in a series of murals in the area.

A photograph of the information board at Renfrew Town Museum.
A photograph of the information board at Renfrew Town Museum.

A full obituary for Winnie can be read in the Glasgow Herald from 19th October 1996


Many thanks to Anabel Marsh from Glasgow Women's Library for writing this post.

This blog is part of a Trailblazers collection, celebrating the lives of 10 women who we decided to name our bikes after! To find out more and click to see some of the other blogs, please click on Trailblazers: The 10 Women who inspired Gallus Pedals.


Anabel Marsh is a volunteer tour guide with Glasgow Women's Library (GWL). GWL now has six women's history walks, three longer trails, and one bike ride, all of which can be downloaded as self-guided tours from GWL's website. Guided walks take place during the summer months and can be booked via the library's events calendar.


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page