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steelgirls strike

by Katie Percy

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Contributed by 
Katie Percy
People in story: 
Katie Percy
Location of story: 
Barrow-in-Furness
Article ID: 
A6800735
Contributed on: 
08 November 2005

I was born in Barrow at the end of 1920, and grew up on Walney Island which is separated from the town by the chilly gray waters of Walney channel. The small coastal town of Barrow in the North-west of Lancashire,now Cumbria, was dominated by the huge ship-building works of Vickers-Armstrongs upon which the town revolved and was its main employer. A smaller company was the Barrow Haematite Steelworks
whose dusty chimneys belched thick gray smoke over the huddle of Victorian buildings that formed the works in the
northern area of the town.
I was going on for nineteen years when the Second World War broke out in 1939. In 1941 the Government brought in the 'Direction Of Labour Act' which enabled them to call up women for work in factories to replace the
men who had joined the forces.
I was twenty years old when, with a crowd of other young girls, I was called up to work in Barrow Haematite Steelworks. Hurrying along Duke street we were all silent and apprehensive about what awaited us, but nothing prepared us for the sight of the grimy ore-stained gates we found ourselves entering.
We, strangers until now, stared at each other in dismay, then over at the wide yard criss-crossed by railway lines upon which a couple of ore-stained trucks rested, and beyond them to the long ramshackle shed which was the steel rolling mill where we were to work.
As we crossed the yard, the cold wind whipped up the dirt sending stinging needles of grit into the eyes and making us all gasp. We each pulled our coats more tightly about our body and hurried forward to the comparative shelter of the mill. The
steel-rolling mill was dominated by the huge Bessemer furnace at one end, where a gang of furnace-men, stripped to the waist, waited.
Roller-beds in the floor and giant presses were positioned at intervals right down the mill, and seated on crude wooden seats were young lads in each section who operated the rollers. Overhead, men in crane cabins who had a clear view of the whole operation controlled the giant presses.
A foreman who had come to meet us began to explain the whole procedure,and told us we were to replace the lads who would show us how to work the levers which operated the rollers in the floor. We watched at a safe
distance and stared bemused through the dusty gloom finding it all very strange and unreal, like 'Dante's Inferno' I thought.
Suddenly, a blast of white heat that travelled the entire length of the mill heralded the opening of the furnace and the birth of a glowing ingot of white-hot steel which was immediately grappled by the waiting pitch-forks of the furnace-men. They, muscles rippling and bodies glistening with sweat, skillfully coaxed the awesome monster onto the first set of rollers, then quickly moved back, wiping their streaming bodies.
The first huge press turning now under the watchful eyes of the crane-driver up above, was ready for the ingot as it slithered along the clattering rollers showering red sparks that danced like fireflies in the gloom.
Upon reaching the press the ingot was squeezed as effortlessly as though it were butter, and came out the other side like washing comes out of a mangle, only with many tons more pressure. Cooling rapidly the ingot, longer and thinner,dropped out the other side onto the next set of rollers,by now operated by the lads, who sent it clattering towards the next press for the operation to be repeated the whole length of the mill. Finally it dropped out the last pressing longer and thinner still, and shaped like a railway line where it's ends were trimmed by the billet shears, then sent on more rollers to cool before being hoisted onto a railway wagon.
The following week we were placed beside the lads and watched them work the levers, then we took over following their instructions. It was a simple enough job.On the Friday the lads left for the Services and we became the new operators. The following Monday the girls were split into two shifts. One half clocked in for the morning shift at 6am, whilst the other half were to begin the afternoon shift at 3pm. Because it was so hot in the mill when the furnace opened and the ingot was on the rollers, we only wore a boiler suit over our bra and pants. But the foreman advised us to keep our coat on the back of the chair, and put it on once the ingot had passed down the mill. For the old building was beset with draughts from holes in the roof and gaps in the walls where the wind from Walney Channel howled in constantly.
We were wet with sweat after each pressing, but felt cold and clammy and shivering before shrugging into our coat.
We were very dirty too, for the red stain of the iron ore dust which filled the air of the mill made our throat dry and stained our skin, even creeping down into our bra, and at the end of a shift we left the ore-stained gates with faces to match, looking like Red Indians. Our new boiler-suits too, quickly became stained red as did our headscarves, and we found it difficult getting them clean at weekends ready for Monday and a new shift.

Same as the lads, there were two girls in each metal enclosure that surrounded the wooden seats,which was was supposed to be a protection from the hazards of steel-rolling.But we soon found that not only was the job stiflingly hot, it was down-right dangerous too. For sometimes when the ingot came through the press, instead of dropping obediently onto the rollers, it would suddenly turn turtle, coil up like an attacking snake, and shoot in a murderous arc straight towards the hapless operators who had to leap over the metal barriers to safety. Nasty accidents were only avoided by the coolness and skill of the crane-drivers above us. They would quickly stop the press thus catching the steel rail in it's heavy jaws, there by arresting it's progress. Work ceased and we were sent to the canteen for a welcome teabreak. There were frequent teabreaks during a shift as an interval of fifteen minutes passed before the furnace opened again.
At each teabreak we all groused about our lousy job, resentful of girls we knew who had been sent to Vickers shipyard, were doing nice clean jobs and were better paid.
Our pay was seventeen shillings and sixpence a week whilst girls in Vickers were earning three to four pounds a week.
As the weeks passed and we became more and more disgruntled with our lot, which led me to write a letter of complaint to the management, and which the girls all signed enthusiastically.

When there was no reply to the letter after a couple of weeks the girls were resentful and bitter, so at teabreak on one morning shift I bolted the canteen door, and told them we were on strike until our letter was responded to.Because an ingot was due to come out of the furnace and there were no girls operators at their places, pandemonium broke out. The canteen door was hammered by the foreman and the supervisor, and when we didn't respond, they sent for the bosses, who were very angry indeed demanding that we come out and get the steel rolling. We stood our ground behind the door until they were forced to promise they would meet us at 3pm and discuss our letter.
We agreed, came out of the canteen, faced the scowling bosses, hurried to our posts where we were greeted by loud cheers from the men, the furnace opened and the steel began rolling once more. Unfortunately for me none of the girls wanted to go up to the office to face the red-faced bosses, so at three o'clock I went alone. The man I saw read me the riot act and no mistake. At the end of his tirade, he stiffly informed me that the girls were to be awarded ten shillings rise weekly, and the men were to receive one pound extra per week. I was so pleased at the outcome I almost beamed, until he asked abruptly if it was I who wrote the letter. When I said 'Yes' he nodded curtly in dismissal and wrote something down on a piece of paper. A fortnight later I was sacked and placed on a blacklist at the Labour Exchange who refused to offer me another job telling me I was a 'trouble-maker.' I wasn't any such thing, but felt very strongly that we were being exploited for the War Effort, protested in the proper manner,then being ignored felt justified in striking while the steel was hot. I found myself another job of course on war work, but that's another story. Katie Percy.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - steelgirls strike

Posted on: 08 November 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Well done, Katie! Before I joined the GPO in 1956 I spent two years working in an iron foundry in Leeds and your story brought back all the deafening noise, the grime and heat to me. Even after the war there were frequent terrible accidents in these places; Health & Safety regulations were unheard of. You did well to stand your ground and not to swallow the guff about letting the side down.

Small wonder that there was a landslide Labour victory in 1945.

Kind regards,
Peter

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