Woman heating the rivets in the furnace
Women on the Wear
By contributor Angela Stevenson
While land girls, the WVS and the many women who took over men's work in factories are often applauded, the part women played in Wearside's shipbuilding industry during the war is too often forgotten.
My interest in Sunderland's shipyards began in 2006. I had just begun working and studying at the University of Sunderland.
My office on the St Peter's Campus had an enviable view over the river and the redevelopment projects that have taken the place of the shipyards.
Having grown up in the area, I remembered the sculptures, the marina, the glass centre and the university slowly reshaping the riverbanks.
I was particularly interested in the fact that I was now working on the exact same spot where three of my grandparents had spent their working lives.
My maternal grandmother and both my grandfathers had worked in the yards on the Wear and my grandfathers had both been offered redundancy as the yards slowly closed.
HRH Queen Elizabeth I meets women workers
Although I was only four years old at the time I remember understanding that things had changed.
One Christmas my paternal grandfather made my sister and myself school desks and, even though I didn't understand employment or redundancy, I knew he had made them on a joinery course as he didn't go to the same work he used to.
I was however unaware of the events unfolding across the town as Sunderland's reign as the "Biggest Shipbuilding Town in the World" officially ended.
Camaraderie within the shipyard
When I was asked to make a radio piece for a feature about the sea, I saw this as a perfect opportunity to learn about my families past and, through our experiences, find out how life working on the river has changed.
I was particularly interested in the role of women in Sunderland's shipyards.
I had always known that my grandmother had been a comptometer operator in the offices of JL Thompson. I was fascinated to learn about women's experiences in what is regarded to this day as typically male employment.
My grandmother remembers with great fondness her colleagues and the camaraderie within the shipyard. She speaks very highly of the Thompson family and the way they ran their business.
I was not surprised to learn that my gran had left her job when she married, as that was how women's employment operated at the time. This did, however, make my next discovery very interesting and surprising.
Traditions of the time
During my research I stumbled across a paragraph in a book informing me that during both World War I and World War II women were employed in Sunderland's shipyards to conduct the manual labour that had previously been believed to be only suitable for men.
Woman welding a part of a ship
During WWII alone seven hundred women worked in the Wear's yards. This work included unskilled labour, such as sweeping, and skilled labour including the very dangerous jobs of welding, burning and rivet catching.
What is even more surprising, when you consider the traditions of the time, is that the work wasn't just carried out by unmarried young women but also by married mothers, many of whom had just seen their husbands leave for war.
These women chose to undertake such difficult and dangerous work not only because they needed to work but also because they felt it was their duty to the war effort.
The conditions were dirty and dangerous with very little safety equipment or protective clothing. They also had the dangers of war to contend with.
The shipbuilding industry was at risk due to its importance in supplying ships and engines to bring food and supplies to Britain and these women would encounter air raids with the worry that their children would be elsewhere in the town.
The work these women did was remarkable and enabled Sunderland to maintain its high standards and world fame for shipbuilding despite the war.
Woman driving a crane
I was told that Sunderland's shipbuilding during the war impressed American journalists who were watching America's shipyards suffer as their men joined the war.
They were impressed that Sunderland, who had been in the war much longer, was still able to produce ships and engines of such high quality.
Sunderland's shipbuilding industry was also credited with a specific achievement during the war. The engines produced at the Doxford Engine works were known for their efficiency and reliability.
It is believed that without the Doxford engines in merchant ships, Britain may have been forced to surrender due to starvation.
I was lucky enough to speak to the children of some of these women. They remember being looked after by neighbours and older siblings so that their mother could work long shifts in the shipyards and sometimes even a second job at night.
One overwhelming similarity between these children, some of whom went on to work in the yards during their own careers, is the sense of pride they feel at their mothers courage to undertake such work and how they fought the war in their own way to maintain their family's lifestyle.
Women's introduction into the yards was also made difficult but the authorities who were opposed to the idea.
From minutes of meetings that still exist I found out that a lot of men in positions of influence were very keen to protect the traditions of shipbuilding on the Wear.
They wanted to protect the jobs for men returning from service and so were opposed to offering the jobs to women as they did not know what would happen when the men returned.
Leaving an impression
Women were eventually offered work in the yards, even if some people were reluctant. Many, however, were referred to as "dilutees".
This title was given to imply that one woman could not offer the same skills as one man and so ensured the women would not be able to continue in the jobs when the men returned.
Mrs Eileen Reay drives a crane in a shipyard
Evidence shows that often five women would be employed to do the work of three or four men.
The shipyards need not have worried. Those I spoke to remember their mothers being more than happy that the war had ended and they could return to the life and their families outside the yard.
The shipyards clearly left an impression and many encouraged their own sons to pursue careers in the yards.
The work that these women did was among the most dangerous and brave of all the roles women played in the war, yet these women are not given the recognition other war employments now receive.
I am deeply saddened that most have now died with little recognition or praise for the work they did and the conditions they encountered.
As we reach the 20th anniversary of the closure of Sunderland's Shipyards, I hope these women can be part of our memories of "The Biggest Shipbuilding Town in the World".
last updated: 01/12/2008 at 15:42