Wartime workers whose Blitz Spirit shone through on the foundry floor: celebrating South Yorkshire's Women of Steel

Wartime workers whose Blitz Spirit shone through on the foundry floor: celebrating South Yorkshire's Women of Steel

By Michael Upton | 24/07/2020

Wartime workers whose Blitz Spirit shone through on the foundry floor: celebrating South Yorkshire's Women of Steel

ONE word echoes through the pages of author Michelle Rawlins' affectionate celebration of South Yorkshire's Women of Steel: remarkable.

Theirs was a generation put to the test by rationing, separation from serving loved ones and the devastation of the Blitz.

They were the make-do-and-mend generation, feted for their can-do spirit and love of a Vera Lynn singalong.

But while some had endured tough starts in life, few were prepared for the challenges of life in the steelworks when their men went away to war and the Labour Exchange called on them to step up and fill the gap.

 

 

Their new workplaces were noisy, intimidating and dangerous at times and the metalworkers' lives were far from easy, but, at worst, they knuckled down and got through it and, at best, their confidence and sense of purpose bloomed.

From Parkgate and Tinsley to Attercliffe and Brightside, up to half the workforce in the sweltering sheds of industry producing metal plating for warships and crankshafts for Spitfire engines were women - shop workers, school leavers and young mums thrust into a new role, many of them just teenagers or in their early 20s.

The Women of Steel campaign sparked by Kathleen Roberts, who worked at Brown Bayley's during the war, involved a huge pop concert at Sheffield City Hall and numerous fundraisers across the city and culminated in the unveiling of a statue in Barker's Pool in the centre of Sheffield in 2016.

 

Now Michelle Rawlins' new book of the same name, building on the work begun by Sheffield Star reporter Nancy Fielder ten years ago, commits their stories to print so that their courage, work ethic and sense of duty can be recognised for posterity.

Women of Steel acknowledges how the First World War saw some women conscripted into the foundries but focuses on the Second World War, when several hundred, maybe thousands, became steelworkers overnight.

Michelle, who interviewed many of the women themselves, along with their proud children, sets the scene with accounts of varied backgrounds - from humble beginnings, without a penny to spare, to more sheltered childhoods.

And what emerges from the women's stories is a real mix of experiences - some embraced their new jobs whole-heartedly and hundreds more simply got on with it "uncomplainingly" but for many it was a fearful, shocking change to their lives.

Not everyone had to get used to the noise and danger of the shop floor as some had more comfortable jobs in the engraving room, but the culture shock was real - and an inner steel had to be found and forged.

Michelle said: "There had been women in the factories and the steelworks in the First World War so there was a precedent - the book is very much a tribute to them as well.

"We know they were in the steelworks but we just don't know how many because there are no records.

"So they were used to the concept but the women themselves had to get used to it, and it was a harsh environment.

"Some of the women were used to intensive factory work but a number if them were ladies companions in service."

Maltby-born Joyce Orme took a job at Darwin's in Sheffield after being sacked from Hellaby brickworks. When she left her station to go to the loo, she was rebuked by the foreman, and responded by throwing a can of oil at him.

She said of her life in the steelworks: "They were tough times, but we got on with it - we had no choice."

Eva Kenny, who went from an office job to the factory, recalled: "The machines were huge, and the noise was horrific. I'd never experienced anything like it, and it left me petrified."

The Women of Steel were forced to brave a man's world, with the inherent swearing and flirting, and the dangers of shop floor work, including flying shards and tackling heavy weights, but in many cases experienced a new sense of independence and job satisfaction in the steelworks - as well as an income to call their own.

Kit Solitt, aged just 19 when she started, thrived. Her daughter Lisa said: "It was a bit of an eye-opener for Mum. Despite an up-and-down childhood, she had always been fairly naive, and quite prim and proper, but suddenly she was thrown into a very different environment. It's where she learnt to swear and ended up with a really filthy mouth, and also where she discovered alcohol."

Michelle has endeavoured to produce a rounded picture of life inside and out of the smelting sheds during the Second World War - wartime weddings, the challenge of driving a sky-high crane and the impact of Sheffield's bombardment by the Luftwaffe are all fully explored through the eyes of the women and their children.

There stories of strife and pain, from the women seeing their homes bombed out and struggling to make ends meet to the heartache of losing loved ones in the war and the shock of being cast aside in peacetime when their menfolk returned, often carrying physical and mental scars.

"I've looked to get in the good the bad and the ugly," said Michelle, including some really difficult subjects like post-natal depression, divorce and domestic violence that weren't talked about at the time."

There are many touches of levity in the women's stories, too, from tales of a romantic trip to the sweet shop or an afternoon at the cricket field to the way they customised and brought a femininity to their workplace wardrobe, altering and cinching in unflattering, baggy overalls or ditching them for dungarees tailored by talented relatives.

Kit summed up the rough and the smooth of her wartime work, declaring: "I had fun in the foundry, but I wouldn't have wanted any of my children to do anything like that. We knew the work was important...it was a once in a lifetime thing. You wouldn't want to do it for ever."

Now 94, Joyce (below) , who still lives in Rotherham, says: "It was far from glamorous, but it paid a wage, and that's all that mattered."

This sanguine take is common to the accounts from representatives of a generation who would be embarrassed to be labelled heroes but are proud to have fulfilled their duty and done their "bit".

And as the author notes, it is tempting to mythologise the past and airbrush the injuries, hardships and heartaches endured by the Women of Steel and their families.

These weren't superwomen, they were ordinary women and girls - daughters, sisters, wives and mums - thrust into a new, unwelcoming environment and left to sink or swim.

June Alderson, whose mum Peggy worked at the William Cook foundry, said the Women of Steel should never be forgotten, adding: "They were just ordinary women but became truly extraordinary due to the terribly hard times they were living in and the heart-breaking sacrifices they had to make. They really were utterly remarkable."

There's that word again - remarkable - and it's one Rawlins believes they strongly deserve.

She said: "I felt privileged that I was able to meet these people and turn their voices into print and immortalise them, making sure what they did is not forgotten not just for Sheffield and South Yorkshire but for the women themselves and their families."


What can we learn from the Women of Steel?

THE Blitz Spirit of the wartime generation can tend to be romanticized but the fortitude the Women of Steel found within themselves could inspire us all, says author Michelle Rawlins.

"I think coronavirus has in many ways brough back that wartime spirit where we look out for our neighbours and friends more than every day," she says.

"These women were just mindful of getting on and doing their bit until the war came to an end.

"There have been reflections of that this year so I wonder if maybe it takes a disaster to bring back that spirit of doing our bit and helping others.

"We've lived with this for 15 weeks - that's nothing compared to six years.

"I suppose we've a lot to learn from that generation."

Women of Steel is available from Amazon, WH Smith, Tesco and Waterstone's.




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