Author launches appeal to trace women shipyard workers

Women scrapers and painters at a Sunderland shipyard in July 1941.
Women scrapers and painters at a Sunderland shipyard in July 1941.
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Women who worked in Wearside’s shipyards during World War Two are being urged to step forward and share their stories.

Sunderland author Amanda Revell Walton, who hails from a long line of Wear shipbuilders, has been signed by Arrow Books to write at least three novels following the fortunes of shipyard ladies.

Women shipyard workers enjoying a well-earned lunchbreak in July 1941.

Women shipyard workers enjoying a well-earned lunchbreak in July 1941.

“I’ve done a lot of historical research, but I’d really like to talk to someone who was there. It would help give me a flavour of what life was really like in the yards for women,” she said.

“I’m incredibly excited about writing the saga. These amazing women who helped build ships during World War Two, and the city of Sunderland itself, are very close to my heart.”

As thousands of shipyard workers downed tools to fight for King and Country, so Wearside women of all ages and classes answered the call to take up the positions left vacant.

More than 700 women were employed in the yards at the height of the conflict, including 130 at Doxfords. Almost a thousand more found work in marine engineering shops.

Many of the ladies took on labouring roles, but others became welders, painters, engineers and machinists – often putting the men “to shame” with their high work ethics.

Indeed, a rather patronising report in the Echo in 1942 revealed: “At keeping the place tidy, sweeping up and so on, the women are, not surprisingly, better than the men.

“But those in skilled and semi-skilled work have also done well, and I have heard of machinists who have turned out far more work, of as good quality, than the men. Indeed, I have been told of one woman who produced as much work as six men – and she was a married woman who, after her day’s work, went home to look after her family.”

Sunderland was once hailed as the largest shipbuilding town in the world, with thousands of wood, iron and steel ships built on the Wear from at least 1346.

At the turn of the 20th-century more than 20,000 Wearside men had work in, or connected to, the shipyards – and the outbreak of World War Two saw demand soar. As men left to join the forces, so women took their places. Sunderland built 27% of all UK merchant ships during the conflict – more than 245 vessels – with women workers playing a vital role.

“Doxfords was responsible for producing half-a-million tons of shipping during the war – 75 ships – while JL Thompson developed the prototype of the American Liberty Ship,” said Amanda.

Yard workers, both male and female, won Royal and political praise for helping to keep Britain supplied with food and fuel through their shipbuilding skills.

But, as Wearside’s servicemen started to return home in the summer of 1945, so women were expected to vacate their shipyard jobs “without grumbling”.

“There seems no future for women in shipyards and engine shops. There was never any real enthusiasm about taking them on in the first place,” claimed the Echo in November 1945.

“It is agreed they did useful work. Their conduct and discipline, I gather, has been excellent. But a shipyard is not an ideal place for women to work in.”

Although jobs for women in the shipyards lasted only a few years, the bonds of friendship between ex-workmates lasted decades, a camaraderie Amanda aims to capture in her saga.

“I’m writing fiction, not factual, books; but I do want to get the historical and geographical details correct. To do that, ideally I’d like to talk to a wartime shipyard worker,” she said.

“Almost 2,000 women worked in the shipbuilding industry during the war in Sunderland so hopefully someone, somewhere, will see my appeal and come forward. Fingers crossed!”

l Amanda’s first book in The Shipyard Girls saga is due to be published next year. She can be contacted on 07753840296 or via email at amandarevellwalton@live.co.uk. Look out tomorrow for the story of Amanda’s family links with shipbuilding.