The real Wearside women who inspired the best-selling Shipyard Girls series

City author Nancy Revell this week releases her tenth novel in the hugely-successful Shipyard Girls series, which has transported hundreds of thousands of readers across the country to war-time Wearside.

Sunday, 14th March 2021, 7:00 am

To mark the release of Shipyard Girls On The Home Front, released on paperback on Thursday, March 18, we’ve had a rifle through our archives to find pictures taken by Echo photographers who chronicled life in the then town during the war.

The images show women working as scrapers, welders and painters in July 1941.

As their husbands, sons and friends fought on the battlefields, hundreds of Wearside women took on the backbreaking work of the shipyards, which were one of the biggest shipbuilders in the world and a vital part of the war effort.

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The real Wearside women who kept the war-time shipyards afloat

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

For many it was their first foray into the world of work, but it was a new found independence many had to give up when the men returned from the frontline.

Nancy Revell is the pen name of Roker author Amanda Revell Walton whose own family worked in the shipyards.

After hearing about the real women in the shipyards, she began writing her series in which, although the characters are fictional, their stories are interwoven with real bombings and incidents that Amanda painstakingly researches from historical documents and Sunderland Echo archives.

Women at work in Sunderland's shipyards on July 2, 1941

Amanda, who regularly makes the Sunday Times Bestsellers List with her books, said: “The work that these women did was both backbreaking and dangerous. They were welding, riveting, burning and rivet catching, as well as doing general labouring, operating cranes, and painting the sides of the hulls of ships.

“There was next to no training or any kind of health and safety, so they had to learn on the spot and the conditions they worked in were harsh and hazardous to say the least. Shipyard work has always been labour-intensive, but also notoriously dangerous – and often fatal.”

After a physical day’s labour, the women would then have to return home to run the house.

Amanda said: “At the end of their shift – and bear in mind they often worked time and a half, seven days a week – they would go home, look after their families, cook, and clean – all the while worrying about their husbands, brothers, sons and loved ones who were away at war. And they did it all under the constant threat of being bombed because the shipyards were Hitler’s prime target.

Taking a break for lunch

"But what’s more, these women chose to undertake such difficult and often perilous jobs in the yards, not only because they needed to work, but also because they wanted to be a part of the war effort.”

One of the real life women mentioned in the historical notes of one of the books is welder Florence Collard, who worked at Bartrams during the war, who Amanda discovered in the Echo archives. Florence was bombed out of her home in Portsmouth, came back to her hometown (Sunderland) and was then bombed out of her home here - and still went to work that afternoon.

The Shipyard Girls finally get the recognition they deserve

Last year, it was announced that a public art work to honour the women will be installed on the former Vaux site as part of the Riverside development, overlooking the site of where the shipyards once lined the Wear.

Women took on the same work as the men

Sunderland-born artist Rosanne Robertson has been commissioned to produce the sculpture which is the vision of the Sunderland Soroptimists who came up with the idea after reading Amanda’s novels.

Amanda says the huge role these women played in the war effort shouldn’t be underestimated.

Sunderland produced a quarter of Britain's merchant shipping at the time, which resulted in it becoming one of the most heavily bombed towns during the war.

It is believed that without the shipyards, the country would have been forced to surrender, as the cargo vessels being built were essential for the transportation of vital food, fuel and minerals, as well as taking troops to wherever they were needed in the fight against the Axis alliance of Germany, Italy and Japan.

"It’s simple,” Amanda says. “If the women hadn’t swapped their pinnies for overalls and a pair of hobnailed boots, we wouldn’t have won the war. If these ships weren’t being produced, then it would have had a domino effect. Our soldiers would not have been able to be taken to where they were needed, and the country would have been starved into submission.

"It is a really sad omission in our history books that the remarkable women who did some of the most dangerous work in both the First and Second World War, have now died with little recognition or praise for the work they did and the conditions they encountered. This statue will go some way to rectifying that and it’s something I’m extremely proud of helping to bring about.”

Women at work on the Wear
Amanda Revell Walton who writes as Nancy Revell
Florence Collard in the Sunderland Echo in 1942
The women played a pivotal role in the war effort
For many, it was their first experience of the world of work
Sunderland was the biggest shipbuilder in the world
Shipyard Girls on the Home Front is out on March 18