Sculpture on former Vaux site will honour the Sunderland women who kept shipyards afloat

An artist has been appointed to craft a sculpture which will honour the hundreds of Wearside women who kept the shipyards afloat during the war.

By Katy Wheeler
Monday, 3rd February 2020, 6:00 am
Updated Monday, 3rd February 2020, 10:20 am

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Artist Rosanne Robertson on the former Vaux site where her sculpture honouring female shipyard workers, expected to be around three metres high, will stand.
Artist Rosanne Robertson on the former Vaux site where her sculpture honouring female shipyard workers, expected to be around three metres high, will stand.

Eight decades after more than 700 women took on the backbreaking work of the shipyards, while their husbands, brothers and fathers went to war, they will finally be honoured with a new art work.

Sunderland-born artist Rosanne Robertson has been commissioned to produce the public sculpture which will stand proud near The Beam, on the former Vaux site, overlooking the banks of the River Wear where the shipyards once were.

The artwork is the vision of the Sunderland Soroptimists and author Nancy Revell, whose series of The Shipyard Girls novels have become a Sunday Times bestseller. Their work to raise the profile of the women, and their pivotal role in the war effort, has been backed by Sunderland City Council.

A photo from the Echo archives of women working as scrapers in Sunderland's shipyards in July 1941.

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Rosanne said: “I’ve spent a lot of time in Hendon, Deptford and Pallion since being commissioned and there’s still such a strong energy in the area. You can almost hear the echoes of the steel being riveted. It’s palpable.”

The 35-year old artist has been able to draw on the memories of local people, as well as books in local history centres, to inform her sculpture.

“It’s amazing to read and hear about these women,” says Rosanne. “Fleeting references to the city’s shipbuilding women, in books I have found in Sunderland Maritime Heritage, talk of the conditions being tough. Of it not being a place for women. Yet, they were there. Every day. Grafters; doing physical work and breaking the conventions of their time.”

It was reading Nancy Revell’s books that inspired members of Soroptimist International of Sunderland - part of a worldwide organisation which promotes education and aims to improve the lives of women and girls – to find a way to permanently remember the women.

Women in Sunderland shipyards in 1942.

Soroptimist member Suzanne Brown began a conversation with Sunderland City Council, making the case for a permanent tribute.

“These were women undertaking jobs like welding, riveting, burning and rivet catching, as well as general labouring, operating cranes, and painting. It was perilous work. Yet, history seems to have forgotten them,” Suzanne explains.

Following this, Nancy put a call out on social media for an artist to produce the work and was delighted to hear back from Rosanne, who happened to have been born and bred in Sunderland.

Rosanne is currently researching her work, which will inspire her final designs. From there, she will start bringing her creation to life at a studio space at Sunderland Maritime Heritage centre. The ambition is to have the sculpture, which is expected to be around three metres high, in place by summer 2020.

Kevin Johnston, principal landscape architect at Sunderland City Council, said: “Standing alongside Ray Lonsdale’s three sculptures in the emerging Riverside Sunderland area, this really is going to become a focal point for the city and I am hugely excited to work with the Soroptimists, Rosanne and Nancy. It’s going to be such a poignant piece of art.”