12 June 2020
Author Michelle Rawlins describes writing her new book about the women who worked in Sheffield's steel factories during WW2
Despite studying history at university, for a long time, I didn’t feel as though I used my degree in the sense I thought I probably would. Yes, as a journalist, it helped me write articles in a methodical manner, analyse information and search for the minutiae when conducting interviews, which all stood me in great stead when talking to people from every walk of life about something that had happened to them or they were involved in.
But very rarely did I go digging too deeply into the past, searching for details of historical significance and then revealing the impact they may have had. I didn’t mind, as what I was doing was constantly talking to people about their lives, something I truly love, and turning their words into print.
So when at the start of 2018, I read another article in the Sheffield Star about the city’s Women of Steel – the formidable generation of female workers who worked in the factories which lined the River Don during World War Two, it got me thinking. I naturally assumed, just like the Land Girls, a national book must have been written about them, to mark their incredible contribution. Afterall, by then, a larger-than-life bronze statue had been commissioned and unveiled in the heart of the city, following a long campaign to fundraise for the monument, which had come after the women had been officially thanked by the government for their monumental effort to supply parts for Spitfires, tanks and munitions for the British forces as the men of Sheffield fought against Hitler and his troops.
After several Google searches and scouring Amazon and finding nothing, I felt compelled to do something. Although I only moved to Yorkshire when I was 21, as opposed to being born in bred in God’s own county, for a long time I have classed it as home and my planted my roots, which naturally inspired me further to want to not only learn more about these women but also ensure they were eternally commemorated in some form of social history book.
And, so began my research. I initially contacted Kevin Gascoigne, the very proud son of Ruby, one of the four women of steel, who spearheaded the campaign for recognition, who was incredibly generous with his time, welcoming me into his home and, alongside his wife, was delighted to talk to me.
What I soon discovered was these women, many of whom were barely out of childhood, some as young as sixteen, sacrificed their most tender years to ‘do their bit’ while the menfolk were off fighting for King and country.
They entered the huge noisy and dirty factories, many leaving behind idyllic jobs as nannies, in shops or as chaperones to elderly neighbours, to enter what had always been deemed a male-orientated world where women often were not welcome. Of course, some of the girls or young women were slightly hardier, entering the steel works after working in cotton mills, or as buffer girls in Sheffield's cultlery industry, but a significant percentage came from sheltered backgrounds and received the shock of their lives.
Some had never heard bad language before being immersed into a workplace, where swearing was the norm. Others learnt about the ‘birds and the bees’ while a few, like Kathleen Roberts, who initiated the whole campaign for recognition, had to come to terms with the fact that things weren’t as rosy in a huge factory, where the cacophony of noise would ring in your ears and near-fatal and serious accidents were commonplace.
I heard stories of workers being decapitated on the machines, others being de-scalped and Kathleen herself suffered a bad back injury that plagues her to this day.
But every one of the women I spoke to worked as hard as they could, mainly without complaint, as they felt it was the right thing to do, despite the incredibly hard labour, working long and exhausting hours or being separated from their often very young children.
It may have been a huge culture shock, but they coped with a steely determination that not only carried them through six long years but also gave them the maturity to cope with what came after the war finally ended.
After most were told they no longer had jobs, discarded like yesterday's fish and chip paper, their contribution instantly forgotten, they had an even bigger job to do; looking after their husbands and partners, who had left as excited fresh eyed young men, thirsty for adventure, but came back broken men, permanently scarred by the atrocities they had endured and witnessed.
I heard as many happy stories as I did sad, and what I was left feeling was the upmost respect and admiration for a generation of women, who did so much to ensure their husbands, brothers, fathers and uncles had the weapons they needed to survive and then cared for them on their return.
Not only did I get to finally merge my love of history and writing, I learnt so much from these women during my research. Their bravery, courage and sheer determination was second to none and now, more than ever, as we live through the biggest crisis since World War Two, how they coped and what this formidable generation dealt with feels more relevant than ever. We have a lot to learn from the women who worked night and day in the Sheffield steel works and I feel honoured to play a part in giving them their rightful place in the history books.
Women of Steel is published by Headline.
If you're interested in writing about the other people's lives, read what crime writer Nick Triplow has to say about writing his acclaimed Ted Lewis biography, Getting Carter.