When the men of Sheffield were called up to fight in the Second World War it fell to the women of the city to keep the steel mills working and during the course of the conflict, thousands juggled family life with the demands of heavy industry to keep their boys in bullets and tanks.
But when peacetime came they were unceremoniously dumped from their jobs – their vital role on the home front largely forgotten. Yesterday however, some 60 years on, four women who have campaigned to highlight the role played by female workers in maintaining steel production during Britain’s darkest hour saw their wish come true when they were ushered through the door of 10 Downing Street to meet the Prime Minister.
The aptly named Women of Steel included Kathleen Roberts and Kit Sollitt, both 90, Dorothy Slingsby, 88, and Ruby Gascoigne, 87, all from Sheffield, who also received a special letter of thanks from veterans minister Kevan Jones at the Ministry of Defence and met Sheffield MPs at the House of Commons. They were representing more than 120 women from all over the world now aged between 83 and 101, all veterans of the mills, who took part in the campaign. Kit Sollitt, who stills bears scars from molten metal, said she was delighted at being invited to London. “I can't believe it after all these years. Nobody has ever bothered to do anything before and now look at us, we're going to Downing Street,” she said.
In a letter to Rotherham MP John Healey, Mr Brown expressed his gratitude for the “sterling service” of women in reserved occupations such as steel and munitions during both world wars. “Conditions were often dangerous and many risked their lives. I can assure you that government truly values the important wartime contributions and sacrifices made by all civilian workers, including Sheffield's 'Women of Steel'," he said.
The work the women undertook was both back-breaking and dangerous but it is the way they were airbrushed from history that has left a bitter taste. Mrs Roberts, who started work at Metro Vickers on Aftercliffe Common in 1938 aged just 17 recalled the terrifying noise and the shocking language of the mills. They also had to live with the presence of huge rats which inhabited the canals and infested many of the workshops.
“These were dangerous times,” she recalled. “The Land Army girls were praised for feeding us but we did the same by keeping the boys supplied with what they needed. If we hadn’t done that they wouldn’t have got the tanks and the fighter planes. The girls in Sheffield were the absolute raw end of it. It was all heavy work and long hours but we were forgotten.”
She added: “As the men returned they started getting rid of us. We got no thanks whatsoever for all the years we put in, we just got our cards and that was it. We were just thrown on the scrapheap with no thanks whatsoever.”
For the women that worked the mills and foundries of the Steel City it was not just the threat of being burnt or killed in the heat and sweat of the steelworks but having to continue in the vital work as the Nazi bombers flew bombing missions overhead. Because the machines could not be turned off at key moments in the processes they were rarely allowed to go down to the air raid shelters, though they were kept informed of the approaching sorties by tannoy.
The shifts were long and exhausting. After 12 hours in the mill the women often slept through the day time air raid sirens. Pay was minimal and withheld if there were any problems found with the batches of work while days off and holidays were banned – even if you were getting married.
Sheffield was vital to the war effort. The Vickers works had the only drop hammer in the country, ironically German-made, which was used to forge crankshafts for the Rolls Royce Merlin engine used to power Spitfires and Lancaster bombers.
The Hadfields steelworks was also the only place in the UK where 18 inch armour piercing shells shells were made. As a result Hitler targeted the city in two nights of horrific aerial bombing, codenamed Operation Crucible. On the 12th and 15th of December 1940 wave after wave of bombers unleashed an orgy of destruction that killed 660 people, injured 1,500 injured while leaving 40,000 homeless. The fires that raged in the city centre could be seen from nearly 100 miles away. Though many of the mills were hit steel production was largely unaffected.