Since 1987, March has been designated Women’s History Month. The practice was started in the US, and has been adopted enthusiastically by many other countries. So here is a slice of women’s history in the UK that I feel could do with some broadcasting.
As is well known, during World War II, increasing numbers of young able-bodied men were called up to serve in the army, and their work was taken up by women who responded to Government calls to fill the gaps created. Women in their thousands stepped up to the plate and took on jobs across the board, ranging from manual labour through to clerical and administrative roles, including code breaking at Bletchley Park.
What is interesting is how, although women’s contribution to jobs such as agriculture and the Land Army, freight, engineering and the transport sector is well documented, their role in the construction industry was not recorded in the same way. Yet by 1944 nearly 25,000 women were working in the construction industry, covering all the trades.
Whatever the sector, and despite the fact that without their input many industries would have suffered, women were effectively allowed in on a temporary basis and paid far less than their male equivalents. It was made clear to them that as soon as war over they would have to give the jobs back to the men.
In 2015, one hitherto completely unrecorded piece of history regarding women came to light. In 1939 a buckle appeared in Waterloo Bridge, which at the time stood on timber supports. At the outbreak of war there was an immediate acute labour shortage, as Irish workers, who carried out much of the manual work in the UK, were called back home. The rebuilding of the bridge was of huge strategic importance so was kept secret. Now at long last it is accepted that it was reconstructed using female labour – even though the trade unions were very reluctant to recruit women.
The women working on the bridge were earning around 1 shilling and sixpence an hour, the equivalent of 7.5 pence – far less than men would have been paid. There are hardly any photographs of the women who built the bridge, and all employment records were lost when the construction firm that hired the women went into receivership in 1980. In fact, until 2015 there was no documented evidence at all; the only way the story was kept alive was thanks to the Thames riverboat pilots who ferry tourists up and down the river and always highlight the fact that Waterloo Bridge was built by women.
Herbert Morrison, who served as Home Secretary in the Wartime Coalition, formally opened the new bridge in 1945. He spoke as follows:
“The men who built this bridge are fortunate men. They know that although their names may be forgotten, their work will be a (sic) pride and use to London for many generations to come”. No mention was made of the role played by many women in rebuilding the bridge.
The Women’s Engineering Society has supported a campaign for a Blue Plaque to be placed at Waterloo Bridge to commemorate the work of the women who rebuilt it. More information on this can be found here.
Historian Dr Chris Wall and film maker Karen Livesey have made a DVD with fascinating oral material that can be sourced here.