Women at work during the Second World War

Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums
5 min readMar 1, 2022

by Katie Wright, Digital Intern, Second World War and the Holocaust Partnership Project

As part of the Second World War and Holocaust Partnership Project (SWWHPP) with Imperial War Museums (IWM) we have been looking at diverse stories of war on Tyneside. This post looks at the stories of women working in industries at this time.

A black and white image. A woman stands in a Tyneside shipyard, her upper-body is visible and she is holding her arm out, holding a tool for catching rivets. She is wearing a coat and overalls with a headscarf and looks towards the work she is doing
A rivet catcher at a Tyneside shipyard by Cecil Beaton © IWM DB 164

Prior to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, many of the shipyards were closed due to the economic depression of the 1930s. However, demand for more ships grew rapidly, either for the Royal Navy or to replace the increasing number of British cargo ships sunk in the North Atlantic. As more men were called up for military service between 1939 and 1940, women were encouraged to take their places in the shipyards alongside retired shipyard workers, younger men under 18 and in some cases, men from the West Indies.

On 10 March 1941, Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour, called for 100,000 women to come forward and join the shipbuilding industry. Information on nurseries was distributed in newspapers, encouraging women to leave their children to take part in war work, changing the way women could live and work. This would have lasting effects for women into the latter half of the 20th century. There were 270,000 workers in Britain’s shipyards by 1943; while it’s not known exactly how many of these were women, it is safe to assume this figure is thousands, because so many male shipyard workers were serving in the Armed Forces.

Shipbuilding wasn’t the only industry that was increasingly encouraging women to join the workforce. Women had already been employed in the industry but mainly in clerical roles before the war. Railway companies started recruiting women for frontline roles around 1940.

A black and white image. A woman is in a signal box, surrounded by levers and there is a small window looking out onto the railway track. There is a steam engine coming through the points as she is moving a leaver to change the points at the same time. She is wearing a railway uniform and hat.
Railway signaller at Molland, Devon railway station for the Southern Railway, 1943 — © IWM D 17442

During the First World War women worked as cleaners on steam engines, but were restricted again to office roles after 1918.

In 1939, the ‘Big Four’ railway companies London Midland Scotland Railway (LMS), London North Eastern Railway (LNER), Southern Railway (SR), and Great Western Railway (GWR) were faced with the outbreak of war and had to adapt travel to aid the war effort. This involved discouraging non-essential travel by civilians so transport of troops and goods could be prioritised. Encouraged by Labour minister Ernest Bevin, by 1944 Britain’s railway companies had over 15% female employees out of a total of around 600,000 employees. In 1941 alone, LNER saw 17,000 male workers join the Armed Forces, but around the same time it was reported in The Daily Mirror that 30,000 women were employed by LNER in various roles.

A black and white image. Three women walk along a railway platform all dressed in their own railway uniforms for different roles. Gladys on the left is carrying a guard’s flag and wear trousers while the other two wear skirts as part of their porters’ uniforms.
Three LNER workers walk along the track at Bowes Park railway station C1942. Left is Gladys Garlick followed by her two friends. She is a Guard while the other two wear porters’ uniforms — Image courtesy of National Railway Museum/Science Museum Group.

Roles for women on the railways varied hugely including ticket collectors, carriage cleaners, porters and shunters, guards and van guards, clerks and various occupations in the sheds and workshops. Often women were cleaners, helping to prepare the engines for service which involved, mostly, cleaning the engine. Women remained banned from the footplate, the cab area where the driver and fireman worked. However, in 1942 the first female LNER Guards were trained and began work, including the lady on the far left of the three LNER workers shown, Gladys Garlick.

A black and white image. A woman stands in a Tyneside shipyard. She is wearing overalls and welding gear including a face guard, above and behind her head. She wears large welder’s gloves. She is looking away from the camera to the side but posing in front of a door or industrial looking background
Cecil Beaton image of an unknown shipyard worker at a Tyneside shipyard. She is dressed as a welder, presumably that is her job — © IWM DB 68

While women increasingly took on tasks previously carried out by men, they were not always entrusted with the whole task. Lily Errington, a former shipyard worker, said in an oral history held by IWM, “I used to set me own machine up and years later was told that the women don’t set their own machine up they’ve got to have a setter but I used to set mine up.” Audrey Nichols, another former shipyard worker interviewed by IWM, explained having her welding work finished for her by a man when working in the shipyards. Errington described a slightly different experience hand drilling at the shipyards. She described hundreds of holes which she drilled, completing heavy ‘graft.’ While other women were dismissed after the war she was the last one to leave. Both equally enjoyed their work, Errington having ‘happy days’ as everyone ‘lived for today’ during the war. Nichols felt she ‘grew up’ there and even ‘cried’ when she left before the end of the war aged just 21.

While both Lily and Audrey described positive experiences of their war-time work, for many women the war was a short-lived struggle filled with new experiences and life changes. While there are rare occasions of women being able to stay in their war work, post-war (Lily being a rare example) many, like Audrey, were replaced when the men returned and, as Audrey’s story goes, after the war ended she was unable to apply for work not considered ‘women’s work.’ After she left her job at the shipyards, she tried to apply to work in a garage in Billingham but was denied the role despite being skilled enough through her time in the shipyards. . After the war, women were encouraged to become nurses to assist with the new National Health Service in 1948 or return to their old jobs as men came back to claim their’s.

A black and white image. A woman crouched on the floor of an indoor shed at a Tyneside shipyard. She is leaning over and looking at a large sheet of metal, part of a ship as she measures and traces the metal.
A female shipyard tracer at work also at a Tyneside shipyard by Cecil Beaton — © IWM DB 29

The above images show a female welder at a Tyneside shipyard, a rivet catcher at a Sunderland shipyard and a shipyard worker in a workshop, possibly also Tyneside. Little is known about the women in these images. We found even fewer images of women working on the railways on Tyneside at the time, which is unfortunately why the images from LNER are of workers at Bowes Park Station in London. It is possible that their paths crossed into Newcastle on the East Coast Main Line. Gladys Garlick, pictured on the left of the three women was one of LNER’s first female guards, completing her training in 1942. The other image shows a signalwoman of the Devonshire railway in 1943.

For more info on the SWWHPP click here https://www.iwm.org.uk/partnerships/second-world-war-and-holocaust-partnership

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Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

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