Look at old pictures of Sunderland, and you’ll see hundreds of ashen faced men and scores of man-mountains with hardworking hands that crafted the countless ships that left the waters of the River Wear.
But where were the women?
Siglion, the company that is regenerating a number of the city’s key sites, including the former Vaux Brewery, is working hand-in-hand with Sunderland’s Soroptimists – a voluntary organisation that creates opportunities for girls and women – to unearth the untold stories of Sunderland’s industrious women.
“Seven hundred women worked in Sunderland’s shipyards during World War II – all committed – like their male counterparts – to the war effort,” says Lowri Bond, from Siglion.
“These were women undertaking jobs like welding, riveting, burning and rivet catching, as well as general labouring, operating cranes, and painting.
“Hardworking women… Yet, history seems to have forgotten them.”
The yards in Sunderland – at the time the biggest shipbuilding town in the world – produced a quarter of Britain’s merchant shipping.
This made the city a strategic target for the Germans, a risk that made women workers all the braver.
“It was perilous work,” says Suzanne Brown from the Soroptimists.
“And we really feel that these women deserve something – a permanent tribute – to honour their bravery and hard work.
“We, in the Sunderland Soroptimists want to acknowledge the courage and dedication of the shipyard women.”
“Many war babies and children were looked after by neighbours and older siblings so that their mothers could work long shifts in the shipyards,” explains Sunday Times bestselling author Nancy Revell, who’s series The Shipyard Girls features characters that are based on real people from Sunderland.
“The conditions in which the women laboured were harsh and hazardous, with scant regard paid to health and safety.
“They also had to contend with constant air strikes by Hitler’s Luftwaffe, and many of the women workers would do so with the added worry that their children were in another part of the town.”
The Soroptimists approached Siglion with their idea to create a lasting-tribute, and now Lowri – who is community and placemaking manager with the firm – is leading a team of passionate young people, as they develop ideas for a piece of art to remind the city of the role of women in one of Sunderland’s dominant industries.
The project is part of the 80th celebration of the Soroptimist’s service in Sunderland.
Soroptimist International is dedicated to improving the life chances and opportunities of women worldwide, through education, empowerment and enablement.
Lowri says: “It’s fantastic that, working with talented young people and the fantastic Soroptimists, we’re going to be able to shine a spotlight on women’s role in shaping Sunderland’s past, and hopefully – together – create something that will celebrate them long into the future.”
Four young people have been signed up by Siglion to dig out stories about the contribution that women made to Sunderland’s shipbuilding industry.
The students will work in partnership with the Soroptimists and Nancy to develop ideas for a permanent tribute that will stand proudly on the Vaux site, honouring Sunderland’s brave women.
Among the young people working with Siglion is Lizzie Mushangwe, 18, a Sunderland College student.
The 18-year-old from Town End Farm hopes to move into engineering after her studies, and thinks the project provides an opportunity to learn more about the city’s history.
“While you hear about the city’s shipbuilding heritage, you don’t get to learn about individual stories – especially the stories of women in the industry.”
Katherine Galley, 17, who is from Grangetown and studies English Language, Graphic Design and Art at Sunderland College, adds: “I am really excited to hopefully work on commissioning a creative piece of art.
“I’m excited and nervous at the same time, but it’s great to think we could create something that will become part of the city for years to come.”
Keep up to date with developments at www.siglion.co.uk