Wallsend exhibition uncovers lost history of women shipbuilders

A woman at work in the shipyards during the First World War. Credit: Crown copyright/Historic England

The "neglected" history of women shipyard builders will be explored in an exhibition.

The Historic England led project aims to uncover the stories of women who worked in the shipbuilding industry in the North East during the First World War.

With many shipyard workers away fighting, local women volunteered to keep the region’s maritime industry afloat.

Between 1914 and 1918, they took on engineering roles in shipyards including Swan Hunters in Wallsend, Palmers in Hebburn, and Haverton Hill on the Tees.

However, when the war ended, they were pushed out of these roles to make room for the men returning from the conflict.   

Women had high-skilled jobs during the war - but were forced out of the industry when men returned from the conflict. Credit: Crown copyright/Historic England

The project, which launches on Tuesday 24 October, is asking for people to share their own family stories and memorabilia to help create a film about the subject, which will be released in spring 2024.

A pop-up exhibition is taking place at Wallsend's Forum shopping centre, featuring photographs from the Imperial War Museum of some of the women at work in the shipyards.

Antony Firth, head of marine strategy at Historic England, said: “These photographs of women working in the shipyards really struck me when I first saw them. They show women directly involved in heavy, skilled engineering rather than on assembly lines. Although they are not named, I am sure they have stories that will provide inspiration to women in maritime engineering today.”

During the First World War women took on traditionally male roles in the shipyards. Credit: Crown copyright/Historic England

Alex Stitt, director of Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s Heritage and Education Centre, a charity supporting the project, said: “It’s clear that the role of women in the maritime industry has been neglected throughout history, and this lack of recognition has created barriers to entry for many aspiring female shipbuilders, seafarers and ocean engineers.

“We’re extremely excited to announce this new partnership with Historic England, and further underline Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s commitment to celebrating diversity, redressing inequalities and empowering disadvantaged groups across the global maritime industry.”

The exhibition runs from Tuesday 24 October to Sunday 19 November.

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