For this year’s Remembrance weekend, I offer some stories about women who ran shipyards or worked in shipyards designing or building warships for the Royal Navy. This weekend we quite rightly remember the men and women who put their lives on the line to protect us in time of conflict, but their service depended upon the munitions, ships, planes etc which were built for them, usually by civilians.
Unlike many later fields of engineering, shipbuilding is one in which we know a few stories from well before modern times.
Ann Wyatt (1658-1757) seems to be the earliest recorded, named woman in this line of business. From 1691 to 1698, seven major warships were built in the yards run by Ann Wyatt and her husband, and after his death by Ann alone. The yard was on the River Hamble, at Bursledon, an area of much historic naval shipbuilding. The ships were: Devonshire (80) 1692, Winchester (60) 1693, Lancaster (80) 1694, Winchelsey (32) 1694,Cumberland (80) 1695, Seaford (24) 1695, Salisbury (48) 1698. These ships were part of the Twenty-seven Ship Program of William III built to protect England from the French. There is a lavish book about her: https://www.seawatchbooks.com/ItemDisplay.php?sku=112001
The next woman was by no means a yard owner, but a working class woman who passed as a boy to start her training as a ship’s carpenter and late as a shipwright: Mary Lacy (Mrs Slade) (1740-1801). Even when she was discovered to be a woman, her co-workers in the Royal Dockyard in Portsmouth seemed unconcerned: she was known to be a capable, hard worker and that was what counted in a very busy shipyard. After work-related illness invalided her out of HM Dockyards, she got an Admiralty pension (the first woman to get one) and set up as a housebuilder in Deptford. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Lacy
Jumping now to the later part of the 19th century, we come to a woman who not only designed and patented propellers but even sailed on HM Ships in sea-trials to prove her case. Henrietta Vansittart (nee Lowe) (1833 or 1840 – 8th February 1883) was the daughter of an inventor-engineer and she took up his work after his death. She registered her patent and defended not only her work but her father’s reputation too and was successful in persuading the Royal Navy to try her propeller, in sea trials on HMS Druid, in the English Channel during terrible weather. This proved to all concerned that her design was far better than others and it was therefore adopted for use. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-38088
In both world wars women were of course brought into all sorts of areas of engineering work, in order to free men up for the frontline. In WW1 women were often employed as tracers – a highly-skilled drafting job, producing the final, ‘clean’ copy drawings from which parts would be made. Other work was out in the yards helping with bending and cutting plating and riveting.
Some women shipyard workers even lost their lives due to their work:
Newcastle Inquest January 1918 – 21st January 1918
The circumstances attending the death of Annie Keenan (20), of Whitworth Street, Walker, employed as a joiner’s labourer at a local shipyard, were inquired into at the Newcastle Mortuary last night. The evidence showed that the deceased had gone up a ladder and stepped on to a beam, when her foot slipped, and she fell on to a tank below, a distance of over 50 feet. When picked up life was extinct. A verdict of accidental death was returned.
In WW2 women did an even wider range of work, including skilled welding, and fitting out the ships’ electrical systems. Women working in the shipyards were in areas of very high risk of being bombed, as the Clyde, Tyne and south coast shipyard areas were key targets for the enemy bombers.
Some worked as civilians but a lot of shipyard work was also done by women in uniform, in the WRNS. In WW2, we have again an example of a woman running a shipyard undertaking Admiralty contracts. Edith Mary Douglas (nee Dale) (13th November 1877 to 1963) and her husband ran a boatyard, at Swanwick on the River Hamble (not far from where Wyatt’s yard had been) which had to convert to building small coastal craft for the Royal Navy.
Few women from either of the war periods got the chance to continue in their new occupations: they received no medals, no commemorative brooches, not even a letter of thanks from a ‘grateful’ nation – they just got the sack as soon as peace arrived.
More positively many shipbuilders today, in both the naval and merchant sectors employ women at all levels from craft apprentices up to the most senior design engineers.