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A history of women in industry
Buffer girls at mobile canteen, World War II in 1940
Buffer girls at mobile canteen, World War II in 1940

By Stephanie Barnard
BBC Sheffield & South Yorkshire

An exhibition has launched in Sheffield looking at the impact of women on the industrial heritage in the area.

The South Yorkshire Women in Industry Project has been funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and has been put together by volunteers.

The exhibition looks at the roles women have played from the 1800s to the present day. The county has specialised in various industries: confectionary, umbrellas, fireplaces and peat - as well as the famous steel and coal industries.

Perhaps some of those industries have been forgotten because human power has been exchanged for machines and computer power and cheaper imports.

Glass bottle making - Barnsley, Rotherham & Doncaster
Railway - Doncaster
Coal mining - South Yorkshire
Light metal & tool production - Doncaster
Textiles & bobbin making - Barnsley
Silversmithing - Sheffield
Steel production - Sheffield & Rotherham

Barnsley is well-known for its history in linen production. Beever Mill had a mixed workforce of around 700 people. Women worked on the machines to shape the bobbins and in the glue and press workshops where metal ends were fitted. Many women lost parts of their fingers on the machines.

In the industry's prime in the 1800s there were around 780 loom shops in Barnsley. But the industry declined as workers demanded higher wages and trade was lost to other competing areas who could perform these jobs for less.


The two World Wars were a significant period for women in industry, particularly South Yorkshire because of its heritage in steel.

In January 2010, a group of women who worked in the steel industry during World War II took their campaign - Women of Steel - to Downing Street. The work of women in the steel industry is to be formally recognised by the government.

One woman who played a part in the war is Kit Sollit from Sheffield. She trained as an apprentice French-polisher but this soon stopped as Kit was dispatched to war work when she was 19 years old. Kit began work as a micrometer worker, assembling the ratchet. This is a piece of equipment used for precision measurement in mechanical engineering and machining, "It was more boring than I could ever tell you."

French-polisher in 1910
French-polisher in 1910

Due to migraines she had to be reassigned to another job and went on to work at a steel foundry in Sheffield which made agricultural tools.

"I was given a wheelbarrow and had to shovel different types of sand into this. It was very physical work. The heat was unbearable and exhausting. I have a lot of scars from the steel which have burnt me.

"It was very difficult being a woman in a strong industrial background. For a start you learned words that you never knew existed! And they treated you no differently to men, it was how it was and you had to grin and bear it.

"I was meant to be a French-polisher and went back to doing that after the war. The pay working on a foundry wasn't that good. The money I earned working at the foundry full time, I could work part time as a French-polisher."

By 1943, 37% of the female workforce in South Yorkshire made munitions.

Down the pit

Women's role were not only prominent during the war but throughout many different industries in South Yorkshire, including coal mining.

Women's roles heavily changed during the 1980s because industries were evolving and developing. Much of this change involved people from South Yorkshire losing their jobs in the steel and coal industry.

Women did not enter underground mines because of a law introduced in 1842 which forbade both women and children to work under the ground. However they were still involved in this industry. Bridon Ropes in Doncaster supplied the ropes that wound the cages up and down the mineshafts. And Wolf Safety Lamp Factory based in Barnsley supplied lamps for the mines. Many of these were completed by women in the workshops.

Food glorious food

Food processing in South Yorkshire has been a large part of the local economy, with such companies as KP Nuts in Rotherham, Mintoes, Hovis, George Bassett's and Radiance Toffee. Some of these companies still operate in the area to this day. Did you know that all KP Nuts purchased anywhere in the world have been made in South Yorkshire? A proud fact that the county can hold on to.

Working in the food industry was considered one of the more popular jobs because of the cleanliness, compared to working in heavy industry such as steel.

A colourful selection of Bassetts Liquorice Allsorts
A colourful selection of Bassetts Liquorice Allsorts

Sue Loy offered her services as a volunteer on The South Yorkshire Women in Industry project because of her interest in local history to collate people's stories. It wasn't until she started speaking to a contributor that she realised she too had a background in South Yorkshire's industries. She worked at Trebor and KP Nuts. She has had a career in Food Science, specialising in developing packaging.

"I didn't see men or women on the floor, I just saw people. Women did as much physical work as men."

Sue's observations of working with men was often a difficult one, men often didn't like taking orders from women but as she worked at the companies and built relationships perceptions changed.

You can find out much more about the The South Yorkshire Women in Industry project as it travels across South Yorkshire. You can see the project at the Kelham Island Industrial Museum.

WWII Women of Steel are thanked
13 Jan 10 |  South Yorkshire



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