Writer Nancy Revell, who comes from a family of famous Sunderland shipbuilders, was determined the tough jobs women did in the shipyards during the war should not be forgotten

AUTHOR Nancy Revell was so inspired by tales of the women who worked in the shipyards during the Second World War that she has turned their stories into a series of books. The 48-year-old former journalist felt so strongly that their contribution these to the war effort should be properly recognised that she created fictional characters for The Shipyard Girls based on the real female shipyard workers.

“Learning about these women, whose working conditions were harsh and hazardous to say the least, and the incredibly labour-intensive work they carried out, has been fascinating,” says Nancy, from Roker, Sunderland. "And they did it all under the constant threat of being bombed because the shipyards were Hitler’s prime target.”

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More than 700 women worked in the Sunderland shipyards during the Second World War, carrying out dangerous and backbreaking jobs such as welding, riveting, burning and rivet catching, as well as general labouring, operating cranes, and painting. “They would do this, then go home and look after their families and children while worrying about their husbands and loved ones who were away at war,” says Nancy.

The Shipyard Girls’ series focuses on the lives of six women, of varying ages and classes, who go to work in the shipyards after the men down tools and go off to fight for King and Country. “I’m writing fiction, not factual books – but I do want to get the historical and geographical details correct," says Nancy. "During my research I have been lucky enough to find a few women who were employed in the shipyards in Sunderland during the war. What struck me straight away with all of them was that as soon as they started chatting about their time working in the yards, their faces instantly lit up as they recalled the memories they had. It was also telling that the first words all of them spoke about their experiences were to describe the playful banter, the bonds of friendship that developed between workmates and a strong sense of camaraderie.”

Nancy says it is something she hopes she has been able to reflect in her saga series, which is so far proving to be a great success. The latest instalment – Shipyard Girls at War – reached number 20 in the top-selling paperback books this week.

Nancy, who moved back up north with her husband Paul, and Bull Mastiff Rosie, to research and write her novels, also drew on her own family roots whilst penning her new saga.

“I had a real ‘Who do you think you are?’ moment when I discovered my mum comes from a long line of shipbuilders called the Revells," she says. "My grandfather, great-grandfather, and great great-grandfather all worked in the Sunderland shipyards as platers, as did most of their sons and relations. During the 1940s and 50s, there were Revells at every shipyard along the Wear. It was a standing joke that there was no use sending out for a ‘Revell’ – they had to send a board number as well. There were just so many.”

Tragically, both Nancy’s grandfather and great-grandfather lost their lives in shipyard accidents, and although dozens of her male relatives worked in the yards, no women did.

Nancy says the women’s role in winning the war, by working in what was once ‘The World’s Biggest Shipbuilding Town’, should not be forgotten. The Sunderland yards produced a quarter of Britain's merchant shipping at the time, causing it to become one of the most heavily bombed towns during the war.

It is believed that without the shipyards, the country would have been forced to surrender, as the cargo vessels being built were essential for the transportation of vital food, fuel and minerals, as well as taking troops to wherever they were needed in the fight against the Axis alliance of Germany, Italy and Japan.

“If they hadn’t have stepped in, we wouldn’t have won the war,” she says. “If these ships hadn't been produced, it would have had a domino effect, from the transportation of troops to food. The country would have been starved into submission.

“It is a really sad omission in our history books that the remarkable women who did some of the most dangerous work in both the First and Second World Wars have now died with little recognition or praise for the work they did and the conditions they endured. I hope my books will shine the spotlight on them and more than anything I would love for them to be commemorated in some way, perhaps with a plaque to mark their efforts.”

  • Nancy will be signing copies of both The Shipyard Girls and Shipyard Girls at War at Waterstones, Middlesbrough, between noon and 2pm today (April 8).