NANCY Revell's novels about the women who kept Sunderland's shipyards working during the war have proved a hit with readers and resulted in a lasting tribute to their courage

The Northern Echo:

Shipyard welder Florence Collard​

WHEN Sunday Times bestselling author Nancy Revell first started writing her saga series The Shipyard Girls, she had no idea just how inspired she would become by the real life women shipyard workers on which her characters were based.

Since the first book of the series was published she says she has been "singing the women’s praises from the hilltops to anyone who will listen", as well as asking why these women have never been recognised for the invaluable – and often very dangerous – work they carried out during both world wars.

Now, with the publication of the fifth book in the series, Victory for the Shipyard Girls, it would seem that it is not just her shipyard girls who have been victorious, but Nancy herself in finally achieving her dream of getting the real female shipyard workers the recognition they have been deprived of for the past 70 years.

“When I first found out about these women who stepped into their men’s steel toe-capped boots and got to work repairing and building ships, I was instantly enthralled," says Nancy, who lives in Roker, Sunderland. "Here was a group of women, who, at the drop of a hat, swapped their pinnies for overalls and signed up to become welders, riveters, platers, crane drivers and labourers.

“And they were under no illusion about the kind of work they letting themselves in for. The jobs they were required to do were not only backbreaking, but also had to be carried out under the constant threat of being bombed. These women often did 12-hour shifts, six days a week, in all weathers – only then to return home to cook, clean and care for their families. And this was all the while living with the fear that the men they loved might not make it home from the front line. If they hadn’t, it’s quite simple – we wouldn’t have won the war.”

During her research into the latest book in the series, Nancy says she ‘stumbled’ upon a fascinating article ‘Women in Sunderland Shipyards’ in the Sunderland Echo archives published on Tuesday, November 10, 1942.

“The article tells the story of a ‘plucky’ shipyard welder called Mrs Florence Collard, whose husband was in the Forces. She had returned to Sunderland after being bombed out of her home in Plymouth, only then to be bombed out of her home yet again. She was trapped in the kitchen, but rescued,’ Nancy says.

“The end of the article reads: Though suffering from shock she went to her work at the shipyard for the afternoon shift maintaining that 'work comes first'. If this isn’t the epitome of an indomitable spirit, I don’t know what is. It encapsulates perfectly how incredibly brave and resilient these women were.”

After doing talks on the subject of the real women shipyard workers, as well as mentioning them in the History Notes section in the back of all her books, and dedicating one of her books to the ‘To the seven hundred women who worked in the Sunderland shipyards during World War Two’, Nancy has finally got her wish.

“Plans are now in place to create a permanent tribute to the women who stepped into the breach to keep Sunderland’s shipyards working in the war years," she explains.

Nancy is keen to point out, though, that it would not have happened were it not for another group of determined women – the Sunderland Soroptimists. After reading the publicity surrounding the novels, in which Nancy was highlighting the need for a permanent tribute to the women who played a pivotal role in Wearside’s war effort, Suzanne Brown from Soroptimist International Sunderland got in contact to say they would like to organise it and provide the necessary funding.

After consultation with Siglion, who are working on the development of the old Vaux site in Sunderland, plans are in the pipeline to unveil the public artwork next year.

“It’s wonderful that there will be a contemporary artwork to honour these women, which will be set in a reflective space looking over the River Wear," says Nancy. "We’re at the stage now where they’re consulting with young people from local schools and colleges about ideas. The next stage is to commission an artist from the area who will design the piece.”

Speaking about the popularity of The Shipyard Girls, Nancy says: “I think the women in my books have struck a chord with readers. Whenever I ask people at signings or talks what they like about the series, the answer is always the same – the characters, the women, their friendships, their resilience, and their triumph over adversity.”

“A little while ago I found this wonderful black and white photograph of a group of women welders working in the shipyards during the war. I love the expression on their faces – their camaraderie and spirit just shines out at you. It’s something I’ve endeavoured to replicate with the characters I have created in The Shipyard Girls series. I hope that the new commemorative art piece as well as my fictional shipyard girls will go some way to keep alive the memory of these amazing women who played such an important role in such a crucial period of our history and their part in helping Britain win the war.”

  • Victory for the Shipyard Girls by Nancy Revell (Arrow Paperback Original, £6.99)