ONE of the last of the Aycliffe Angels has died at the age of 105.

The funeral of Vera Shaw was held in West Cemetery in Darlington on Wednesday and, even without her wartime service, her long life story is a remarkable read which seems to come from a very different time.

And with her four years at the Aycliffe munitions factory, she played an integral part in a unique piece of our local history.

The Northern Echo: Vera Shaw with her grandsons around 1990

Vera Shaw with her grandsons around 1990

Vera was born in Heaton in Newcastle in October 1916, when the First World War still had two years left to run. She lived through the post-war flu pandemic and was taken, as a 12-year-old schoolgirl, to witness the opening of the Tyne Bridge on October 10, 1928 by King George V and Queen Mary – she remembered it was “freezing cold”.

The Northern Echo: The royal procession passing over the Tyne Bridge during the opening ceremony on October 10, 1928

The royal procession passing over the Tyne Bridge during the opening ceremony on October 10, 1928

Typical of the times, when two younger brothers came along, she moved down the street to sleep in a friend’s house because of a lack of room in her parents’ house.

She left school at 15 to become a shop assistant, which was how she met her future husband, Laurie, who came from Darlington and worked as a window dresser for Wills tobacco. They married in 1939 and she moved south to Darlington, to live with Laurie’s parents in St Andrew’s Street off North Road and to work at the Binns store on High Row.

The Northern Echo: Vera and Laurie in Darlington's North Park in 1938, the year before they married

Vera and Laurie in Darlington's North Park in 1938, the year before they married

Laurie was called up in 1940, and spent much of the war in India and Far East, so she only saw him a couple of times when he was home on leave.

The Northern Echo: Binns on High Row in the early 1960s. Vera would be fire watching from its roof at the start of the Second World War

Binns on High Row in the early 1960s. Vera would be fire watching from its roof at the start of the Second World War

Her first involvement in the war effort was watching for air raids and fires from the roof of Binns and then, in 1941, she went to work at Royal Ordnance Factory 59 at Aycliffe.

The factory was built on 837 acres of wet and misty County Durham farmland – ideal to shield it from the prying eyes of the enemy – in 1940-41 at a cost of £7m. About 1,000 buildings were buried into the earth, with earthen berms built around them, because the designers knew that dangerous explosive work would be going on inside them.

The Northern Echo:

An unknown Aycliffe Angel at work filling shells

Thousands of women from across south Durham went largely by train to work at the factory, for which two stations, Simpasture and Demons Bridge, had been constructed.

“She remembered fighting through snow in 1941 and the trains from North Road station being frozen,” says her son, Keith.

The Northern Echo:

Winston Churchill and Dr HV Evatt of Australia visit the munitions factory at Aycliffe on May 15, 1942

She was working at Aycliffe when Winston Churchill visited on May 15, 1942. “PM kisses Ferryhill girl”, said The Northern Echo’s headline the following day as he was greeted by Miss Gladys Stoddart who gave him a cigar and a kiss – some workers remembered that he arrived with a lit trademark cigar between his fingers and he was asked politely, but firmly, to extinguish it.

Because it was dangerous work. In 1945, the largest explosion at Aycliffe killed eight workers; another in 1942 killed four. There were countless unrecorded smaller explosions where women lost fingers and suffered facial injuries.

Those who avoided accidents might have had their skin turn yellow because of the chemicals they were handling – they became known as “canaries” – which also turned brunette hair blonde and blonde hair green.

On several occasions the turncoat broadcaster Lord Haw Haw came crackling over the airwaves in

his plummy British accent to say that the planes of the Luftwaffe were on their way to bomb the women. He warned: “The little angels of Aycliffe won’t get away with it.”

The Luftwaffe never found ROF59 where, at its peak in 1943, 17,000 people – 90 per cent of them women – were working 24/7. In total during the war, they made 700,000,000 shells, with Vera working on munitions for smaller cannons.

The Northern Echo:

Aycliffe Angels in 1945

At the end of the war, the factory was quickly converted into the industrial park, with the Durham County Police headquarters opening in the ROF administration building on April 19, 1947, and the Angels themselves quickly returned to civilian life.

During the war, Laurie had retrained as a medical technician and on demob, he started work at the pathology laboratory in the Memorial Hospital. They rented a hospital cottage in Hundens Lane, and in the late 1940s, had their two sons, Keith and Ian.

“She spent the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s in the Eastbourne area running the household, raising the family, caring for parents-in-law and enjoying a very short retirement period of Laurie's retirement,” says Keith.

Laurie died after just a year of retirement in 1976, and so Vera lived 45 years as a widow.

In her 80 years in Darlington, she built up many friends and acquaintances, especially through the churches of St John and St Cuthbert, and she lived independently at home until she was 101.

She died a fortnight before Christmas at the end of a life which told practically the whole story of the 20th Century.

THE number of Aycliffe Angels obviously dwindles with every passing year. It is thought that about 25,000 women worked at the factory during its four years of operation. An 18-year-old who joined in the last months of the war in 1945 would be now be 95.

Last year, the Echo carried a couple of stories of Angels who were celebrating their 100th birthdays.

We believe the oldest Angel is Renee Glover, who was an inspector at the factory. She celebrated her 107th birthday last June in Wilton House when she received more than 600 cards from well-wishers. She is also believed to be the oldest person in Darlington.