Wartime Women in Leodis

This week we hear from Leanne Speight, student at Leeds Beckett University, who has been part of a team working on a fantastic new website looking at the ‘Leeds Blitz’ of 1941…

I remember my Great Grandma telling me in passing about her work in a munition factory during the Second World War. It was not something she spoke of often. But on the rare occasions that I was fortunate enough to hear her stories, it was clear that she viewed her contribution to the war effort as nothing out of the ordinary. She was one of hundreds of thousands of women across Britain who did ‘their bit’. Together, they achieved something extraordinary, shattering gender stereotypes to step into traditionally male roles when the nation needed them most.

Undated, Photograph taken in the period 1939-45, a female operative at work in the Roundhay Works of Robert Blackburn. She is drilling out wing spars for Swordfish aircraft, using a multiple spindle sensitive drill. (c) Leeds Libraries, www.leodis.net

These women quickly perfected skills that would ordinarily have taken years to learn. They demonstrated that women were not only capable of undertaking traditionally masculine work, but could excel in these roles when given the opportunity.

Women like my Great Grandma also demonstrated courage in the face of enemy action. We can see clear examples of this during the air raid on Leeds on 14 and 15 March 1941. Reports published after the raid show that women did not hesitate to tackle fires caused by incendiary bombs, even when high explosives were falling nearby. Many of these women worked in roles where such actions would not have been expected of them. Ivy Mugglestone, for example, whose exploits were celebrated by the Yorkshire Post, was a waitress.

Miss Ivy Mugglestone said: “I did not feel frightened … I was so busy trying to put the bombs out that I had not time to think of anything else, “ Yorkshire Post, ‘Raid Heroism’, 18 March 1941, p. 4

When a factory roof shattered as a result of a bomb, the women workers seized the opportunity to ‘show their mettle’ by clearing away the fragments of broken glass, putting on scarves and coats and continuing their work. Another bomb hit Leeds General Infirmary, but the nurses carried on tending to their patients despite the immediate risk to their own safety. Only a small number of these stories were reported at the time, and many of these women’s stories have since been forgotten

To commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Leeds Blitz, I have been working with other third year History students at Leeds Beckett University on a project to bring such stories to light. We each focused on different aspects of the Leeds Blitz –our group choosing to focus on the lives of women. You can see the end result of this project on the Leeds Beckett website.

The ability to access online archives like Leodis was particularly useful in the circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic. Being able to access material from home ensured that we were able to tell some of the many stories of Leeds women despite the closure of libraries and archives.

14th October 1949 Looking south/west this view shows the gap created by the demolition by enemy action of three houses numbers 91, 93 and 95 on the night of 14-15 March 1941. (c) Leeds Libraries, www.leodis.net

Leodis helped us to uncover the tragic stories of some of those who were killed (for example, Lily Sheriff who lived on Belle Vue Road), and put into perspective the sheer number of local women involved in the war effort. The photographs also helped bring to life aspects of women’s lives during the Second World War – adding personality and feeling to the written sources at our disposal.

The mothers, sisters, daughters and neighbours we researched all did ‘their bit’. Thanks to archives like Leodis these contributions can still be seen today.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Lucy Evans says:

    This is tremendous. So glad you are recovering these stories. I worked at the British Library Boston Spa – site was once a huge munitions factory and some of the women I knew had worked there in WW2 and now were at the BL, as cleaners, porters, clerical assistants mainly. In 1981 I was very upset at having to return to work and to leave my 6 month old baby at home (my husband did not work and looked after him). Feminist friends would not listen to my grief as inappropriate but the lovely older women comforted with me as they had felt the same, leaving their babies to work in the munitions factory. But it all had to be done and their courage plus their precious understanding was a great gift to me. They also said the munitions factory was the largest in Europe and deliberate misinformation led to York being bombed instead of the factory. Also that the buildings were still haunted by women who had died there. Who knows but there is a fascinating history there and wish their memories had been captured.

  2. Geraldine Corr says:

    My Mum (Patricia Josephine Ure) and her two younger sisters Madeleine and Mary were bombed out that night. They lived on a row of back to back terraced house on Hilary Street the site is now beneath the car park of the Leeds Playhouse.
    They had not gone to the shelter because the 6 year old (Mary) was resting on a sofa recovering from measles.
    The bomb directly hit the chimney stack that served the four conjoined properties blowing out with force the “set pot” and the cast iron cooking range spilling hot coals from the fire out on to clipped hearth rug setting it alight. My mum was blown out of the chair she was sotting in and Mary became trapped under the sofa which had flipped in the blast. The room known as a cellar kitchen had a flagged floor and these became randomly dislodged preventing the door from
    opening. They were terrified they were going to burn or choke in the smoke and soot.
    Their father William Patrick Ure was on fire watch that night in the area and he and others rescued the girls through a window.
    They ran up the street away from the devasted area Mum said they protected their heads shielding under dustbin lids!. Soot was ingrained into their skin for weeks after.
    That night there were 2 fatalities in two of the houses in their block. A twelve year old boy and a young Irish woman recently arrived from Dublin.
    For as long as I knew my Mum and my 2 Aunts (Madeleine only passing in February this year in her mid nineties) the three sisters were inclined to “jump” at the slightest unexpected sound the experience had a lasting effect on them.
    The family moved to a similar property at the top end of the same street . I was born in that house and remember as a child regularly walking to the shops past the open ground in the middle of the terraced row where the four houses had once stood.

    1. Hello,

      Thank you so much for this comment – fascinating! I’ll pass it onto the students who put the website together; I think they’ll be very interested to read this.

      Thanks again for contributing,
      Leeds Central Library

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