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.
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.
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.
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.