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Doing My Bit at the Steelworks by Mary Forcer

In 2005 Hartlepool's Museum and Library Services worked together on a project called 'Their Past, Your Future', which commemorated the part played by local people in the Second World War. As part of the project Mary Forcer reminisced about her time doing 'man's work' on the Home Front. This is her story, in her own words:

I was born on the second of August 1921 in Hartlepool, and I’ve lived in Hartlepool all my life. I was eighteen when war broke out.

As it happened we moved into a brand new house on the Saturday and the war broke out on the Sunday. We moved into a house with a garden and a bathroom and an indoor toilet with hot and cold water, now they were the exception – those houses. People lived in back to back houses where probably three and four families in one house shared a toilet, you had no bath, you had to heat all water on the kitchen fire and took it in turns to get a bath. The water wasn’t tipped out, it was just hotted up and the next one went in it.

I had three brothers who were in the forces and they had to go away. One was in the Marines, one was in the Navy and one was in the Army. We had no father. My mother brought us up and as soon as we could we got a job to bring money onto the house. So people like my mother were poor to start with. People nowadays have no idea how poor people were. So she was still poor because for all the boys had grown up they had to go into the forces, and they got married well before the war finished, and never came back there. Families seemed to be more united than they are now. You were close to your brothers and sisters in those days, but they had to go away and that was it. So I was left in the house with my mother and she was an invalid and I had to get a job so I could look after her.

First of all I got a job on a furnace and it was to make bullet-proof steel for the tanks, and there was graphs on the wall and wheels and you went round and had to keep that temperature all the way round the furnace to a certain height. It hadn’t got to get too hot or cold. It had to be kept at that height till they withdrew the ingots. Well it was a bit boring that. It was more money and more interesting driving a crane. This one was a sort of trolley on wheels and you had to climb up into the roof and it just slid along a girder just like a railway truck would do. It was a magnet and it picked five tons of steel up at a time, and I had to load it into the wagons and it would go away to the factories to be turned into tanks or munitions or whatever. The crane I worked on mostly was inside. I’ve worked on one outside and it was just picking scrap up and loading wagons with plates. It would probably pick about three plates up at a time and you had to switch the magnet on and off so only one plate fell off at a time so the inspector could look at them and see if there was any faults in the steel. The faulty ones went to one side to be done again and the good ones had to be loaded into the railway wagon. The steelworks had its own railway system then. An engine used to come in one side of the dock, loaded up and went out on the other side to the railway sidings and then it would connect to a train going to Midlands or whatever where the munitions were made.

We were on three shifts. I worked six till two, two till ten, ten till six. If you worked six till two and a two till ten driver didn’t come out you had to stop behind and do their job. But those cranes were in continual use twenty-four hours a day. They had to be manned.

Normally if the war hadn’t been on men would have done these jobs. Women didn’t work in the steelworks, only in the offices. It was a man’s job working in the steelworks. Well, the men were called up or they volunteered so there was a shortage of men. The women had to go in and do the jobs. Women couldn’t do all the jobs in a steelworks, some were “reserved occupation”. You didn’t work on open furnaces and tipping the steel out. You did the jobs that young boys would have done. We were labourers. We didn’t have particular skill, you just had to use a bit of common sense, that was all. So really you were releasing men who weren’t on the “reserved occupation” to go either on to other jobs that women couldn’t do or to go into the forces. Where they could the women took over from the men to release them for the armed forces.

When the air raid sirens went off everybody could leave their jobs and go in the air raid shelters, but when I was on the one with the bullet-proof steel I couldn’t leave it because you had to stay and monitor that furnace, and it was in pitch dark and I was horrified of mice. I wasn’t frightened of the air raid so much, I was horrified of mice. But on the crane you couldn’t work because you were in darkness and you had to go and take shelter. Say you came off at six o’clock in the morning, you asked people coming into work was there any bombs dropped and whereabouts and what damage. And I came off one morning and somebody said that a land mine had dropped on West View, and that’s where I lived, and I had to run. There was no buses. I had to run all the way from the steelworks, which was right at the top of Lynn Street, all the way to West View till I came to an air raid shelter where the wardens was on duty and I went in and asked what happened. And they said “oh, there was no damage done.” It had just fallen into a field at Hart village so nobody was hurt. We didn’t have a shelter at home. You got this corrugated thing to make an air raid shelter of, and there was only my mother, who was an invalid, and me – eighteen years old. I couldn’t dig a hole in the garden to put an air raid shelter in. So we just stayed in the house.

When I see a bunch of bananas I think how my mother would have loved it if we’d said to her “here’s a banana.” It would have been like giving her something really valuable. A banana was out of this world. There was nothing in the shops to look at. You couldn’t say “oh I’ll buy that if I have the money.” They weren’t in the shops. So now I think “ooh a big cream cake”, and I can put as much butter on the bread as I want and I can be extravagant, and that reminds me of the war more than anything. You missed butter. It was like you scraped it on and you scraped it off, and the thing was we didn’t have any refrigerators in those days so mine didn’t get the chance to go bad. If you ate it all, well that was it. You just had to share. You could get vegetables, they weren’t rationed, so if you knew somebody who had an allotment or a garden they would probably give you a cabbage or onion or something like that. We survived the rationing and we were rationed for a long time after the war so we obviously got used to it.

On VE-Day everybody just went mad. All the church bells were ringing and everybody was out on the street singing and if you saw somebody in uniform people were throwing their arms round them and just generally dancing and singing in the street. But of course, for a lot of people there was heartache because the people where they lived weren’t coming back home, and then, of course, there was the thought that the prisoners of war would be coming home. I think the German prisoners of war were allowed to get in touch with their relatives through the Red Cross, but people in Japanese hands, they didn’t know whether they were dead or alive. 

My three brothers came back all right. One was in the Far East, but he came home all right, and one was in the Navy and the one in the Army was just stationed in England. So really, ours wasn’t a bad war like some people had. We were optimistic that things would get better. But for all the men trained to kill with bayonets and things I think life is more dangerous on the streets now than in 1945 when all the servicemen came home, because they’d had enough of war and fighting. After the First World War they said that would be the war to end all wars, and I would have hoped that the Second World War would have definitely been the war to end wars. But history doesn’t prove that does it? Somebody is at war somewhere all over the world. You saw great cities destroyed. London was burning and cities in Germany and Poland, Warsaw. All over the place, places were destroyed, and it seems that people never get tired of causing wars.

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