Opening the newly built Waterloo Bridge in 1945, Deputy Prime Minister, Herbert Morrison, spoke of its workforce. “The men who built Waterloo Bridge are fortunate men”, he said. “They know that although their names may be forgotten, their work will be a pride and use to London for many generations to come”. An assessment of the bridge’s significance, certainly, but what Morrison totally failed to acknowledge, or perhaps chose to deliberately ignore, was that a substantial number of workers who built that bridge were female.
Waterloo Bridge is a road and traffic bridge crossing the River Thames in London. The first bridge on the site opened in 1817 but during the 1930s London County Council decided to demolish and replace the original structure. Following the outbreak of World War II, construction was initially placed on hold. However, it was decided that the bridge would be of great importance to the war effort, especially to facilitate the movement of troops, and so the work went ahead.
That the bridge was constructed by a predominantly female workforce, however, is little known. There were no written records pertaining to the women who worked on the bridge, no photographs, no mention of them in the documentation of its construction. This may be partly explained because the original construction company, Peter Lind, went into temporary liquidation in 1980, resulting in the loss or destruction of much of its records. Furthermore, the bridge was a structure of high strategic importance, necessitating total censorship regarding its construction following the declaration of war in 1939.
Despite this lack of any pictorial or written records, there was certainly anecdotal evidence of a female workforce on Waterloo Bridge. The river pilots who ploughed up and down The Thames daily seemed well aware there were women working on the bridge and they passed this information on to colleagues and passengers in the post-war years, popularising the structure’s colloquial name, The Ladies Bridge.
During the war years thousands of women filled vacant positions left by the men who had been conscripted. The contribution made by female labour in a variety of sectors, such as transport, agriculture, munitions, manufacturing etc, was widely acknowledged and documented. It seems obvious that there must also have been many women working in construction, given the labour crisis and scarcity of male workers, but little is written or known about them.
Dr Christine Wall, a construction historian, has researched the contribution made by women to the building industry during World War II. In the archives at the Imperial War Museum, she discovered photographs of women involved in construction, not only labouring and concreting, but in skilled trades such as carpentry and bricklaying. It seems that by 1944 there were around 25,000 women employed in the building trade.
Working with film-maker Karen Livesey, Dr Wall was determined to uncover the story of the forgotten women of Waterloo Bridge. In 2007, when producing a short documentary film about the bridge, they tried to track down any of the women who had worked on it. The attempt was not successful but the film did involve other vital oral accounts regarding the female workforce.
Betty Lind Jaeger, the daughter of Peter Lind who owned the construction company which built the bridge, recalled being taken to the site as a child with her father and seeing the women at work. Furthermore, Peter Mandell, the manager of the company, stated that it was generally well known at the time that women worked on the bridge.
Of course, like the other women undertaking traditionally male roles during the war years, the women who built Waterloo Bridge would have been paid far less than the men in the same jobs and they were employed on a strictly temporary basis. Furthermore, the craft trade unions were resistant to allowing women access and it must be remembered that they had to work in the heart of a city which suffered regular bombardment from the bombs of the Luftwaffer. Their working conditions were far from ideal.
At the end of the Second World War, over 3% of the workers in construction were female. As men returned from their military posts, women were expected to vacate the jobs in which they had worked and excelled. There are records detailing a conference organised by women in the building trades calling upon on the unions to allow them access and for them to be able to work alongside men. They wanted to use their skills and play their part in rebuilding the country in the post-war era. Their requests were denied.
In 2015, researching at the Bradford Museum of Film Photography and Television, Dr Wall discovered photographs of women welders dismantling the old Waterloo Bridge. These photographs proved beyond all doubt the existence of the construction’s female workforce. This meant that, whilst their names may not be known or celebrated, the huge contribution made by the women who built Waterloo Bridge can finally be recognised.