Female war heroes train their eyes on a capital lunch date

Women of Steel, Connie Russell & workers at Hadfields.
Women of Steel, Connie Russell & workers at Hadfields.
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Sheffield women – from steelworkers to journalists – are being proudly represented at the Women of the Year lunch in London today.

Women of Steel Kathleen Roberts and Kit Sollitt were due to head to London this morning with former Star journalist Nancy Fielder for the Women of the Year lunch. The trio were selected as Women of the Year thanks to their hugely successful campaign to get official recognition for the women who kept the city’s steelworks producing 
during the war.

Kit Sollit one of the last surviving members of Sheffield's ' Women of Steel' campaign with a maquette of the statue. Picture Scott Merrylees

Kit Sollit one of the last surviving members of Sheffield's ' Women of Steel' campaign with a maquette of the statue. Picture Scott Merrylees

Kathleen, now aged 93, sparked the entire campaign with a phone call to The Star and still can’t quite believe how successful it has all been.

She said: “I feel really proud to be representing Sheffield women.

“Until this campaign people didn’t realise what we did – and I think we did the job pretty well.

“When I was told I was a Woman of the Year I was so surprised. I was gobsmacked.

(l-r) Nancy Fielder, Kathleen Roberts, 93, and Kit Sollett, 96 from the women of steel will be attending a women of the year in London. Picture: Andrew Roe

(l-r) Nancy Fielder, Kathleen Roberts, 93, and Kit Sollett, 96 from the women of steel will be attending a women of the year in London. Picture: Andrew Roe

“I should think we will be the oldest there. I’m really looking forward to it.

“We gave up our youth. We were in our late teens or early 20s and gave up four or five years to do this for the war effort.”

A front page story in The Star by Nancy sparked a massive reaction across Sheffield and led to interest from media and historians across the world.

The Star was immediately inundated with letters, calls and emails from families who were desperate to get recognition for the work carried out by their own mums, grandmothers, sisters and aunts.

The Star Walk 2013  - From left, Dorothy Slingsby, Kitty Sollitt and Katlhleen Roberts warm-up

The Star Walk 2013 - From left, Dorothy Slingsby, Kitty Sollitt and Katlhleen Roberts warm-up

Sadly the vast majority of the women were no longer around to receive the thanks, but their families were thrilled by the campaign.

Nancy, Kath and Kit – along with Ruby Gascoigne and Dorothy Slingsby – took their message to Downing Street and the Ministry of Defence, finally receiving official thanks for all the women from then Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

A huge fundraising scheme was launched in Sheffield to raise enough money to create a statue in honour of the Women of Steel.

The £150,000 total was smashed earlier this year thanks to community events, concerts, individual and corporate donations, as well as the resurrection of The Star Walk in Hillsborough Park.

The statue, designed by Martin Jennings, is in the process of being made and is due to be unveiled outside the City Hall in spring.

Kath said: “It is nearly six years since we started the campaign and it has just been an incredible time really.

“I still can’t believe how it interested people so much.”

The glamorous awards at the InterContinental Hotel on Park Lane will be a far cry from Kath and Kit’s days in the steelworks.

During the war they were given one pair of clogs a year and had to adjust men’s boiler suits in a bid to make them more feminine.

Back then Kit’s family kept rabbits and chickens in the garden to feed the family, and they remember well the days when a butcher’s shop on Cumberland Street sold joints of horse and whale meat.

She said: “What we have done is taken people back to think what it was like in the war. It has made a difference to how people see Sheffield women and my generation.

“A lot of people had no idea what we were doing because we were told we shouldn’t talk about it, so we didn’t.

“We weren’t allowed to take photos and weren’t supposed to know what we were actually working on.”

Sandi Toksvig, president of Women of the Year, said: “We are honoured that we will be able to host such an incredible cohort of successful and inspiring women to choose the award winners for our 60th Anniversary Women of the Year Lunch.

“Our jury selects women whose achievements and determination are the very model of what Women of the Year is all about.”

The trio were due to travel to London in style thanks to East Midlands Trains, who temporarily renamed a train Women of Steel when the campaign first launched.

Jonny Wiseman, general manager north for East Midlands Trains, said: “We are pleased to be helping Kit, Kathleen and Nancy on their journey to the Women of the Year Lunch.

“This is a very fitting tribute for three deserving women and we wish them the very best of luck for the awards.”