Woman of Steel Kathleen Roberts, 100, reflects on how many of Sheffield's female workers of WWII are left

Kathleen Roberts, who sparked The Star’s Women of Steel campaign which led to official government recognition and the Barkers Pool statue, turns 100 years old today.

Tuesday, 4th January 2022, 5:03 pm

It has been 82 years since Kathleen and the women of her city were called up to take Sheffield’s steelworks industry by the horns while the men in their lives fought overseas in World War Two. She was 18 at the time.

But when the soldiers came home, the women were thanklessly given their notice and encouraged not to speak of it again.

It was only in 2016 when they were given their due credit, after Kathleen and her friends Kit, Ruby and Dorothy spearheaded a campaign to unveil the Women of Steel statue outside City Hall in Barker’s Pool that stands today.

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Kathleen Roberts with her women of steel medal in the City Hall.

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Now, on her 100th birthday, Kathleen wonders how many of the women who worked the presses with her 80 years ago are still around.

“They would have to be around my age, and I’m turning 100,” Kathleen said.

"What’s funny to me is, when I left when the war finished I never ever met a single soul who had worked there all through the war – I never saw anyone ever again.

Kathleen says she misses her three friends Kit, Ruby and Dot, and says the years they spent together on the Women of Steel journey were "good years".

“We had been working there together for four years and some of us became quite good friends. I remember I was good friends with a woman named Ruth Williams, the crane driver, who lived in Darnell –and we never saw each other ever again.”

They worked in conditions unheard of today. Past the bluster of ‘doing your part’ and getting stuck in, the Women of Steel simply faced 72 hours a week of work in deafeningly loud factories, exposed to the elements and paid less than the men doing the same jobs, all whilst raising their children during the Sheffield Blitz.

As one stand out detail, the air raid shelters were full over frighteningly huge rats, so if a raid began, the women put on “useless” tin helmets and kept working.

On her 100th birthday, Kathleen Roberts has reflected on how she might be the last of Sheffield's Women of Steel - the female workforce that kept the city's steel industry alive during WWII.

With something of a shrug, Kathleen – who herself worked at Brown Baileys Steel cutlery factory – honestly compared the conditions to slave labour. But she insists the women all had each other. They had a laugh on shift all the same, and they did what needed to be done.

"If I had my time over again I would go into engineering,” Kathleen said. “I got a taste for taking machines to pieces and finding what was wrong and putting them back together.

“But it didn’t come up because the men who survived the war wanted their jobs back.”

Instead, Kathleen went on to take a job at Pauldens department store, where Debenhams now stands on the Moor. Her and her husband Joe – a D-Day veteran, who incidentally married Kathleen during his 48 hours of leave before he was sent back to fight in the Middle East in 1941 – had two daughters together, and today she has three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Wartime women at work

Joe sadly died in 2008. A year later, Kathleen and her journey with the other Women of Steel would touch the hearts of countless people.

It began with a call to The Star’s now-editor Nancy Fielder after Kathleen saw a television programme about the Women’s Land Army being invited to Buckingham Palace by the Queen.

"I started to feel frustrated that everybody else had been recognised for their contribution during the war, but nobody had ever mentioned the women of this city, who'd left their families at home to take over jobs in steelworks across the city when war broke out,” Kathleen said.

“A few days later, Nancy called me back to tell me the story had brought in calls and letters from all over the world, and that so many people felt the way I did; I couldn't believe it."

It led to Kathleen meeting her three new partners in crime – Kitty Sollitt, Ruby Gascoigne, and Dorothy Slingsby – who together would fight to see the Women of Steel recognised at last.

Kathleen, Dorothy, Ruby and Kit at the unveiling of the Women of Steel statue in Barkers Pool in 2016

It culminated with the unveiling of the iconic statue in Barker’s Pool in 2016 after a £160,000 fundraising effort by the four ladies.

"We went on rather a long journey to get the money to pay for it,” said Kathleen. “It took us quite a few years. I remember them very well – they were good years.”

It was an effort that will immortalise the four friends, and is marked by The Star’s own Women of Steel awards each year.

But in the years since, Kathleen has had to say goodbye to Kit, Ruby and Dot each in turn. She now reflects on being 100 years old – grateful, but unsure how it worked out this way.

"It’s an honour to get to 100 but it’s also a bit of a struggle,” Kathleen said. “I’m quite surprised to have got to this age.

"I’ve just lived a normal life. I’ve done a lot with the Women of Steel and I do miss the other three ladies. But life just goes on.”

Kathleen hasn’t displayed her card from the Queen at her home in White Willows assisted living in Jordanthorpe. What is up, though, is a charming greeting card featuring the Women of Steel statue, a photo of her and the other three ladies, and dozens of pictures of her family.

But Kathleen says: “I would say I’m more lonely now that I’ve ever been.

"Covid has led to people themselves keeping to themselves. I’ve not seen my grandchildren over the holidays – and you know, I’ve decided to tell everybody not to come for my birthday. If I’m still here when Covid-19 is gone we’ll meet then. I don’t want them to get together now and catch something.

"Life goes on I suppose.”