'Our story's in good hands now,' says 'Woman of Steel' - ten years on

"We waited such a long time for that 'thank you'," says Kathleen Roberts, her eyes shining at the memory.

By Nik Farah
Friday, 17th January 2020, 6:44 pm

"The women of Sheffield did more in the war, and gave up more in the war, than people realised.

“When I think about those young women with husbands in the forces, who worked long hours in the steelworks with young children waiting at home, and households to take care of, I feel such pride.

“They just got on with it, they always found a way."

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Woman of Steel, Kathleen Roberts

It's been ten years since Kathleen joined Kit Sollitt, Ruby Gascgoine and Dorothy Slingsby as the four faces of the 'Women of Steel' campaign, which was spearheaded by The Star's now-editor, Nancy Fielder.

Today, aged 98, Kathleen is the only remaining Woman of Steel, though she says the memories the group of women made together, and the things they achieved, will outlive them all.

"We travelled all over, talking to crowds of hundreds at a time about our experiences," she smiles.

"We met all kinds of famous people, and even visited Downing Street for tea with the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

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

"Most importantly, we threw light on something that had remained in the dark for decades."

Though Kathleen admits that the phone call which started it all, to The Star's offices in 2009, initially left her in a knot of anxiety.

"I'd decided to call The Star because I was watching the television, and the Women's Land Army was being entertained at Buckingham Palace by the Queen," Kathleen recalls.

"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 with her sister Brenda, during wartime

“I called and ranted to Nancy at The Star, who agreed that something should be done.

"After I'd hung up, I sat and cried on my stairs. I thought I'd done a foolish thing, and was instantly worried that people would laugh at me.

“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."

Nancy introduced Kathleen to her three new partners in crime, who'd also reached out to the paper, and together the team of women set about campaigning, on behalf of thousands of others, for the recognition they felt was long overdue.

The Women of Steel set off to Downing Street to meet PM Gordon Brown in 2010

"Ruby, Kit, Dorothy and I had all been strangers, but we all got on so well together, it was an instant connection," Kathleen says.

"I'd worked in a rolling mill during the war, Dorothy had been a crane driver, Ruby was working on the Mulberry Bridge for D-Day, and Kit was working in some sort of awful cauldron with flames coming out, that burned her quite badly. It was a dreadful job, though she says she quite liked it.

“The four of us became good friends. Kit and I were really quite close, and Ruby was such a character, keeping us all laughing all the time, while Dorothy was much quieter, but we all went on this wonderful journey together."

For the Women of Steel, the real journey, of course, had begun 70 years earlier.

"I was 19," Kathleen says.

"It was 1941 and I'd just married my husband Joe, while he was at home on leave for just 48 hours. The following week, I started work at Brown Bayley Steels, where I remained for the rest of the war.

Wartime women at work

"It was very different to the work I'd done previously, but I enjoyed it. I think all of us women enjoyed rolling up our sleeves and getting stuck in.

“There were daughters, mums and grandmothers working side-by-side, juggling the children and the chores between them. It was inspiring.

“The sense of community and camaraderie rang out during those years, in a way it simply doesn't anymore."

A few years later, one Friday morning, Kathleen - like so many others - arrived at work to be handed her papers and told she was no longer needed.

"The men were coming home, and they wanted their jobs back," she says simply.

"There was a never a thank you, or a show of appreciation for what we did.

“What's more, we were told never to speak about it, to keep quiet, which was hurtful, but that's what we did.

“That's the way it was until 2009, when the Women of Steel finally said, 'enough'."

It was in early 2010 that an invitation to Downing Street signalled a big moment in the campaign, making headlines around the country.

"What a day that was," the great-grandmother smiles, her eyes shining.

"The five of us set off on the train from Sheffield, and there were people there waving us off.

"London was fantastic, and we had a tour of Downing Street, and lunch in the Houses of Parliament.

“At the end of a long and wonderful day, the Prime Minister's car took us back to the station. It was a lovely experience."

Kathleen reveals the 'icing on the cake' was the Women of Steel statue, which was commissioned by Sheffield City Council and which the women themselves worked to raise £160,000 to fund.

It was unveiled in Barker's Pool in 2016, at an event attended by around 100 women who'd worked in the city's steelworks during WWII.

"All of us five ladies were there, along with a crowd of about 2,000," Kathleen says.

"I was so pleased we'd all made it to that day, after travelling far and wide to help get the money together.

“It was the 'thank you' we'd all waited for, and I'm hoping it stands in Sheffield for many years to come, and that people will look back and remember us."

Their mission completed, the women went back to their lives, as grandmothers and great-grandmothers, but with a renewed sense of pride at all they'd done, and a lifelong friendship.

Sadly, Dorothy died just months after the statue unveiling, in 2016, followed by both Ruby and Kit in 2017.

"I miss Kit, Ruby, and Dorothy very much," Kathleen says sadly.

"We went through a wonderful time together and it bonded us.

“The truth is that we're history now, bygone history, and though I'm sure there must still be the odd woman of steel out there, our tale is now one that is largely relegated to the archives.

"It's a strange feeling, to think I started this, and that I'll be finishing it.

“I'll go down in history, we all will, and people will remember the women of Sheffield, and what we did in the war, and that's all I ever wanted.

"Our story's in good hands now.