They built a bridge. Not just an ordinary bridge but the sleek and elegant Waterloo Bridge spanning the Thames in London.
Who were they? The answer lies in the alternative name given to Waterloos Bridge by riverboat guides daily plying the Thames – ‘The Ladies’ Bridge’. As they approach ther bridge with their passengers the guides explain to their eager listeners the intriguing story of how the bridge was completed during WWII by hundreds of women who left their daily chores at home or other jobs and volunteered to become welders, joiners, stonemasons and labourers.
Construction of the bridge started in 1939 with a workforce of about 500 men. When war broke out most of the workmen were enlisted to fight By 1941 only 50 men were still on the site. It was a priority to complete the bridge. The places of the missing men were taken by women who had to be trained and toughened for the job in hand.
Despite German bombing raids – The Ladies Bridge was the only bridge over the Thames to be hit by bombs during the war – the bridge was opened to traffic and pedestrians in 1942. In the turmoil at the end of the war, records got lost and for many years the efforts of the ladies remained unrecognised, except for the riverboat guides plying the Thames. They knew that the new Waterloo Bridge was built by ladies. Daily over the years, they would tell their passenger the story of who built ‘The Ladies Bridge’ as they fondly named it.
For over 70 years the details of its completion remained unknown to the general public. In fact, the Labour politician Herbert Morrison said to the crowds gathered at the official opening ceremony which finally took place in December 1945: ‘The men who built Waterloo Bridge are fortunate men. They know that, although their names may be forgotten, their work will be a pride and use to London for many generations to come.’
It is only very recently that historian, Christine Wall, researched the story behind that strange name. She finally discovered archived photographs of women welders and labourers working on the bridge and interview eye-witnesses who attested to this almost forgotten part of London’s history. She was able to piece the story together and, working with filmmaker, Karen Livesey, the pair made a video of the now corroborated story of the women workers, who built ‘The Ladies’ Bridge’ (http:// www.theladiesbridge.co.uk/).
Without the loudspeakers and the Londoners’ wit of the riverboat guides, the truth about its creation during the Blitz years would possibly never ever have been known. But finally, the story of the forgotten heroines of London’s “The Ladies’ Bridge” is known and can be celebrated.