It started as an urban legend – the story that women were responsible for building Waterloo Bridge during the war. But with no written record and few who had any recollection of seeing the ladies, would it ever be proven true – or remain the stuff of legends?
Although women’s contribution to the war effort is well-documented, with women tasked with everything from driving fire engines to building aeroplanes, much less is said about their outstanding contribution to construction.
Yet, by 1944, a staggering 25,000 women were working in the construction industry, filling in labour gaps left by British men being sent to war.
By the 1930s, London’s Waterloo Bridge, which was deemed of strategic importance to the army’s movement during WWII, was in a state of dilapidation.Architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott commissioned a new bridge design and, by 1939, work was underway on the new Waterloo Bridge.
To this day, the Thames riverboat pilots call it ‘the Ladies' Bridge’, as it’s thought that up to 65% of the construction workers responsible for building it were women. Despite the enduring nature of this tale, few individuals have any recollection of seeing women building the bridge during WWII.
So, where did this rumour come from, and how had it persisted through the generations? Was it merely an urban legend, or could there be some truth to the pilots’ accounts?
Lost, but not forgotten
The story of the 'Ladies' Bridge’ caught the eye of historian Professor Christine Wall, who trained in carpentry and joinery in the late 1970s. In 2005, filmmakers Karen Livesey and Jo Wiser teamed up with Wall to pursue the account, and The Ladies' Bridge Documentary was born.
Yet with no written or pictorial evidence proving that any of these women existed, never mind that they were responsible for re-building one of London’s most famous landmarks, Wall was tasked with an incredible challenge.
One explanation explored in the film is that Peter Lind & Co., the company that hired many contractors who worked on Waterloo Bridge, went into liquidation in the 1980s. The liquidation resulted in the loss of thousands of pieces of information, which may have provided the missing piece of the puzzle.
Women and the war effort
Wiser and Livesey also interviewed women who played an essential part in the war effort across engineering and industry.
One participant, Lady Platt, was amongjust five women studying aeronautical engineering at university. She later discovered there had only ever been nine women that studied it before her. Whilethese figures might seem vanishingly small, by 1945 over 3% of women were manual workers – by 2005 this figure stood at just 1%.
Over seven million women worked during WWII. As many women had turned their hands to industry, helping build, sustain, and transform wartime Britain, it’s perhaps unsurprising that many found the return to home-making a difficult transition.
As the film explores, many women working in engineering and construction knew that their employment was temporary and that their positions would be untenable as soon as the men returned from battle.
With the outbreak of the war, the construction company responsible for commissioning the new Waterloo Bridge had compromised by asking for ‘green labour’ – those who are new to the industry – seemingly unable to bring themselves to utter the word ‘women'.
Searching for the lost ladies
To support the filmmakers’ attempt to identify the women who built Waterloo Bridge, many broadcasters and publications sent messages inviting people to get in touch if they knew anyone who had any memories of seeing women working on the bridge.
After seeing an advert in Saga, David Church, whose father worked on Waterloo Bridge throughout the war, came forward to share his memories.
He recalled that there were 'two grades of ladies'. Most of the women wore dungarees, whilethose in more senior roles, who were responsible for operating vehicles, wore all-in-one overalls, similar to the uniform worn by the men.
A remarkable discovery
Although Livesey and Wiser had done an outstanding job of creating an oral history of women’s forgotten contributions to the construction industry, the best was yet to come.
In 2005, Christine Wall revisited the archives of The National Science and Media Museum. Here, she discovered something they’d almost given up hope of ever finding: a picture of three women dismantling the old Waterloo Bridge.
Wall also unearthed an image of a woman only known as Dorothy, a welder, photographed at work on the bridge just a year before it opened.
At Waterloo Bridge’s official opening in December 1945, Deputy Prime Minister Herbert Morrison proclaimed: "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 was likely a combination of wartime censorship and loss of official records that resulted in women’s part in building Waterloo Bridge being omitted from history.
As a result of Wall’s determination, Historic England finally recognised women’s contribution to the building of Waterloo Bridge in 2005, with a Grade II re-listing.
Still, there remains an ongoing campaign, supported by The Women’s Engineering Society (WES), to get a blue plaque installed on the bridge to commemorate the women who built it. You can show your support for the initiative by signing the petition.
It seems a fitting ending to the story of the Ladies' Bridgethat, just as an image of three women dismantling Waterloo Bridge helped identify the human faces behind the tale, three modern-day women – Wall, Wiser and Livesey – were responsible for uncovering the truth behind the legend.