Vickers Shipyard and Engineering Ltd (VSEL) – now BAE Systems – has been an integral part of Barrow life for decades. It has provided work for thousands of people and it gives Barrow its unique skyline. Without exception, the yard has featured in the memories of the women we have spoken to. Many women were married to men who worked there or had fathers who worked there, and a smaller number of women worked there themselves.
What happened at the yard had an impact throughout the town. Workers and sailors came in from abroad adding an international flavour to Barrow, and each summer the Vickers fortnight holiday would be a chance for the whole town to gather, socialise and go to the fair.
When strikes were called, as they were in the 1950s and late 1980s, the ripples were felt in almost every house. And when the numbers of employees fell dramatically, the impact was severe for many families.
When the strikes were on I was an apprentice – apprentices were still getting paid. It was a long hot summer. My dad was still working, he was a manager, and he was getting called scab and the rest of it. But for me, it was a doddle, it was like having a long summer holiday. But I knew about the rest of the town that was getting impacted quite hard, no money, about 12 weeks – quite a long time without pay.”
In the days when employment was high, however, the streets would be full of workers at the start and end of the day. Some women used to take their children to watch, others would stay out of the way! This happened from the 1950s until the 1990s.
Probably something a lot of people mention was Vickers coming out. You never ever went anywhere near any of the bridges or the roads, it was like ants coming out of a nest, there were thousands of people. If you got booked for a driving lesson or a test at that time, God help you! They would all be lined up at the gates and the first buzzer would go at twenty-five past four. If you were driving or walking past then you’d be thinking I’ve got to get to the other side now or I’ll just get jostled everywhere …”