Women at Work

Between 1950 and 2000 women’s work in Barrow has seen more than a few changes. For the whole of Barrow, BAE Systems, formerly known as Vickers Ship Yard, has always seemed to be a focal point.

In the 1940s and ‘50s there was a view amongst many that women had two work choices – either work in Vickers (in the admin offices) or in the laundry. Women would have started work at the age of 14 or 15, having left school. But in practice the choice wasn’t limited to only two options. Other choices included working at Ashburners, an upholstery company, and working in the offices at The Steelworks or the Railways, or joining a bakery, or a shop.

A number of women trained to do nursing or midwifery, and a small number in the 1940s or ‘50s went on to further education – university (for instance to become a Chemist) or Art School (following this up with a teaching career). Later more women were able to go into Vickers and although the workforce was, and remains, dominantly male, the company was awarded positive recognition for its treatment of women in the workplace.

But without doubt choices in the work place in Barrow did change a great deal. Options such as Youth Work didn’t come about until more recently – in the 1950s work with youths was primarily through churches.

Moving on to the 1980s, when further education was more the norm for young women, many chose to do baby sitting and bar work to bring in extra cash – something that wouldn’t have been so simple three decades previously. However, there were fewer jobs in Barrow than there had been in the 1940s, and it became difficult to find work.

When we spoke to women from across the generations in Barrow we gathered differing views – some felt that they had been encouraged and supported to reach their full potential, and aim high; others felt that there was a resignation to a life of low aspirations in a town that had little to offer except Vickers and motherhood. These polarised views existed in the 1940s just they did in 2000*. It seems that whatever your age or generation, the adults in your life – and often the most influential are teachers – are those that either inspire and encourage you, or set you back. This is one of the constants that seems to weave its way through the decades.

*For instance, we were told of Miss Wells at the Girls’ Grammar School who encouraged all the girls to do their best. This contrasted with the attitude in the 1970s at Ulverston Grammar School where girls felt actively deterred from doing their best.