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WOmen at the Dockyard

Hidden Heroines: the untold stories of the women of the Dockyard

HOW WERE THE WOMEN OF THE SPINNING ROOMS INVOLVED IN THE BLACK MARKET DURING THE WAR YEARS?

Pam Wood worked at The Historic Dockyard Chatham from 1989 – 2021, continuing a family legacy of female workers at the dockyard. Here she reminisces on some special family memories…

“I grew up with stories of the ropery from my grandmother, whose own mother worked in the spinning rooms, my nan worked there too. Mum worked in the ‘yard in her younger years, with all the women leaving the ‘yard when they got married – as was the way of the world then.”

Pam Wood as a child (front), with the generations of female dockyard workers: her mother, nan, sister and a neighbour who worked in Admirals Offices.

Pam’s mother smuggled meat in her girdle as part of a cheeky Dockyard Black Market scheme during the Second World War. Pam recalls one of her mothers stories, from her time working in the Spinning Rooms:

“My Mum went there for a while – she didn’t work there long but she told me this lovely story. There was always black market stuff going on and she was extremely attractive – at the time there was a famous personality called Katie Boyle – she had the same sort of figure she had a real hourglass figure [as] did mum have…”

“…that worked for the chap in charge of the kitchens because he needed somebody to be a bit of a go-between the navy’s black market and the fact that things always went missing from the dockyard..”

“..She said she would get oiked over on the dockyard wall, she would almost be sitting astride the wall and up would come a bottle of rum from one side – which would be from the Navy, which would come down to the person in the dockyard – and in exchange meat would go out or rations or things that were rationed.”

“Mum’s reward for doing this was some meat to bring home. You had to smuggle it out and it went into her girdle, and I always used to wonder how cooked it was by the time she got it home.”

Three generations of female workers at the Dockyard

With a growing curiosity around family history, Pam returned to Medway in November 1999 to look for any evidence of the stories her nan used to tell her. One of Pam’s biggest historical finds was discovered through using the census online. She started looking into Commissioner’s House before her research led her to Officer’s Terrace, where she discovered one of her relatives worked there as a maid.

“My grandad worked on the ropewalk, and my nan in the ropery hemp houses and spinning room – here’s a photo of my nan and grandad. To think that I walk in the footsteps on my own families past – male and female, every day at the ‘yard is so special. He would sit at main gate and walk her home – that’s how the romance started, however unfortunately it wasn’t a happy ending! Grandad went off to war but when he returned, he decided he didn’t want to work at the ropery as it seemed too boring. He went off to work elsewhere at the ‘yard and they soon broke up.”

“Funnily enough I often get quite wheezy in the ropery and often stop to think what the conditions would have been like when by grandmother worked there – with all the fibres in the air – it’s unimaginable. I take my hat off to them all in working in those conditions.”

Pam recalls the disaster involving HMS TALENT:

“It was very dramatic, 100 men working in the dry dock when the caisson at the back gave way and the force of the river Medway came in, lifted submarine out of the dock, and shot across the river. 3 men lost their lives and 33 injured.”

“My nan would tell the story of how the women who worked in the Clock Tower building made constant cups of tea, keeping people comfortable in the situation of disaster. They had all witnessed this huge wave of water – tidal wave! Today I keep this memory alive by re-telling this story into pop up talks.”

“Another big story that my nan used to recall was the announcement of the 3 ships going down – Three Cruisers – from the First World War (HMS Hogue, HMS Cressy and HMS Aboukir). She’d recall the silence of going through Medway with women assembling at the town hall to find out who was lost at sea.”

When listening to Pam’s story, she mentions that although many women left the dockyard to bring up the children, they had the role of almost ‘feeding’ the dockyard, encouraging their children to go to work there, continuing the family cycle, and having that ‘job for life’ security back then.

These are only small snippets of Pam’s incredible stories.