Irene Sweeney (nee May)

My mum, Irene Sweeney, nee May, born at 8 Dartmouth Street, Walney Island on the 2 August 1917, died 6 April, 2003. She was a Supervisor in the machine shop in the Shipyard during World War Two. I remember her telling me that she was working in the machine shop one day, when her ‘boss’, another woman who was working in there, said to my mum that she would like her to be a supervisor. My mum looked back in surprise -or horror- and said, ‘What me? I couldn’t be a supervisor to all these women’. Her boss replied, ‘You’d be like a mother to them’, and she was.

There was one worker who particularly stood out to her for drinking 9 pints of boiled water a day! They said you would never have digestive problems if you drank boiled water, and you would have clear skin. You just needed to sip it slowly and as hot as you could handle! It’s a tradition Irene upheld, still drinking a pint of boiled water with her mid-day meal well into her 80’s. A testament to the lasting relationships formed during WW2 war work.

by Jane McDonnell

irene sweeney nee may barrow shipyard ww2

Female supervisors in industry in WWII, just like Irene, were incredibly rare.

Although many women were sent to, or volunteered, to work in the factories and large industries that were in desperate need of workers, very few of them became supervisors.

This was, for the most part, down to the attitudes of the remaining men. They worried about jobs for the returning soldiers, and they fought hard to preserve the significant male dominance in industry. Although wrong by today’s standards, it was understandable that they would be concerned. After all, apart from the Munitions Girls of the First World War, the vast majority of women were absent from the workplace. Conscription in WW2 was bringing about huge societal change. And once the remaining men could see how effective the women were at such skilled work, they were understandably concerned about preserving the status quo. As a result, it was common place for factories and industries to only employ male supervisors. Something that became incredibly influential in the battle for equal pay.

Women were paid considerably less than the men, even when completing the same tasks and working the same long hours in the machine shops and industries across the UK.

Of course this wasn’t fair, and some women resorted to agitating at a local level to ensure equal pay. Eventually a compromise was reached. This compromise allowed women to be entitled to equal pay if they performed the same role, without supervision or assistance. As a result, the vast majority of employers managed to circumvent this issue by promoting the remaining men to the role of supervisor.

Irene must have demonstrated fantastic leadership qualities, and would have been an inspiration to the women she led.

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