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Sculpture set to honour Wearside's forgotten women shipyard workers

Home / More / News / Sculpture set to honour Wearside's forgotten women shipyard workers

Published on 13 February 2024

Ron with the new sculpture
Ron with the new sculpture

Designs for a stunning tribute to Sunderland’s forgotten women shipyard workers have been unveiled today.

Dr Ron Lawson, a Sunderland born artist and senior lecturer at the University of Sunderland whose own career started in heavy industry, has been commissioned by the city’s Soroptimists, with the support of Sunderland City Council and Apextra CIC, to create a piece that would represent a lasting legacy for the Wearside women who – as part of a herculean wartime effort that saw shipyards producing military vessels that were vital to the British armed forces – made their way to the banks of the Wear to do their bit.

After decades of being the forgotten force behind Sunderland’s WWII shipbuilding efforts, a new sculpture depicting a female shipyard worker is set to move to its next stage, with Ron advancing with a 25-week project to create the life-sized piece.

Made from forged and welded Corten self-weathering steel, the artwork – which is designed to look life-like – celebrates the 700 women who were among the workers who pushed through harsh conditions on the banks of the Wear during the war, often with partners fighting overseas and families to feed at home, to support their nation.

It was the vision of the Soroptimist International Sunderland Club - a worldwide organisation of women to promote education, to enable and empower to improve the life chances of women and girls – to deliver a fitting reminder for women shipyard workers, a tribute that will also mark 85 years of the Soroptimists in Sunderland.

Suzanne Brown, who has been a member of the Soroptimists for more than 35 years, was left so inspired by local author Nancy Revell’s popular series of books, Shipyard Girls - which tell the story of women shipyard workers during WWII - that she set out to create a tribute that would also act as a celebration of the Soroptimists in Sunderland. She discussed it with the Soroptimists club members, who then shared the idea with the acting-leader of Sunderland City Council at the time, Councillor Henry Trueman, who set the wheels in motion with officers at the council to ensure the vision could become a reality.

The collective originally appointed an artist in 2019 but after setbacks, including Covid, went on to commission Dr Lawson to take the work forward and he is currently crafting the piece – with the support of his son Alex - from his studio in Dubmire, near Fence Houses.

Suzanne said: “We are absolutely thrilled with the beautiful tribute that Ron has designed and it will be a dream come true to see it in place when it’s complete. It wouldn’t have been possible without the wonderful support of Ron, the council and Apextra CIC.

“These were women undertaking jobs like welding, riveting, burning and rivet catching, as well as general labouring, operating cranes, and painting. It was perilous work. Yet, history seems to have forgotten them. We really felt that these women deserve something – a permanent tribute – to honour their bravery and hard work. We wanted to acknowledge the courage and dedication of the shipyard women, as well as to celebrate the Soroptimists, which has done so much to champion women and girls in this city.

“We are just so excited to see the final piece. The sketches Ron shared of the sculpture he will create were simply wonderful and exactly what we pictured when we set out on this journey to celebrate these amazing women.”

The piece will stand on the riverside walkway at St Peter’s, looking directly across to the Port of Sunderland, where many ships built for the war effort would have set sail, destined for battle. It is a popular walking and cycling route, meaning many thousands of people will be inspired by the shipyard women every year. It is expected that the artwork will be installed by the end of summer, joining a number of pieces of public art that line the banks of the Wear.

As well as taking private commissions, Ron is also a senior lecturer at the University of Sunderland, and has a Doctorate in arts-based approaches in professional practice, and an MA degree in Contemporary Fine Art.

He said: “It's such a privilege for a Sunderland artist to be commissioned to design and create such an iconic sculpture. 

“I'm very proud of my Sunderland heritage, and I feel really connected to the subject and the place. The metalwork skills I'm using to make the sculpture were honed when I was an apprentice sheet metal worker at the North Dock, just a few hundred yards away from where she will be standing.

 “The sculpture is a life-size representation of a female welder wearing the personal protective equipment of the period, and she herself is made from forged and welded steel, which is rather appropriate.”

The Soroptimists’ piece has been supported by Sunderland City Council.

Councillor John Price, vibrant city cabinet member at Sunderland City Council, said: “The idea of recognising the fantastic women who played such a key role during what must have been the darkest of days, during the war, is one that the council was absolutely delighted to get behind.

 “Art has an amazing power to engage people. To connect people to stories and to not only celebrate our heritage but change our future. I hope this is not only a piece that not only keeps the memory of Sunderland’s amazing shipbuilding women alive, but that inspires women and girls long into the future.”