A new exhibition pays tribute to the women who worked on Liverpool docks. Tony Barrett reports
THEY are the women of the waterfront – a group of pioneering individuals who entered a traditionally male dominated environment and pushed back boundaries which had been in place for centuries.
And now Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery is paying tribute to the local women who became dockers, seafarers, ships painters and other dockside workers by hosting an exhibition in their honour.
Researcher Dr Joanne Lacey, herself the granddaughter of a ships cleaner, has put together the stories of a group of more than 50 women who worked at Liverpool docks for the exhibition, entitled The Water’s Edge.
Each of the tales is accompanied by a photograph of the woman, taken by acclaimed photographer Michelle Sank.
Says Dr Lacey: “For me, there’d always been a fascination with the docks, and with the port, and with the river, and with the sea.
“The stories in my family were very much about my grandfather, who was in the merchant navy, so the stories we heard were ones of adventure and leaving and men’s stories, really, and important stories.
“But it wasn’t until after my grandmother died that I’d learned that she’d worked on the docks as a ships cleaner, and I started to think: all that time we’d sat in their living room, she’d never spoken of it.
“I started to think about the stories that weren’t told – women’s roles on the waterfront and the work that they do.”
Today, the ECHO brings you three of the stories, featuring a docker, a seafarer and a ships painter.
The Water’s Edge is at the Open Eye Gallery, Wood Street, until June 2.
THERE was a time when pretty much the only women working at Liverpool docks would invariably be found in the offices.
But the likes of Carol Chadderton are bucking that trend.
“I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty,” says Carol, 44, who is proud to describe herself as a docker.
Based at Seaforth, Carol, from Kirkby, is one of just a handful of women who work as dockers in a workforce which is more than 300-strong.
“I’ve been doing it for 10 years and I love it,” she says. “If I didn’t like it then I wouldn’t be doing it, it’s as simple as that.
“There are another couple of women who work here. There’s a girl called Sandra and another called Elaine.
“But the vast majority are men so we are heavily outnumbered. But they are good lads and they respect you if you are prepared to roll your sleeves up and get stuck in and I’m more than happy to do that.
“There is plenty of banter but the key to that is to give as good as you get. If you’re prepared to give it out then you have to be prepared to take it.”
Carol’s job – which involves driving a truck and loading and unloading wagons – is not something she dreamed of doing as a child but it is one which she has grown to love.
“I’d never even thought of working at the docks,” she says.
“I worked with Securicor and Parcel Force and it had never even occurred to me to get a job down here.
“But this job came up and I went for it and the rest is history.”
Though she clearly and admittedly loves her job, Carol is prepared to admit that it might not be right for every woman.
“If you are a bit of a ‘fluffy’ woman then I don’t think this is the job for you,” she laughs.
“But it is a great job if you like getting stuck in and getting your hands dirty.”
WHEN the demands of World War ll took thousands of Merseyside men overseas to fight for their country many of the jobs they had traditionally done were filled by women.
One such woman was Mary – whose surname has been withheld by request – who took a job as a ships painter at Liverpool docks.
And it is a time of her life which Mary, now 82, still looks upon with great fondness, more than 60 years after she first took the job.
“I was 19 at the time and I can remember going to the dole and being sent to a painting firm called J&W Wilson, which was based at Wapping Dock,” recalls Mary, from Page Moss.
“I was living with my family on Scotland Road at the time and there were lots of men from that area who worked on the docks.
“My own dad had worked there as a cooper but I did not know any women who worked there at the time.
“I can remember going there on the old Overhead Railway and, apart from the cleaners, I was usually the only woman on there.
“I think there were only about four women who worked there and there were loads of men so I suppose what I did was quite uncommon.
“But with so many of the men being at war the jobs they did had to be done so in many cases it was women who did them.
“I was a ships painter and my job was to paint the big liners that came in. It was a good job and I really enjoyed my time working at the docks. It’s something I have a lot of happy memories about.”
FROM her earliest days Bretta McGinty always dreamed of a life on the ocean waves.
Growing up in Kirkdale she heard all the old stories told by seafarers and dockers and she knew that what she wanted above all else was to go away to sea.
But at the age of 20 impatience got the better of Bretta and she headed off to begin a new life in New York because she was not allowed to join the merchant navy until she was at least 23.
After a decade in the Big Apple she came back home and decided the time had come to fulfil her dream.
“I was 31 at the time and the first ship I sailed with was the Empress of Canada in 1969,” recalls Bretta, now 71.
“My first voyage was from Southampton to New York and then to the Caribbean and I absolutely loved it.
“It was everything I had hoped it would be and more.
“The social side was great because there was a cracking crowd on board. But it was also really hard work because you had to work for seven days a week.
“I thoroughly enjoyed it though and after that I sailed on The Ocean Monarch and The Union Castle.
“I started off as a laundry maid and ended up becoming a stewardess and, all in all, I spent seven years at sea and loved every minute of it.”
Bretta, who now lives on Great Homer Street, looks back on the camaraderie she shared with her ship mates as one of the best things about being at sea.
She says: “On the Ocean Monarch there was the biggest contingency of female staff I ever worked with and we got on like a house on fire.
“I think there were 72 waitresses and there were quite a few other female members of staff so we used to have a good laugh.
“The lads were great as well though and we all mucked in together and they were special times.”
Marriage brought Bretta’s spell at sea to an end but she never lost her love for the ocean waves.
Today she lives in an apartment block from where she can see the River Mersey and the view never fails to bring back good memories.
“It was a special thing to set sail from the Mersey,” she says. “I used to be able to walk down to the docks to join the ship and it’s good that I can still see the river every day from where I am.”