Many thanks to Anne Fielding for sharing this story about her mother, Nellie McQueen, who worked in the Sheffield steel mills during WWII. Anne says of her mother, “She wore a red overall and the girls used to call her the red shadow.”
The tram rumbled on through the dark. She was too tired to sit up straight and every so often the weariness would overtake her and her eyes closed. The jolt of another stop, the ping of the bell roused her momentarily only for her heavy lids to close again.
It was only seven o’clock but the blackout and the winter dark made it seem more like midnight. The course velour of the seat chafed the back of her legs. She had no more nylons left, just a pencil line hastily applied down the back of her legs this morning and now no doubt rubbed away, a pretence at glamour. Her blonde hair gleamed in the faint light of the tram but her face had the pallor of weariness and her shoulders sagged.
She was returning from her twelve hour shift at the Hadfield’s Steel Works in Attercliffe.
“Nellie wake up, it’s me”.
She was woken this time by a touch on her arm and a familiar voice.
“I’m just back from Mother’s. I was hoping I would meet you. My you look worn out.”
It was her sister Betty looking at her, then down at her side linking her arm.
“God what a day. Two air raid alerts, but I was on my own so couldn’t lift Mother. We just had to sit it out in the Kitchen.”
Nellie sat up straight and pushed back a strand of hair that had fallen over her face.
“Me and the girls at work can never go to the shelters. The tannoy just tells us what is happening because the machines are never turned off. The work must go on. We need those shells and Hadfield’s is the only place that makes them. My head is ringing by the end of the shift. I see rolling shells in my sleep. I’m supposed to be looking after the girls’ welfare but what can I do. It’s hot noisy and never ending. I was so tired last night when I went to bed, I slept through the sirens. Walt was out on fire watch and it was our Derek that woke me up. We did get down to the Anderson but her next door said she been in there for at least an hour.”
The bell tinged and the tram came to a halt at the Terminus. The two women got up and said their thanks to the driver and the conductress.
They still had a fifteen minute walk up the hill to home. They linked arms and set off. It was only at the top of the hill that they paused and turned and looked back down over the city. In the distance they could see fires burning and smoke rising. Sirens sounded faintly . There was a red glow in the sky but no bombers could be heard.
“Some poor buggers are catching it. How much longer can we survive this?” said Betty.
“No choice have we,” Nellie replied.
They pulled their coat collars tighter around their necks and resumed their walk to the relative safety of their homes and warmth of their families.
There were no lights to guide them, just the bomber’s moon and the cold stars shining down and faintly lighting their path.