The Fascinating Story Behind The Ladies Bridge
Few people are aware that Waterloo Bridge, one of the most walked upon bridges in London, was built by a predominantly female workforce.
The iconic, self-cleaning bridge links the brutalist and egalitarian architecture of the Southbank to the regal Neoclassicism of Somerset House. Crossed by thousands of daily commuters and celebrated as a London landmark, from Wendy Cope’s poem, ‘After The Lunch’ to The Kinks’ ‘Waterloo Sunset,’ what hasn’t been included in the standard discourse, is the fact that its very existence is due to a cohort of hard-grafting women.
There are no written or photographic records of the women who built the bridge since the construction company that built it, Peter Lind, liquidated in the 1980s and with its demise went all the records. What is left is anecdotal evidence, kept alive by the tourist boat skippers who have dubbed it the Ladies Bridge.
September saw a series of events celebrating the unsung work of the largely female workforce who constructed the bridge. Composer Claudia Molitor has created a 40-minute long musical response to Waterloo Bridge, entitled, ‘The Singing Bridge.’ Molitor’s meditative and resonant soundscape reflects the bridge, its physicality and surroundings, both metaphorically and quite literally in that many of the sounds are taking from location recordings. The Singing Bridge ran at Somerset House from 9 – 25 September.
Concurrently haunting and industrial, encompassing both the urban setting and the flowing Thames, the music forces the listener to experience the bridge whilst blocking out the hustle and bustle of London and Londoners rushing by.
In late September, the “Light up the Ladies Bridge” event saw the National Theatre’s fly tower illuminated by large scale photographic projections of female construction workers working in construction during World War II. This project is the brainchild of Karen Livesey, the director and co-producer of The Ladies Bridge documentary which tells the story of these all-but-forgotten women.
With the bulk of the active male labour-force away at the front, women increasingly took on traditionally male roles during the Second World War. By 1944 25,000 women were working in the construction industry: carrying out back-breaking tasks and working on bridges and infrastructure which would be the prime target of enemy action due to their symbolic and strategic importance.
These women were permitted to carry out this physically gruelling and hazardous work on the basis that it would only be temporary and that their pay would be lower than that of men. So the surge in women working in construction and engineering did not continue after the war: it is little surprise therefore that in 2015, only 14% of the UK’s STEM workforce was female.
Let’s celebrate the women who have helped to build the cities in which we live, and let’s strive to encourage more to put their talents and efforts into the edifices of the future.
Photo Credit: Totally Thames