“Fascinating essay in social history and a gripping account of the search to recover memories of a particularly poignant time in British History, and the often forgotten role that women played in war-time.”
Greg Neale, BBC History Magazine & BBC Newsnight
Karen Livesey is a documentary film maker who comes from a politically active, campaigning background. She attended film school in Sheffield, studying cinematography and directing.
This is when she first became interested in the gender divide – specifically, what separated “men’s work” from “women’s work”.
The inspiration for the Ladies Bridge documentary came from a story Karen heard in Sheffield: that Waterloo Bridge had been almost entirely rebuilt by women during the Second World War.
The river boat pilots on the Thames knew the story, although they didn’t know how they knew it: as they passed under Waterloo Bridge tour guides would always tell tourists the story of the women who had worked on it.
The story had been handed down orally, but did not appear to have been documented, and so wasn’t classed as “official history”. Karen was astonished that this wasn’t part of any official record, and so – somewhat optimistically, as she admits – started to try and track down the truth.
The process of making the film started in 2005 when Karen heard about a lottery grant available for ideas related to WWII. Karen and her collaborators won funding to try and bring the narrative to light.
At this point Karen met Christine Wall, an academic historian who specialises in construction and the built environment. She, too, had been searching for the story of the bridge as part of a wider focus on the history of post-war construction workers.
Originally, Karen assumed that it would be a simple matter to find someone who had worked on the bridge during the war.
She contacted old people’s homes in the area and put out calls via Robert Elms and Sandi Toksvig on LBC radio, and Saga. She puts ads in the South London Press and community centres. She discovered people who knew of women working on the bridge, but she wasn't able to locate any of the women themselves.
At this stage of the documentary, she realised that perhaps the search for the truth itself was the right story to tell in the film: a huge learning point for Karen was knowing when to change direction.
By 2007, the first version of the film was available on the website, The Ladies Bridge.
In 2015, Karen was asked to screen the film at Somerset House, in London. During the production of the film, an archive had been digitised which contained three pictures of female welders working on the bridge. Dr Wall found these, via the internet, in the Bradford Film and TV Archive.
Finally, this was conclusive proof of the original story!
Ten years after the process of making the film had started, this was the fundamental turning point in the process. The film was re-edited, to include an interview that had previously been cut.
The biggest achievement for this film, and for Karen, was that she turned something that had previously only existed as oral history into a matter of mainstream, historical record.
The story of the Ladies Bridge is now on Wikipedia, it has been memorialised in film and is being remembered in other ways, too: Karen and co-producer Jo Wiser worked with Historic England to put in an application for a London Blue Plaque to be placed on the bridge.
In September 2016 black and white images of the welders were projected onto Waterloo bridge, along with other pictures of female construction workers provided by the Imperial War Museum. This took place outside the British Film Institute (BFI).
The women who rebuilt Waterloo Bridge during WWII were not so much unsung heroes, as erased from history. Had it not been for the oral stories handed down, it’s possible that this crucial period would have been forgotten altogether, which would have been a great disservice to the women who took part.
The documentary is Karen’s way of taking what women do in the world seriously. The bigger picture is acknowledging the contribution of these women to the war effort, their families and communities, and the world at large.