Sheffield author's latest novel about wartime women steelworkers

Sheffield author Michelle Rawlins continues to be inspired by the city’s wartime women steelworkers. She spoke to Yvette Huddleston about her latest novel.

Sheffield author Michelle Rawlins’ life changed fairly significantly after she met and interviewed the surviving women who had worked in the city’s steel industry during the Second World War.

In 2020 Rawlins’ well-received non-fiction book Women of Steel was published, chronicling the lives of those courageous women who faced danger and hardship on a daily basis with fortitude, determination and dignity.

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“When I finished Women of Steel, I wasn’t ready to let them go,” she says. “I wasn’t sure what I was going to do – I looked into the possibility of doing a PhD on the subject – but then Harper Collins approached me and asked if I would write the novels and it felt like the perfect solution.”

Author Michelle Rawlins with her latest novel Steel Girls on the Home Front.Author Michelle Rawlins with her latest novel Steel Girls on the Home Front.
Author Michelle Rawlins with her latest novel Steel Girls on the Home Front.

The first novel The Steel Girls came out in April last year, followed by another in November, Christmas Hope for the Steel Girls and the third, Steel Girls on the Home Front, was published last month. It continues the story of Rawlins’ three principal characters – Nancy, Betty and Patty – and moves the narrative along to the start of 1940.

“The book begins with the introduction of rations in January of that year and it ends with Dunkirk in June 1940, so it deals with some big themes,” says Rawlins. “Up until Dunkirk there was a sense that people were living through a ‘phony’ war but when people started to get news from France that things weren’t going well, life started to feel different and a bit more scary.”

It was also during that period that on the Home Front the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign started and volunteers were being recruited to the Women’s Volunteer Reserve both of which are dealt with in the novel. With the war stepping up overseas, for the women employed in the steel industry it also meant an increase in their workload due to the higher demand for military hardware – plane, tanks and weaponry.

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“The book is about how Nancy, Betty and Patty cope with all that and how they support each other through a very difficult time,” says Rawlins. “I have really enjoyed being back with these characters, it’s almost as if they become your friends. I tend to write four nights a week so I feel like I am really embedded in their lives.”

All the storylines have been inspired by the real-life experiences of the women Rawlins spoke to as research for her non-fiction book and she has enormous respect for them.

“When I was writing Women of Steel, I interviewed the Veterans Minister at the time and he told me that he really believed the war would have had a different outcome if it wasn’t for those women,” says Rawlins. “They were formidable women who didn’t complain, they just got on with it and did their bit. They have been a massive inspiration to me. I feel very honoured and privileged that I have been able to keep their memory alive. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to write the novels without their stories.”

Steel Girls on the Home Front is out now. Michelle Rawlins will be signing copies of her book at Mike’s Famous Book Stall in Barnsley market tomorrow, 10am-12noon and at Waterstones Sheffield on September 10, 1-2pm.

Part Three of the continuing story of the Steel Girls

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In the third instalment of Michelle Rawlins’ series about the Sheffield steel girls the three friends have coped with the first Christmas without their loved ones and are starting a new year and a new decade.

As 1940 begins, food rationing is introduced and those on the Home Front are digging for victory and making do and mending. For Nancy that means juggling long working hours at the steelworks and looking after her two young children, while waiting for her husband to return home from the war safely. Meanwhile Betty is determined to roll up her sleeves and joins the Women’s Voluntary Service to keep busy and try and stop herself from worrying about her fiancé overseas. Patty’s concerns are closer to home when she discovers that her sweetheart Archie has been keeping a secret from her, and one that puts him in great danger. Rawlins obviously had very rich source material to draw on from her previous work with the real-life women of steel, but she needed to do some extra research for this third instalment of the Steel Girls. “My original women had told me about what it was like to live through the changes on the Home Front but I needed to learn more about the military operation,” says Rawlins. “So I read Walter Lord’s The Miracle of Dunkirk which was very informative about the confusion on the ground. And because in the book Betty’s fiancé is training in Canada to be an RAF pilot I also read a memoir by a Barnsley man, Richard Starkey, who went through similar training. It was really interesting.”