1940 - British Government calls for urgent increase in munitions production, much needed by the British Army. Work starts in May 1940 at Aycliffe to construct a massive Royal Ordnance filling factory, costing over £7 Million to build.
1941 - Royal Ordnance Factory 59 opens in Spring (April) and starts to call for thousands of workers, mainly women, to carry out vital munitions work.
1942 - May 15th. Winston Churchill visits the factory to offer a much welcomed boost to the workforce. A factory worker, Miss Gladys Stoddart, gives Winston a present of a cigar and a kiss.
1943 - Factory reaches peak production, employing 17,000 people working 24 hours a day in 3 shifts. Nearly 90% of the workers are women and they become known as the Aycliffe Angels.
1945 - December. The war is over. The factory is empty. The women who risked their lives on a daily basis are forgotten. Not even a letter of thanks!
1946 - August. Work starts on converting the disused factory site into Aycliffe Industrial Estate. Some buildings begin to be modified or are demolished.
1947 - April 19th. Durham County Police Headquarters opened in the former ROF Admin. buildings. Aycliffe ‘New Town’ designation order made.
1950s, 60s & 70s
This 1960s photo from The Northern Echo shows a couple of the large ROF storage bunkers on the Aycliffe Industrial Park, presumably prior to demolition.
During the 50s, 60s and 70s the Aycliffe Angels story is largely forgotten. The factory workers are never officially recognised for the important work they did during WWII. Many suffered significant injuries, but never receive any official compensation.
The former Aycliffe ROF site continues to be slowly converted into the Aycliffe Industrial Park with some original buildings used by smaller businesses and others were being demolished to make way for new enterprises.
Various articles appear in local newspapers about the ‘Angels’ and their work. Some local research is carried out, but nothing ‘official’ happens….
May, 1988 – An announcement in the Durham Advertiser newspaper calls for women ‘Angels’ to take part in a research project organised by Professor Richard Brown of Durham University and Lotte Shankland of Durham Community Arts. Additional appeals for women appeared in The Northern Echo and the Teesside-based Gazette newspapers. Nearly 100 women come forward and Professor Brown’s team conducted 70 interviews in 1988 and 1989, all tape recorded and subsequently transcribed.
14th April, 1989 – Northern Echo columnist Ruth Campbell publishes an extensive article entitled ‘The little angels on Britain’s front line’ which featured former Angel Maisie White (Photo above of Maisie White in 1989).
20th May, 1989 – The first ‘Aycliffe Angels’ reunion takes place at Newton Aycliffe sports centre, organised by Lotte Shankland and Professor Richard Brown, in conjunction with Aycliffe Town Council. A commemorative booklet is issued, financed by donations from local firms on the Aycliffe Industrial Park.
April, 1995 - The Angels story is rediscovered by Durham University researchers and re-told in The Northern Echo.
1996 – The Northern Echo reveals that none of the women were ever given a medal to mark the nation’s gratitude for their sacrifice.
March, 1997 - The Northern Echo launches a campaign to recognise all munitions workers.
April, 1997 - Forces sweetheart Dame Vera Lynn joins the campaign.
4th April, 1997 - Tony Blair takes time out from the General Election campaign to pledge his support to the Angels.
18th April, 1997 - Town councillors in Newton Aycliffe say they will mark the Angels’ sacrifice by erecting a memorial to them.
28th May, 1997 - Mr Blair faces criticism that he has failed to keep his word to the Angels. The Home Office promises a speedy response.
June, 1997 - The Home Office, after months of inaction,hands responsibility to the Cabinet Office.
July, 1997 - Hundreds of Angels meet in a second reunion organised by Great Aycliffe Town Council.
5th July, 1997 - Mr Blair once again pledges his support, saying: “I hope an announcement will be made in due course.”
21st July, 1997 - The French government says it will consider giving the Angels a medal of honour.
September, 1997 - I’m still backing the campaign, says Mr Blair. We’ll give you an answer soon, says the Cabinet Office.
November, 1997 - For the first time, Aycliffe Angels take part in Remembrance Day ceremonies across the region.
Prime Minister Tony Blair with former Aycliffe Angels Maisie White and Janet Jackman at Trimdon in 1998. Photo from The Northern Echo archive.
May, 1998 - Mr Blair once again promises a speedy decision.
November, 1998 - The Cabinet Office says it is no closer to a decision. “Don’t hold your breath,” says a spokesman.
To be continued……..