North Vancouver’s Burrard Dry Dock (BDD) Pier, located at the foot of Lonsdale, not only represents a coming together of the City’s shipbuilding past and its revitalized future as the Shipyard District, but also the contribution of local women to the Second World War effort.
Originally called the Wallace Shipyards, Burrard Dry Dock had its humble beginnings in 1894. It was a one-man operation in the backyard of Alfred Wallace. He started with one contract – lifeboats for the C.P.R. – and one helper, his wife. In 1906, he moved the operation to North Vancouver on the north shore of Burrard Inlet where, despite a destructive fire in 1911, business grew. In 1921, Wallace Shipyards was renamed the Burrard Dry Dock Company. Alfred’s son Clarence took over the business after his father’s death in 1929.
In the pre-war years, the nature of the work was mainly ship repair, with the occasional small ocean vessel commissioned in place. One of the most famous ships built at the BDD during this time was the St. Roch in 1928, the RCMP Arctic patrol vessel that is now the centrepiece of the Vancouver Maritime Museum.
It was during the war years (1939-1945) that the Burrard Dry Dock Company expanded tremendously by extending the original North Yard and adding the South Yard. In this period, the “Yards of Burrard” produced a combined 109 ships. Together with the neighbouring North Van Ship Repairs, they built approximately one third of Canada’s World War II Victory ships. The workforce also grew massively during the war, with employment peaking at 14,000 workers.
Published monthly from July 1942 to September 1945, the Wallace Shipbuilder was the company newsletter for the Burrard Dry Dock Co.. It provides great insight into this exciting time of growth and production, not to mention opportunity for female workers.
The first of them came into North and South Burrard Shipyards in September, 1942. According to an article in the Wallace Shipbuilder, foremen and yardmen were less than impressed and “cold shouldered the intruders into a man’s world”. Imagine coming into a situation like that! But these women buckled down and went to work, soon winning the respect of their male colleagues with their toil and dedication.
By the Spring of 1944, there were 1,000 women in the yards building ships. They were not just relegated to office and menial custodial jobs, but rather excelled in the precision detail work of the Electrical, Sheet Metal and Machine Shops. The women also pulled their weight alongside the men in the Pipe, Plate and Blacksmith Shops as shipwrights and reamer’s helpers, welders, burners and bolters.
Women were also employed in the Steel Yard and Mold Loft, at the lathes, driving trucks, lagging pipes and sweeping hulls. And in a nod to their American sister-in-arms, ‘Rosie the Riveter’, some worked as riveters or “passer girls”, tossing and catching hot rivets with “skill and accuracy”.
During the war, women in the workforce experienced equality for the first time. At Burrard Dry Dock, women were paid the same wages as men and earned the same medical and housing benefits. But this employment equity was fleeting. At the end of the war, the women of Burrard Dry Dock were forced to give up their shipyard jobs to men returning from wartime service.
When the male workforce was severely depleted due to the war, companies willingly built separate women’s facilities (washrooms and change rooms) to accommodate new female employees. However, after the war, employers like Clarence Wallace argued that it was that it would be impossible to maintain these separate facilities. In fact, women in the workforce faced public criticism from both sexes if it looked as if they were taking work away from able-bodied men.
Post-war society was telling them – OK ladies, thanks for playing, but the war’s over and it’s time to go back into the kitchen! Perhaps that was all right for some women, but I suspect for others their shipyard work experiences unlocked new aspirations for a little more from life…
To learn more about BDD employees during the war years, I recommend taking in one of the North Vancouver Museum and Archives’ engaging historical walking tours of the Burrard Dry Dock Shipyard site. You can join the Shipyard Pals at the Shipyard District all summer (now until August 27) for a free walk filled with songs and stories from North Van’s maritime history.