‘Bella the Welder’

Bella Keyzer, born in 1922, was a jute weaver, a munitions worker, an assembly line worker, but most famously a welder.  I came across an oral history interview with her recorded in 1985 as part of the Dundee Oral History Project (in which respondents were interviewed by local unemployed young people who had been trained by academics pioneering oral history) which I thought was really inspirational- parts of it are copied below.  Following her participation in this project she enjoyed a fair bit of local fame, featuring in local press interviews as well as a number of television programmes including ‘The World’s Ill-Divided’ (BBC2, first broadcast in 1987), ‘Out of the Doll’s House’ (BBC2, 1988) see link to clip below, and ‘Scotland’s War’ (for Scottish Television, 1989). 

I’m not sure if Bella would define herself as a feminist but she was fairly outspoken about the need for equality, but more importantly she led by example in her own life.  She had a child whilst unmarried, flouted all sorts of social conventions concerning appropriate female behaviour and fought hard to get a job in the welding industry thirty years after she had first worked as a welder during the Second World War.  In 1992 Dundee district council presented her with a special award in recognition of her work to promote women’s equality in Dundee. She died in July of the same year.  I’m only sorry I didn’t get to meet her. 

I think the story of Bella’s life goes to show that ‘ordinary’ women like you and I can challenge the boundaries of what was and is thought acceptable for women in our society.  That is an important lesson for us all to learn. 

E. Feeney, Interview with Bella Keyzer, recording and transcript, 14–25 Nov 1985, Dundee Central Library, Wellgate Centre, Dundee, Dundee Oral History Project, DOHP 022

Q – So did the men accept you workin’ on the ship?

A – Yes the’, the’ accepted ye in a way, older men wir very kind tae ye, the younger men wir very abrasive tae ye, they accepted ye because you wir no danger to thim, ye weren’t taken on their job ye wir mebbee doin’ a man’s job, but ye wir only there for the war, and eh, as long as you obeyed the rules and regulations they wir okay, plus thir wis a few intrigues went on. (Mmm,mm).  Ye see eh, many a boyfriend, many a lad in yer work, ye see eh….

Q – What about yerself wis there any advances made towards you?

A – Eh think meh, f…, meh height sort o’ frightened thim a wee bit, Eh think the’ wir a wee bitty frightened o’ Bella, eh meh nickname was Big Bella by the way, but eh, of course Eh, Eh’d be a fool, if Eh said thit nobody wis attracted to is I’d be a funny bugger if naebody liked is eh.

——————-

Q – And what about the people who worked with you did the’ know yer son wis illegitimate.

A – Oh yes they knew, it wis aye, oh eh, shi’s, in fact Eh kin Eh cannae put it any other way thin, thin, what it wis said tae me in the shipyard, Eh never seen a, a big ane yet we big cheek bones and an illegitimate bairn it wiznae a good ride.

 Q – That’s a terrible attitude.

A – Eh that wis the attitude, so but em, wi got over all that, ye, ye, jist ye, the, it wis a fact thit ye hud this child ye w …, Eh hud no intentions of hiddin’ him whatsoever.

 Q – Mm,mm

A – And em…

 Q – Do ye think it wis the pressure of the war when ye met Derek em, ye know thit came up tae the thit ye havin’ the child, do ye think it has anythin’ to do with the war?

A – It wis tae do with the war is so far is thit Eh met a Dutchman, thit, thit ‘e went away befor the kid was born.

Q – Mm,mm.

A – Yeh that would be the war, but this Eh hud the child, no, no, no, no, no, no, this would, Eh’m quite sure this would’ve happened tae me no matter if thir hud been a war or peace time.

Q – Laughing.

A – Eh’m quite shure, Eh’m quite sure about that, because em, alang with innocence and ignorance thir is also a great curiosity.

——————————————-

Q – So, would ye say even although we have equality now, do you think there’s much change?

A – No, no keep goin’ round in circles, Eh mean, there’s, meh fight wis fir a mans, fir tae get a job wi’ equal pay, now your fight is fir tae git a joab, and wir all fightin’ fir jobs and thirs an atom bomb hangin’ over wir head where’s the bloody jobs when thir’ goin’ tae drop atom bomb on ye, aye, em and what jobs that are predominantly women’s jobs, Eh mean like nursin’ or housework or oh a, a, checkout girl in Tescos, look it thir wages, good grief look it a barmaids wages in the hours thit they work, the that are predominantly women they seem tae be willin’ tae accept thir no, women don’t seem to evaluate thir own value.

 Q – Mm,mm.

A – They think oh Eh’m jist a woman because thiv been taught this, bit women, women ir the backbone o’ the economy in this country, and especially Dundee this womans town, this womans town where Eh, Eh heard down in that, that history class the ither day there, Eh felt like sayin’ somethin’ and Eh kept meh mouth shut because Eh, Eh wis on a different subject the’ said em, thirs so many women employed in the jute trade durin’ the fourteen eighteen war, ‘cause all the men wir away tae war, the women wir employed in the jute trade befror the bloody men went tae war.

———————–

Q – Bella would ye like tae say a few words on summon up yer past life?

A – Summon up meh past life, Eh wish Eh could go back, Eh wish Eh really could go back, Eh wish Eh hid payed more attention to what meh father said, Eh wish Eh hid taken advantage o’ the opportunities thit he gave me, but they, is they say ye can’t put an old head on young shoulders, and Eh wis a harem-scarem bitch, and em, Eh have no re…, Eh can’t say I’v Ah haven’t got any regrets, whir all wise after the event aren’t wi, wir all wise after the event, but Eh’m only now beginnin’ tae live, because all meh life it’s been work work tryin’ tae gin on, tryin’ tae make ends meet, and now when Eh retired from work Eh’m free, Eh’m absolutely free, Eh have nothing to lose, Eh kin stand up and say what the bloody well Eh want tae say, it’s no gonna cost me meh job, it’s no gonnna cost me meh income, that’s it, Eh could say what Eh feel, Eh want tae say without, em, without bein’ ashamed of anythin’, Eh could turn around and say no Eh did what Eh did, Eh am not ashamed, and if Eh could repeat, if Eh wis tae sum up Eh would say take somethin’ from meh father’s book, and Eh would say I need n…, I need not be missed if another succeed me, to reap down the fields which in spring I have sowed, he who plough ‘n’ sows it’s not missed by the reaper, they are only remembered by what they have done, and I think fir women’s equality Eh threw a pebble in the water, it wis a very, very small wave, but it wis my wave, and Eh feel Eh achieved something.

For more information on Bella see:

G. R. Smith, ‘Keyzer , Isabella (1922–1992)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.

G. R. Smith, ‘Keyzer, Isabella’, entry in E. Ewan, S. Innes, S. Reynolds and R. Pipes, The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, EUP, Edinburgh, 2006, p. 196.

G. R. Smith, ‘“None can compare”: from the oral history of a community’, The Dundee book: an anthology of living in the city, ed. B. Kay (1990), p.169–98.

‘Bella the welder’– as featured in ‘Out of the Doll’s House’.

The transcripts and tapes of the interviews recorded as part of ‘Dundee Oral History Project’ are held in Dundee Central Library and are available to all. 

Dr Valerie Wright is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow working on a Leverhulme funded project entitled ‘Jute & Dundee: The management of industrial decline’ in the Departments of History and Economic Studies at the University of Dundee.  Her PhD thesis, completed in the Department of Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow, is entitled ‘Women’s Organisations and Feminism in Interwar Scotland’.