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Discover the untold stories of women and African and Caribbean people on Tyneside during the Second World War at The Discovery Museum

Here’s what to expect at this must-visit new exhibition, which shares the stories of our local, underrepresented community to make sure they won’t get lost in history.

Written by Rachael Nichol
Published 06.08.2022

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With thousands of men away serving in the armed forces, British women had to step up and take on a whole range of jobs during the Second World War.

Becoming mechanics, engineers, munitions workers, air raid wardens, bus drivers and fire engine drivers in a mere matter of months, while they may have not fought on the frontline, women still played a vital role on the home front. All this, alongside running households, fighting a daily battle of rationing, recycling, reusing and cultivating food in allotments and gardens.

But did you know that there were actually over 640,000 women in the armed forces, too? From The Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) to the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), many more women also flew unarmed aircraft, drove ambulances, served as nurses and worked behind enemy lines in the European resistance in the Special Operations Executive.

Among these untold stories are the tales of the people who risked their lives to come to Tyneside from the African and Caribbean diaspora during the Second World War as part of the war effort. From a Nigerian school teacher who stowed away to Britain and joined the Royal Airforce to a surgeon who treated war casualties, this exhibition brings to life the stories of a diverse community that otherwise could have been forgotten over time and gives those individuals well-deserved recognition for their contribution to World War Two in Tyneside.

We’ve always heard the heroic tales of the brave soldiers who risked and lost their lives for our country, but have you ever wondered what things were like back at home in Tyneside during this time? If so, we’ve found a new exhibition that’s bound to interest you.

Thanks to recent research, The Discovery Museum’s latest exhibition is now showcasing uncovered stories of the role of women and people who came to Tyneside from Africa and the Caribbean during the Second World War.

Here’s what to expect…



This new exhibition has been made possible thanks to some exciting new research gathered as part of a wider national partnership with Imperial War Museums (IWM) and the National Lottery Heritage Funded Second World War and Holocaust Partnership Programme (SWWHPP), to learn more about underrepresented local stories to make sure that they are recorded for future generations.

We’ll get the chance to see objects from the collection dating from this period, including women’s Royal Naval Service officer uniform and Auxiliary Territorial Service uniform, Land Army dungarees, Auxiliary Air Force jackets and more ephemera from service, rivet guns from the shipyards, work passes, recruitment posters and more.

‘After a callout to the public in partnership with Imperial War Museums, we’ve captured stories about some amazing women living in Tyneside during the Second World War,’ says Kylea Little, Keeper of History at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums. ‘This really deepens our knowledge of everyday life in this area during that time and will help future generations have a better understanding of what life was like on Tyneside.

‘We’re very grateful to Dr Prevatt Goldstein for working with us to explore these lesser-known aspects of the war on Tyneside; we wanted to share the stories of these underrepresented people who travelled from the then-British Empire to Tyneside and who contributed so much to our communities.

‘We’re looking forward to sharing these fascinating stories with our visitors. We’re grateful to everyone who came forward and shared their own, or their family member’s story – we could not have done this without their cooperation.’

Stories of women in Tyneside during WW2

The exhibition gives us a glimpse of what life was really like for women in Tyneside during the Second World War. Women such as Josephine Hall from Byker, who ended up as a core–maker at the steel foundry C.A. Parsons, and Mary McDermott who worked as a conductor or ‘clippie’ on the trams and trolleybuses for the Newcastle Corporation.

Charlotte’s story

Charlotte in her Women’s Land Army uniform, 1944

Charlotte was born and grew up in Gateshead.​ She joined the Women’s Land Army (WLA) in 1944 after hearing about it from a friend. She was sent to Beaulieu in Hampshire, where she enjoyed working outdoors with the other women.

Joan’s story

Joan and women’s roles in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force

Joan lived in South Shields and worked in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF).  Although we know little about Joan’s work, women worked as drivers, radar operators, mechanics and on barrage balloon sites, manning the balloon stations.

Stories of Service Second World War Discovery Museum Newcastle upon Tyne

Violet’s story

Violet (centre) and her colleagues in 1946

Violet is from Newcastle and joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) in 1942 after being called up. She was sent to Fenham Barracks where she was chosen to go into the ATS. She trained in radar and worked in Wales and Suffolk.

Stories of ethnic minority communities in Tyneside during the Second World War

Among the stories shared in this exhibition are the untold tales from the ethnic minority communities who lived in Tyneside at the time, such as: the West Indian Seamen based in North Shields; Nigerian school teacher Robert Ngbaronye, who stowed away to Britain and joined the Royal Airforce; and surgeon Irene Ighodaro, who treated war casualties and managed her brother Robert Wellesley-Cole’s medical practice in Denton Burn. There will also be a selection of publications which reference the contributions of people from the African diaspora during the Second World War.

‘It has been a privilege to work collectively with community researchers, historians, and the museum staff to demonstrate the contribution of people of colour to the Second World War,’ says Stories of Service co-creator Dr Prevatt Goldstein.

‘Much credit also goes to the members of the African Lives in England Project Team, on whose publications this display is based, and to the Imperial War Museum for their amazing pictorial records.

‘While this exhibition is unable to capture the full commitment of people of colour to fight for their country, as their offers of assistance were frequently rejected, it can serve to remind us of all of our shared vision and common purpose and of the way people of colour have always contributed to our society in Tyneside and nationally.

‘The story of Irene Ighodaro brings the two strands of the exhibition together, reminding us that we are not in separate boxes but all one people. I hope that this exhibition will encourage this perspective, as well as provide fascinating and new information.’

Robert Ngbaronye

Robert Ngbaronye in his RAF uniform in Newcastle 1943

Robert was born in southern Nigeria. He was working as a school teacher in Lagos at the start of the war and wanted to offer his services to the RAF so stowed away for three days without food or water on a ship to Britain in 1943. He joined International Coloured Mutual Aid Association and became the assistant secretary before joining the RAF training programme.

Robert Wellesley-Cole

Robert was born in Sierra Leone and travelled to Newcastle to study medicine in 1928

After qualifying as a surgeon in 1934, Robert was the first black doctor in Newcastle and later opened a general practice and surgery in Denton Burn. Robert became a Chair of the House Committee of West Indies House in Newcastle in 1941 offering accommodation for seamen but also a friendly, social space for war workers of African descent.


Irene Ighodaro

Irene was the first Sierra Leone woman to become a doctor after graduating from Newcastle Medical School in 1944

While training at the RVI, Irene was a member of the Decontamination Squad and treated war casualties at her brother Robert Wellesley-Cole’s medical practice. She co-founded the Newcastle Society for the Cultural Advancement for Africa as well as the first West African Woman’s Association in Britain and was later awarded an MBE in 1958.


Also on display, embedded in the exhibition until 18th August, is One Story, Many Voices – a digital sound installation created by the SWWHPP, touring all SWWHPP partners across the UK, that reflects our understanding of the Second World War and the Holocaust today.

It is a unique experience featuring eight immersive sound stories from celebrated authors, community members and voice artists to represent a digital anthology of how we feel, remember and represent the Second World War and the Holocaust across the UK. Writers Amina Atiq, Nicola Baldwin, Mercedes Kemp, Glenn Patterson and Michael Rosen have written immersive binaural stories, each exploring a specific aspect of the Second World War or the Holocaust.

Inspired by the rich collections and research expertise of IWM, the SWWHPP partners and diverse communities across the UK, each individual story is united by the connecting theme of listening.

The Stories of Service exhibition will be showcased until 30th October 2022 at the Discovery Museum. For more information visit their website.


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