Ruby, Ruby, Ruby!
‘Picture of the Year’ 1943
One of the most famous and inspiring works of art produced during the Second World War is “Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-ring”. The oil on canvas painting measuring 86.3 x 101.9cm by Dame Laura Knight in 1943 is in the collections of the Imperial War Museum. It was commissioned by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee to emphasise the work undertaken by women that was so vital to the war effort.
Ruby was ‘exceptionally skilful’ at a tradition man’s job
Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour introduced the Essential Work Order in 1941, classifying workers to jobs that were considered essential for the war effort. It was compulsory for women between 18 and 60 years old to register for war work.
Ruby Loftus had no previous engineering experience but was identified as an outstanding factory worker. The painting shows her engaged in one of the most highly skilled process in the factory, one that would usually require seven years of training. She had mastered an incredibly complex engineering process in a remarkably short time.
Painted by the most prominent woman artist in Britain
By the outbreak of the Second World War, Dame Laura Knight was the most prominent woman artist in Britain. She was commissioned to paint Ruby towards the end of 1942. She planned to undertake a studio portrait, but the authorities preferred a scene on the shop floor in one of the large factory machine shops. Knight painted Ruby working at the lathe over 3 weeks in March 1943.
Ruby’s colleagues in the background are nearly all women. There is only one man visible, probably the shop foreman.
Knight’s masterpiece painting of a woman totally focused on performing what was previously considered to be a man’s job, was a terrific boost for morale during the war. Large posters of the image were printed and displayed in factories. It also toured the country as part of various exhibitions and became the iconic image of the contribution that women were making to the war effort.
So, what do we know about Ruby?
Stella Ruby Isabella Loftus was born in Llanhilleth in 1921 where the family lived in a small, terraced house in Central Road.
Her father, Harold, was offered a new job with Shell-Mex, so the family relocated to Finchley, London. By all accounts Ruby, her two sisters and brother were very happy in their new surroundings. However, tragedy struck when her father died in 1938.
After their home was bombed, the family decided to move back to South Wales, living in a flat in Corporation Road, Newport. Their mother, Martha Loftus, found work as a porter in Newport station. Ruby and her sisters Elsie & Queenie went to work at Royal Ordnance Factory No.11, Newport. As the sisters were now classed as working in a reserved occupation, they were accommodated in one of the new houses at Elgar Avenue, Alway, just a short distance from the factory.
After the war
After the fuss of being immortalised in a famous painting, Ruby returned to her lathe, and in September 1943 she married John Green, a lance-corporal serving with the 11th Hussars. After the end of hostilities, they both decided to emigrate to Canada. She never worked in a factory or engineering again. In her later years she developed muscular sclerosis. Ruby died in 2004, at the age of 83.
The factory where she worked was demolished, and the site is now covered by a housing development. The area is now known as the Loftus Garden Village – a truly fitting tribute.
- Our site record for the Royal Ordnance Factory No.11, Newport.
- A short film of the painting, Dame Laura Knight and of course Ruby Loftus can be found at here.
- Read more about wartime Newport, the factory and its women workers, including the story of Ruby Loftus, on the Newport Museum and Art Gallery project ‘Wartime Newport’.