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Formation of the Women’s Royal Naval Service: 100 years on

PUBLISHED: 10:48 20 June 2017 | UPDATED: 10:48 20 June 2017

A Wren in HMS Diamond in the new Personal Clothing System. Replacing the traditional No4s, the lighter-blue shirt and trousers worn at sea, it is the first major naval dress change since World War II

A Wren in HMS Diamond in the new Personal Clothing System. Replacing the traditional No4s, the lighter-blue shirt and trousers worn at sea, it is the first major naval dress change since World War II

©UK MOD CROWN COPYRIGHT, 2015

The recruitment of women into the Royal Navy is now the norm, 100 years after the formation of the Women’s Royal Naval Service. There have been choppy waters along the way though, as Viv Micklefield discovers on a visit to Portsmouth

From commanding officers to ratings, and from flight crew to submariners, the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard reflects the diversity of jobs that today’s servicewomen undertake. Yet turn the clock back 100 years to when the Women’s Royal Naval Service, or Wrens as they are more commonly known, was first formed and it’s not always been plain sailing.

To put the record straight, Pioneers to Professionals: Women and the Royal Navy, is an exhibition that reveals through artefacts and personal stories, the impact of women’s involvement since the 17th century. And a quite remarkable social commentary it is.

“We’ve got good collections here of material about the Wrens during both the First and Second World War, but one of the biggest gaps was the more contemporary material, which considering how much has happened since WW2, represents the bulk of the history,” says Victoria Ingles, the exhibition’s curator, adding: “It was fascinating when we put an appeal out last summer, to see the things that came forward.”

With dusty attics around the country regurgitating the assorted memorabilia befitting of an Antiques Roadshow, their value as a window into a barely acknowledged sisterhood is priceless. Accordingly, many items are on public show for the very first time. Victoria’s initial port of call however is to highlight a rarely recorded incident, courtesy of the National Archives.

“One document we have displayed is the 1815 muster list for HMS Queen Charlotte which records a seaman called William Brown being dismissed for being ‘female’. We don’t know her identity, or what happened afterwards, but for a month she was masquerading as a man.”

No isolated case it seems. As Victoria goes on to explain, despite having been packed like sardines below decks, women are known to have disguised themselves as male sailors for up to several years before being outed. And in bygone times, although never officially appearing on ships’ lists, wives and children regularly accompanied their husbands and fathers to sea.

“Higher pay as a ‘man’ would have been the motivation for some women to shun roles typically available to them. So the formation of the Wrens in 1917 wasn’t the first time women had either been to sea or been involved with the Navy. It’s been nice to shed some light on this.”

Still officially barred from military service as conflict swept Europe during the early 20th century this, she says, meant that women wanting to do their bit were attracted to the first female uniformed service, the Naval Nursing Service. Or, most likely, joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VADs), with Haslar’s Royal Hospital attracting volunteers from all walks of life.

As fatalities soared however during WW1, the call came to ‘Free a Man for the Fleet’ and despite not yet having the right to vote, a Women’s Royal Naval Service was formed. At its helm was the indomitable former commandant-in-chief of the VADs Katharine Furse, her words: “You are pioneers. Go to your work. Uphold the dignity and honour of the Service”, becoming a call to action for 5,500 recruits.

“At this point their motto was ‘Never at Sea’ which, again, wasn’t entirely true as some women worked on board depot ships,” observes Victoria. “But most filled-in the essential shore-based roles as clerical assistants, cooks, stewards and cleaners, which would have been seen as the more traditional female roles at that time.

“Yet, by the end of the war, one in six Wrens were working in technical trades. Around 2,000 Wrens transferred to the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) when the Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Flying Corp merged in 1918. Those still serving in the WRNS were demobbed when it was disbanded after just 20 months.”

She goes on to tell the story of Jane Rossiter who, having served in WW1 whilst still a young bride, re-enlisted when women were again needed ahead of WW2. Jane’s 1939 service record book confusingly identifies Wren ‘number one’, giving no clue of her earlier involvement.

“At the peak in 1944, there were around 74,000 Wrens, which to put this into context, today the total Royal Navy is just under 30,000 strong.

“Over 16,000 Wrens worked in the Portsmouth and Gosport area so it’s appropriate that we’re celebrating them in this way. Many of their families still live here in Hampshire.”

Unsurprisingly, the demand to fill up to 90 different jobs, including despatch rider, radio operator, and sea-going cypher officer, saw women confounding the sceptics and rapidly increase in confidence in their abilities. Post-war recruitment advertising mirroring the changing attitudes which would, eventually, seek to overturn the gender gap within the workplace.

“Our displays here traditionally tend to focus on the stories of individuals,” says Victoria, drawing attention to a diary from the 1950s, which meticulously details everyday experiences at the all-female training establishment HMS Dauntless. And, when it comes to operational memories, inspirational role models line-up to be counted.

“Karen McCurdy from Scotland, who was one of the first Wren reservists to train as a diver, sent us her badge which was actually one of the male badges, on which she’d had the red stitching dyed blue to turn it into the Wren colours.”

“I love our teddy bear,” continues Victoria, “It was the Wren’s mascot on their Malta base. And there’s our stained glass memorial window: this was originally fitted with plain glass in 1940 at Rosyth’s naval chapel and at the end of the War was dedicated with coloured glass to the Wrens on HMS Cochrane. As the navy contracted it was moved to another dockyard church and when that base closed in the 1990s it was brought, finally, down here.”

As she readily admits: “What we’re able to put on display is just the tip of the iceberg, there are so many stories out there.”

On November 4 a Service of Thanksgiving takes place at Portsmouth Cathedral with the dedication of a stone commemorating the centenary of the formation of the WRNS and women’s service in the Royal Navy, made by Quarley stonemason Robyn Golden-Hann.

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