The WRNS was created in November 1917 as a result of heavy naval losses in the previous years and a resulting shortage of manpower for active sea service. Many sailors were based on shore and it was felt that they needed to be released to the ships, although their shore jobs still needed to fulfilled. As in the civilian world, it was felt that by employing women to do these jobs, the men would then be able to go to sea. The promotion of the Women's Royal Naval Service was "Free a man for sea service".
Initially, the Admiralty decided that only 3,000 women would be recruited and would mainly perform domestic duties, such as cleaning, cooking and serving meals. In the end, over 6,000 women undertook a variety of duties including some that that been deemed too difficult for women. There were even units based overseas, the first one being in Gibraltar. The WRNS was led by Dame Katherine Furse. She was a tireless worker and involved herself in all matters relating to the service. A basic uniform was designed, although the Treasury forbade the use of gold lace on the women's uniform. They decided on royal blue instead. The WRNS was in being for nineteen months before the Admiralty finally disbanded the service on 1 October 1919, but had made a tremendous impression during its short existence. During that period, the service lost 23 women.
With the advent of the Second World War, there was no hesitation in reforming the WRNS, and planning began as early as 1938. Dame Katherine was involved in the planning but thought that a younger woman was needed to lead the reformed service. In 1939, Mrs Vera Laughton Mathews, who had served with the WRNS during the First World War, was invited to become Director of the WRNS for the Second World War. By 1944, the service numbered 74,000 women undertaking a variety of 200 different jobs. Many Wrens were involved in planning and organisation of naval operations, as well as maintenance. Thousands of women served overseas and large numbers served in other branches of the Navy, such as the Fleet Air Arm, Coastal Forces, Combined Operations and the Royal Marines. During the war, the service lost 303 women. At the end of the war, Mrs Laughton Mathews was created a Dame and with a greatly reduced service began planning for a peace-time service, before retiring in November 1946.
As a testament to the valuable service performed by the women's service, it was made a permanent service in February 1949. Numbers were reduced as were the range of duties. Service was voluntary and it maintained its own discipline. However, in 1977, the service was brought into line with the navy itself and was subject to the Naval Discipline Act. This allowed a greater number of trades to be undertaken by women in the service. It also meant they were on the same parity as their counterparts in the Air Force and Army. This was the first step towards full equal integration into the Navy, which finally led to the disbandment of the WRNS as a separate service in 1993.
1990 saw the first women to serve on board ship in a trial period, and after the disbandment of the service, women were fully integrated into the Navy. All jobs in the surface fleet are now open to men and women alike. Women now make up at least one third of all naval ship crews and sometimes 10% of one crew will be women. One service that remains closed to women is the Submarine Service, mainly on a practical level but this is still being reviewed.
The Royal Naval Museum houses the comprehensive WRNS archive, containing materials relating to the history of the service. It has official and unofficial documents, personal manuscripts, photographs, uniforms and artefacts for the full existence of the service. Some post-1993 material is also housed with this collection, although not officially part of the WRNS since it was disbanded.
For information about women at sea before the WRNS, a reading list is available.
©Royal Naval Museum Library, 2002The information contained in this information sheet is correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for a bibliography of further reading materials, if available