Women and the Sea Newsletter

Autumn 2000

FROM THE CO-ORDINATOR

Welcome to our seventh newsletter. Women and their connections with the sea seem to be becoming more and more popular, to the extent that this newsletter is fuller than ever before. There are two central themes in this issue. One is Mrs Ahab, the other is two significant conferences.

Firstly, the wife of Captain Ahab never appears in person but is referred to twice in Herman Melville's great whaling classic Moby Dick. Two new books 'about' her, treating her as metaphor and symbol, have just come out. They matter because in exploring these 'missing' wives of famous male seafarers we are implicitly starting to understand the fuller picture behind the stories of great men out there on the sea, such as how did women keep the family support systems going, ashore? Why this gender division between sea & man / shore & woman and what is the divide made of; how can it be transcended? There are items about these in the following pages.

Secondly we have already had two very important conferences this autumn: Gendering Transport in York; and Woman and the Sea was this year's theme at the annual Exeter maritime conference. Both conferences will result in publications, so that those of you who were not there will be able to read up some of the exciting studies.

In addition, we have information about the lifestories of some women seafarers, which can be found on the web and in books. Histories of individuals, however fragmentary, can help us piece together the larger history of women at sea.

By now you will all know that this newsletter goes on electronically, and no longer on paper. Some of you have complained about this, not least because of lack of access to technology and lack of desire to access the web: paper versions are easier to read on the bus or while cooking, after all. But others of you have used the opportunity to say how much you value the newsletter. For example Gaylene Mansfield-Smith from University of New England in New South Wales, Australia writes: 'I am involved in the researching and writing of women's military and maritime history. To this end, I have come to rely upon the invaluable contacts made through the Women and the Sea Network and the information it provides. I have endorsed the importance of Women and the Sea at two international conferences in the last twelve months. As a result of this endorsement, several other women are now gaining invaluable information and support in their work. Women and the Sea provides a unique network for women who are otherwise marginalised and struggling in isolation. Without it, the progress of Women's History would be sorely stifled.'

Please keep on spreading the word about the network. That might include downloading a copy so that people you know could read a paper version.

Jo Stanley

 

DIARY

Sheila's trip/ thingy

13 January 2001, Portsmouth, UK. Seminar: 'Women at Sea.' The Royal Naval Museum is currently preparing plans for a major series of new exhibitions on the 20th Century Royal Navy. This seminar will examine one of the key topics that will be covered - the changing role of women at sea, since WWII. : 'Something Different? Nothing different!' - Wrens in action in WWII Sessions include Lesley Thomas,- Curator of the WRNS Historic Collection, Royal Naval Museum; Guided visit to the QARNNS and WRNS Collections; 'An emerging war role' - The QARNNS in the Falklands and the Gulf; Dr Chris Howard Bailey, Keeper of Collections and Head of Oral History, Royal Naval Museum;: 'Never at Sea?' WRNS - transition to integration and Sea Service; Commander Rosie Wilson and Captain Julia Simpson.

Price £25; £15 concessions. Bookings to Trevor Carpenter, Royal Naval Museum, HM Naval Base (PP66), Portsmouth, Hampshire, PO1 3NH Tel: +44 (0)23 9272 7583; Fax : +44 (0)23 9272 7575
E-mail :
trevor.carpenter@royalnavalmuseum.org

4, 5 and 6 July 2001, Institute of Historical Research, London.

'They that go down to the sea in ships

And occupy their business in great waters:

These men see the works of the Lord

And his wonders in the deep.

The seventieth Anglo-American Conference of Historians is devoted to the many histories, of the sea and the people who have made history on the sea.. It includes a section on seafarers, will explore the differences (and similarities) between naval history and maritime history; and examine the many different ways in which the sea has been both culturally constructed and culturally represented in art, literature, music and film. 'And how has the history of men and women on land been influenced, determined and changed by their awareness and experiences of the surrounding sea?

Information from Dr Debra Birch, Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU. Fax: +44 (0) 20-7862-8811.

E-mail : d.birch@sas.ac.uk

 

 

MRS AHAB

REVIEW

Lisa Norling, Captain Ahab Had a Wife: New England women and the whalefishery, 1720-1870, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London, 2000, ISBN 0-8078-4870-0 paperback.

Lisa Norling will be well known to many for the seminal book she co-authored with Margaret S Creighton, Iron Men, Wooden Women. This new, very thorough book looks at the ‘Cape Horn widows’, who ran families and businesses for up to five years while their men were away chasing their Moby Dicks. She uses diaries, letters, newspapers and records to show us a - highly illustrated –picture of the ‘other story’ to Melville’s great novel of Captain Ahab’s whaling quest.

It makes a scholarly companion to Joan Druett’s books about the women who sailed on whalers. I was especially interested in the writer’s disappointment at not finding feisty independent females in the records but those who, despite the conditions, served as pious and circumscribed angels of the house and exemplars of Victorian ‘True Womanhood.’

The book is particularly valuable for Norling’s introduction in which she makes some valuable points applicable to many sorts of sea women. For example, that ‘very few historians of women have yet challenged the conflation of the coastal with the marginal’ and this understood seafarers’ womenfolks’ centrality.

University of North Carolina Press has a website at www.uncpress.unc.edu for those who wish to contact them.

Maria Quinn



WRITING ABOUT MRS AHAB

I was sitting in the Nantucket (Massachusetts) Historical Association's research center, puzzling through a musty, leather-bound shipowner's account book from the 1840s, when a small scrap of paper fell out of the volume onto the table in front of me.

"I am obliged to call again for money, and must say I do not feel that you have treated me well," the scrawled note read. "My Husband did not think you would let his family suffer for the necessaries of life, when he shipp'd in your employ. I am out of Food and Fuel, and unless you can do something for me must write by every Ship for him to return and take care of his family." The whaling merchants who hired her husband seem to have ignored Mrs. Codd's plea - as almost all historians have, ever since. My research to date (including my new book, Captain Ahab Had a Wife) has focused on recovering the stories of Eliza Codd and the thousands of women like her, sustaining families and communities onshore while their men hunted whales in distant seas on multi-year voyages. Such women offer us many challenges: to expand the scope of maritime history beyond the men and ships at sea, the naval battles, and the flow of commerce; to reject the simplistic notion that, since historically almost all sailors were male, the maritime world was "genderless"; to redress the myopic tendency of women's historians to conflate the coastal with the marginal.

My own work is a contribution to what I consider to be just the early stages of a vital new area of study: there is so much more work to be done, so much rich material to explore, so many fascinating new questions to ask about the diverse experiences of women and men and about the dynamics of gender in multiple maritime worlds.

Lisa Norling, Associate Professor, University of Minnesota

REVIEW

Ahab's wife or The Star-Gazer, by Sena Jeter Naslund, Women's Press, London £12.99 ISBN 07043 4669 9

Taking the tiny fragments about Mrs. Ahab in Moby Dick, Sena Jeter Naslund wonderfully creates Una Spenser, the young wife who married him while he still had a leg. This Una runs away to sea dressed as a cabin boy and suffers many disasters, as well as adventures. Her life story and psyche could be admirably complemented by reading it in tandem with the Linda Norling book.

Commended by no less a writer than Louise Erdrich (deservedly), this 650-page tome is poetic, exciting, un-putdownable. While not written by someone connected with maritime history, nevertheless it is beautifully and - we can assume - believably imagined

(We hope to have an interview with the Kentucky-based writer in our next newsletter.

Maria Quinn

CHANGING SIGNS

The Mission to Seafarers, the Anglican Church voluntary society, changed its name from The Missions to Seamen in Spring 2000. As part of that, the flying angel was given a modern makeover. It now shows the angel with arms outstretched in welcome, flying over waves and symbolising the society’s care for seafarers of any nationality or faith in 300 ports across the world.

The Mission cares for the practical and spiritual welfare of seafarers of all races and creeds in 300 ports throughout the world. Working through a network of chaplains and staff, each year it makes 78,000 ship visits, welcomes 1,000,000 seafarers to its centres, visits 1,300 seafarers in hospital and helps in more than 1,100 justice and welfare cases.

The Mission to Seafarers can be contacted at St Michael Paternoster Royal, College Hill, London

EC4R 2RL, Tel: +44 (0) 20 7248 5202. Fax: +44 (0) 20 7248 4761

E-mail : press@missiontoseafarers.org

 

OLD SALTS, NEW TALES

UNION-CASTLE LINE PURSERETTE

When I was 23 in the mid-1960s, living in a Middlesex village and in a period when many people hadn’t the money, means, transport and inclination to move from their jobs-for-life world, I made a wonderful transition. I became a Purserette (female Officer in the Purser’s Department) on the Union-Castle Line Mailships to and from South Africa. Even the ships’ names seemed magical - names like Transvaal Castle and Windsor Castle. Every day for six weeks, from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m. (with breaks), we did astonishingly varied work: bureau, passengers and entertainment. Union-Castle was unusual in that we women officers were allowed on deck, not kept typing behind the scenes as with other shipping lines. Parties and trips ashore were a great counter-balance to the hard work. It was as if we were part of a family - cocooned, enjoying camaraderie, respected and looked after as conscientious young ladies.

Thirty years after leaving the Merchant Navy and marrying, I re-typed the letters I’d sent my parents, full of fascinating detail about ports like Madeira, Ascension Island, St. Helena and Cape Town, as well as work and gossip. Rewriting my history at the computer was a new stage in my life, designed to deal with some personal difficulties. I jokingly announced to my two grown-up ‘Union-Castle babies’ that I had written My Memoirs!

A year later, in 1999, at an Ocean Liner Society Lecture on Union-Castle Line, I met an expert on the shipping line who was also a publisher. Hearing about my labours he asked to read my manuscript. To my surprise and delight his company wanted to publish it - for historical, nostalgic and sheet enjoyment reasons! At the London Ship Show launch of the book later that year I felt so thrilled when I signed my first copies of the book.

And the delight continues because readers tell me they enjoy my memories, not least the subtle love story. I’ve had letters from strangers and from previous Union-Castle Line sea- and shore-staff, for whom it brought back memories. Some cried over it, some laughingly complained that it had ruined their weekends - they couldn’t stop reading it.

Being involved with Union-Castle Line changed my life because I met my husband, had a happy marriage and children, and encountered another world. It has made so many dreams come true.

Ann Haynes

Ann Haynes, Union Castle Pursurette, Mallet and Bell, The Cabinet, High Street, Coltishall, Norfolk NR12 7AA, TEL: + 44 (0)1603 738577. £9.95 plus 80p for p+p in the UK, £1.20 elsewhere. ISBN 0 9509453 4 X

 

PEARL HARBOUR NURSE

If you want to read women medical workers' oral history of the Pearl Harbour attack on 7 December 1941, try the following. Lieutenant Ruth Erickson, who was a nurse at Naval Hospital harbour during the attack. Her oral history is provided courtesy of the Historian, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery and you'll find it on a US Navy website: www.history.navy.mil./faqs/faq66-3b.htm

Similarly at www.history.navy.mil./faqs/faq66-3a.htm you'll find the testimony of Pharmacist's Mate Second Class Lee Soucy. She was a 'crewman' aboard the USS Utah (AG-16) on 7 December 1941.



WOMEN CAPE HORNERS

At the October 2000 Maritime History Conference, where this year's theme was women in maritime history, Martin Lee talked about two women who whom he knew. They had sailed aboard Gustaf Erikson's square-riggers in the inter-war years, as passengers paying fares and sometimes signed on at nominal wages.

I first heard about such women in the 1950s when I habitually stayed between voyages at Merchant Navy House, the MN residential club for officers run by the Mersey Mission to Seamen, in Canning Street, Liverpool. The Manageress was Miss Bridger (I never knew her other names), and when she learned that I had served in square rig in 1952 aboard the four mast barque Passat, she brought in her photo album for me to see. I do not remember which of Erikson's ships she sailed in, but she certainly had dramatic pictures of the dismasted Penang ca 1938, which had to put in to New Zealand for repairs. It was from these that I had assumed she had been aboard Penang. I think she said that she had served as "deck boy."

Enquiring after her some years later when I had taken up teaching, I learned that on a holiday in South Africa, she had been killed in a coach accident. I have since wondered what happened to her photographs and other maritime history material (she recorded flags and funnels of ships in the Mersey). Perhaps someone in the Liverpool area could follow this up, in the off chance they have survived and might find their way to the Merseyside Maritime Museum."

Alton Kennerley, Institute of Marine Studies,

University of Plymouth, PL4 8AA.

 

UNION CASTLE STEWARDETTE

In the 1960s I spent 2 years at sea in the first intake of young women as stewardettes with Union Castle, on the Pretoria Castle which subsequently became the SA Oranje. Interestingly, histories of the Union Castle Line I have read, make no mention of young women going to sea for the first time as waiters. We were the first ‘stewardettes’ and for us it was momentous. For many of us, it was to decide the course of our lives. I met my husband, (then working as a ‘Silver King’), onboard the Pretoria Castle. We had three children and went on to cling together, flotsam and jetsam, for 28 years. But that’s another story.

Thirty-five years on, memories are fragments, dates vague. I remember going up to the British & Commonwealth offices in London for interview. Being back in a dreary, rainy February hometown Southampton, tanned, and feeling very exotic! My twenty first in Port Elizabeth. The ship’s baker baking me a cake, captured in one of my rare remaining photographs. Working backwards, it must have been towards the end of 1965 or the beginning of 1966, that we made his-or-her-story.

What we wore: a quite attractive dress in a bluey-green, I think, with an apron. Faint recollections of a cap also. My experience was not of any sexism but respect and good friendships with fellow stewards, who taught us the shortcuts. It helped, I think, that we were expected to perform the same physically demanding workload. And we were all treated equally badly by one particularly unpleasant head waiter. If anyone can add to my recollections, I would be delighted to hear from them.

Ms Sha Wylie,

The Shoe House, 43 Okay Road, Southampton SO16 4LH

Tel: +44 (0) 1703 390 349. E-mail : sha_wylie@hotmail.com

 

WORK IN PROGRESS

NURSES' RESEARCH

In conjunction with Dr Chris Howard Bailey at the Royal Naval Museum at Portsmouth, Claire Taylor and I are now undertaking recordings of oral histories from former and serving personnel of Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service.

Members of QARNNS are keen to have recorded the unique and personal recollections, from Nursing Sisters and Nurse Ratings, covering wars and conflicts including WWII, Korea, Falklands and the Gulf, as well as service abroad in such places as Malta, Hong Kong, Ceylon and at home in Royal Naval Hospitals and Establishments.

Original five nurses sent to Korea

The recordings give an unique insight into the peace time life and the war role of a Woman's Service of the Royal Navy (men joined in 1983) In addition we have a record of the changes that have occurred in medicine and nursing together with the social life of the time. All material collected is preserved as a permanent public reference source for use in research, publication in every form, education, lectures and broadcasting

People appear reluctant to come forward to be interviewed, believing their career is of little interest, so we have to go out and encourage people to take part, convince them that their life in QARNNS is of interest, and usually they are then delighted to take part.

Recordings are initially made onto mini disc in the interviewee’s own home. After initial apprehension, this has been an enjoyable occasion. Initially interviewees provide a list of their appointments and the type of work undertaken. To date, the interviews undertaken have been of total careers spanning often 20 to 30 years, so they can take a number of one hour sessions.

For us interviewers it has been a new experience, initial problems using with the mini disc recorder have been overcome. With practice our technique is improving. A list of questions has been developed to assist us, covering such areas as: recruitment; training; uniform; theatres of war; operational training; off duty etc.

Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service

Future interviews will concentrate on a more specific area rather than the whole career. This could be the Gulf War; service in Hong Kong; work as an Occupational Nursing Sister in the Naval Dockyards. Our knowledge of the subject allows us to gain the information we require, without at the same time dictating the interview. Discussion prior to the interview elicits items of interest that would have been ignored and also reminds the interviewee of incidents to recount.

The Oral History Collection at the RN Museum is catalogued in 32 data fields, a printed synopsis produced, together with a full verbatim, timed transcript. Once all the processes are complete the interview is accessible for most kinds of research.

This work will be a long-term commitment. As we are retired hopefully more of our colleagues will become involved in the task not only as interviewers but transcribers, the whole process from start to finish is quite lengthy and involved, but very interesting and fun.

Further information may be obtained from: Julia Massey or Claire Taylor QARNNS Archive Institute of Naval Medicine. Alverstoke. Hants PO12 2DL

Julia. Massey

julia@littlegreen89.freeserve.co.uk

 

KNOWING A PASSENGER THROUGH HER TRUNK

Helen Gurney is Assistant Curator at the Merseyside Maritime Museum. She is currently researching a fascinating object in the collection, namely a lady's Travelling Trunk, with a view to providing a clear account of the women who used this trunk and their experiences at sea. She writes:

A number of years ago a large and rather luxurious looking ladies travelling trunk was donated to the Merseyside Maritime Museum. Contained within the trunk was a ‘treasure trove’ of items relating to the women who used it and the voyages on which they sailed. Notable items include a variety of clothing for various functions, souvenirs purchased en-route and items used on board, including playing cards, bookmarks and bridge scorers.

Prior to the trunk going on display, staff at the Conservation Centre uncovered even more items from a hidden compartment, bringing to light other personal effects such as cosmetics, photographs and luggage labels.

What is so unique is that the trunk and the contents give a detailed insight into the lives of the women from one particular family and their experiences on passenger liners over a period of sixty years.

The trunk’s first owner was Gertrude Gulliver, born in 1884 in Northamptonshire and later married to Walter William Walker in 1905. In 1911, Walter’s profession as a mechanical engineer took the family (now including two daughters) to Coronel, in Chile. The trunk served its purpose on many long journeys to England and back to Chile until Gertrude and her daughter returned to England permanently in 1961.

The trunk and some of the contents are on permanent display in the recently opened Lifelines Gallery, as part of a reconstruction of a typical tourist-class cabin between the wars.

 

CONFERENCES

In October 2000 in York, UK, the Transporting Gender conference was a fascinating mix. As it was interdisciplinary it included cultural studies experts, sociologists and historians, who combined their expertise in road, rail, sea and air transport to create a stimulating and groundbreaking conference at the National Railway Museum, York, UK.

In a lively and humorous atmosphere papers on the sea included one on stewardesses, by Lorraine Coons who gave fascinating comparisons between Cunard and the French Line; and Mothers of the sea: gender patterns of recruitment on British passenger vessels 1860-1938 by Sari Mäenpää. Jo Stanley gave a plenary talk on Women’s maritime historiography and its future.

Six of the papers will be produced in a future volume of The Journal of Transport History.

October was a bumper month. Exeter's Centre for Maritime Studies conference ran a highly successful conference on Women and Maritime Life. The papers dealt with topics from fishing community wives to WRNS, liner crews to naval nurses. They were empirical rather than theoretical in approach, except for Lyn Bryant's interesting sociological approach to women. at sea in the contemporary Royal Navy by Lyn Bryant and Jo Stanley's proposals for ways forward in women's maritime history. Many were multimedia, like Chris Howard Bailey's comparative work in naval nurses in the Falklands and Gulf wars. We particularly enjoyed Martin Lee's video of a woman Cape Horner.

Unlike York, where the gender balance was fairly even, and women and the sea seminars, where men are rare, this was a conference attended by many men, some of whom were unfamiliar with gender studies. This offered some interesting challenges and discoveries.

There will be a book of most of the conference papers, in several years time.

 

 

GOOD WEB SITES

 

For those interested in women in sea mythology, this site has information about the Syclla and Charybdis myth.

http://www.hsa.brown.edu/~maicar//Charybdis.html

# You'll find a really interesting bibliography about women in the U.S. Navy at www.history.navy.mil./faqs/faq48-2.htm. The website's snailmail address is Dept of the Navy, Naval Historical Centre, 805 Kidder Breese SE -- Washington Navy yard, Washington 20374-5060

# A great website on canal women can be found at http://www.btinternet.com/~doug.small/wtwomen.htm. It includes a bibliography and 8 articles about canal women including wartime trainees; Sonia Rolt, the canal pioneer; trainer Kit Gayford; and an Idle Women's reunion. This is over 20 pages of fascinating material. Contact Doug Small, E-mail SummerWine@btinternet.com

# The Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth, UK includes a page about its lecture on women and the sea. Search for www.royalnavalmuseum.org. The page about the lecture is at www.royalnavalmuseum.org/conferences_events/naval_academy_women_at_sea_seminar.htm If you want help accessing it contact Josephine Birtwhistle, Royal Naval Museum HM Naval Base (PP66) Portsmouth Hampshire PO1 3NH,United Kingdom E-Mail : josephine.birtwhistle@royalnavalmuseum.org Tel :+44 (0)23 9272 7581 Fax +44 (0) 23 9272 7575

# Remember to check out the Women and the Sea electronic discussion group. It contains fascinating exchanges about women's maritime history and you can join in electronically. Search for www.nmm.ac.uk.rcs/index.htm.

 

LOST DOCUMENTS

Women's maritime history has been written about in the past, but many books are out of print. There are many lost documents in other places, about which we can tell each other and build up a fuller picture.

Do join in this regular section. These are some bibliographic details sent by the Mitchell Library, Sydney, Australia.

NEWLY IN PRINT

  • The US The Lighthouse Digest again carries articles about women who kept lighthouses. Two of the three women lived until they were over 100, which suggests it might be a healthy career. The July 2000 edition, describes and pictures Kate Moore's 62 years at Fayerweather Island, Connecticut, where she saved 21 lives.(p20). The August 2000 edition pictures Julia Tobey Brawn Way of the Saginaw River Rear Range Lights 1864-90 (p2). Fannie Salter, the last woman civilian lighthouse keeper in the US worked at Turkey Point for 27 years. (p8-9). Most women got the opportunity when their father or brother was disabled or died; the women were 'allowed' to carry on.
  • The UK Daily Mail Weekend magazine 4.11.2000 (p80) tells us how to visit the lighthouse that so inspired British novelist Virginia Woolf in The Waves (1931) and To the Lighthouse (1931). The article is extracted from Christina Hardyment's Literary Trails: Writers in Their Landscapes, National Trust, UK, £29.99
  • Staying Afloat: Recollections of Portsmouth Dockyard 1950-present day, eds. Ann Day and Gordon Pritchard, History Research Centre, University of Portsmouth, 1999. This well-illustrated oral history, compiled by network member Ann Day, includes pictures of female dockyard apprentices in the 1970s, some statistics about women apprenticed to be electrical fitters , sailmakers, pattern-makers and founders 1970-1980 and stories by women. 'I was very nervous, you sat by yourself most of time…because if you sat down one of the lads would actually sit down next t you in case the other lads started teasing them.' It can obtained from History Research Centre, University of Portsmouth, Milldam, Burnaby Road, Portsmouth P01 3AS. Tel: +44 (0)23 9284 2207.
  • Sub: please insert pic of girl artist with head through lifebelt
  • New Zealand Professional Skipper, Autumn 2000, p3-4 carries a long illustrated article about Dawn Riley, the figurehead and Chief Executive Officer for America True. She is the first woman to manage an America 's Cu sailing Team. In 1995 her all-women team sailed through the cup barrier for the first time in 145 years. As a girl she never noticed there were no women role models so just got on with seeking her goal.
  • Maritime Mission Studies, The Journal of the International Association for the Study of maritime Mission, Vol. 2, Spring 2000, carries a long, scholarly and fascinating article by Roald Kverndal: 'Women on the Waterfront: The Status and Roles of Women in Seafarers Mission from a Historical and Cultural perspective' (p17-32).

SHOWS ABOUT THE SEA

In Summer 2000 Pendle Young Peoples Theatre Company in Lancashire put on a play about a young woman who runs away to build canals in the 1700s. The canal-side promenade production showed not only the young woman's Flora's progress but the lives of the shanty girls (sex industry workers) who made a living from the navvies, and two lady blue stockings who educate Flora about the industrial changes that are taking place in the world. Written by Paul Noel Wilson

 

 

SOURCES OF INFORMATION

SHOWING WRENS' HISTORY

Created in 1987 the WRNS Collection at the Royal Naval Museum is the most comprehensive collection of material relating to the history of the Women's Royal Naval Service. It contains both official and unofficial documents and manuscripts, photographs, uniforms and artefacts relating to the Service from its inception in 1917 to its disbandment in 1993.

HRH The Princess Royal

The Collection also contains some material relating to women serving after1993. This is when they were integrated into the Royal Navy. The Women's Royal Naval Service was created in November 1917. After sustaining heavy losses in the first three years of the War, the Royal Navy was faced with a serious shortage of sailors to man its ships. However, there were many hundreds of sailors serving ashore and it was decided to replace these men with women. This led to the creation of the WRNS with its rallying call of "Free a Man for Sea Service." The Admiralty decreed that only 3,000 women could be recruited and that they could only do domestic work, for example, cleaning, cooking and waiting at tables. However, numbers very quickly grew to over 6,000 Wrens doing over 100 different jobs, many of which had been considered too difficult for women to undertake.

Although the Service was in existence for only 19 months, the WRNS proved how valuable women could be to the Navy in difficult times. Their contribution was recognised when the Service was quickly re-formed at the outbreak of war in 1939. This time the Service numbered over 74,000 at its peak in 1944 with women doing over 200 different jobs. WRNS played a major role in the planning and organisation of many of the Navy's most significant operations and were vital to the smooth running and maintenance of naval activities ashore.

Thousands of Wrens served overseas and many more thousands worked with the Fleet Air Arm, Coastal Forces, Combined Operations and the Royal Marines. Acknowledgement of the WRNS's contribution to the war effort came in 1947 with the creation of the Permanent Service. The role of the WRNS remained much the same but with greatly reduced numbers, an average of 3,000 and far fewer trades.

This remained the case until 1977. Until then the Service had been voluntary with its own disciplinary system but in order to bring it more into line with the Navy itself, and with the other two Women's Services, the WRNS was brought under the Naval Discipline Act. This had very little to do with discipline but opened up many trades which up until 1977 had been male-only. This was the first step in the gradual integration of women into the Royal Navy itself, and finally led to the disbandment of the Service altogether in 1993.

Since then women have joined the Royal Navy not the WRNS and are totally equal in jobs and working conditions. The final integration came in 1994 when the first women served on board ships. Women now serve on at least one third of all Naval ships and in some cases make up at least 10% of their crews. There are no jobs they cannot do, and some are now serving as Bandswomen with the Royal Marines. The only area from which they are still excluded, for purely practical reasons, is the Submarine Service but this is now under review as well.
The Women's Royal Naval Service has come a long way since its birth in 1917, and this history is reflected in the WRNS Collection which can be viewed, or used for research, by appointment with the Curator, Miss Lesley Thomas.

For more information please contact Lesley Thomas, Curator of WRNS Collection, Royal Naval Museum, HM Naval Base, Portsmouth, Hampshire, PO1 3NH, UK. Tel: (44): 023 9272 7576 | Fax (44) 023 9272

E-mail to: lesley.thomas@royalnavalmuseum.org

Website: The WRNS Collection of the Royal Naval Museum.

Naval Academy: Women at Sea Seminars

 

JOINING IN

You may not have time to write books and long articles but do please find a moment to write a short article or letter to this newsletter. Tell us your news on women and the sea. Articles and pictures on a range of topics are welcome. Ideally they will be no longer than 350 words and preferably on disc or as email attachments in Word. The next deadline is March 30 2001. We can be contacted at Women and the Sea Network, Research department, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London SE10 9NF, UK. You can email the co-ordinator at j.v.stanley@lancaster.ac.uk