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WRNS Collection

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. The Collection also contains some material relating to women serving post-1993 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".

WRNS Personnel WWI
 Royal Naval Museum
Click to go back to Permanent Collections Home Page 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.

WRNS Mechanics HMS Fledgeling 1943
 Royal Naval Museum
Click to go back to Permanent Collections Home Page 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.

WRNS Operating Signal Lamp 1991
 Royal Naval Museum
Click to go back to Permanent Collections Home Page 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.

Wren Fire Fighter
 Crown Copyright
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For more information please contact :

Lesley Thomas
Curator of WRNS Collection
Royal Naval Museum
HM Naval Base (PP66)

Telephone : 023 9272 7576 | Fax : 023 9272 7575
Outside UK - Telephone : 44 23 9272 7576 | Fax : 44 23 9272 7562

The Royal Naval Museum is a Registered Charity : No 266563

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Created on the 25 June 1999
Last modified 1 April 2003