Books

Getting women on board: the history of the WRNS

20 January 2018

9:00 AM

20 January 2018

9:00 AM

This book is a thoroughly researched account of the parts played by women in the service of the Royal Navy from the Middle Ages to the present. What it lacks in anecdotes and personal accounts it makes up for in its comprehensive documentation of official attitudes and measures.

Women have served in — or, more accurately, with — the Royal Navy for longer than we might think. There are medieval references to women accompanying their husbands on voyages, including the Crusades, and to women serving as launderers, cooks, nurses and prostitutes (possibly all four). Ladies of the Cinque Ports — Hastings, Dover, Sandwich, Romney and Hythe — were the most likely to sail. One source claimed that older women ‘washed the clothes and heads [of the sailors]…. Women were as good as monkeys at getting rid of the fleas’.

Three are known to have camouflaged themselves as men or boys in the 1690s, helped by loose and rarely changed clothing and darkness below decks. They used horns as funnels for peeing. But, disguised or not, the numbers who served as crew were tiny: a mere 20 are recorded aboard RN ships between 1690 and 1899, and about 29 in merchant ships.

More commonly, especially in the 18th century, women and children would sail with their warrant officer or marine husbands, working as laundresses or in other supporting roles. As many as 75 could have been aboard the 33 ships at Trafalgar, though there were probably fewer, as non-essential personnel of both genders were disembarked before sailing. Nevertheless, Daniel Maclise’s 1859–64 painting ‘The Death of Nelson’ depicts women nursing the wounded on the Victory.


Formalised roles for women in the Navy, primarily nursing, developed from the end of the 17th century. The naval hospital at Greenwich was built in 1694 and by 1697 there were six hospital ships deploying around 60 women. This capacity grew during the next two centuries, despite intermissions, culminating in the creation of the Naval Nursing Service in 1884, a year after the Army had formed its equivalent and 30 years after the example set by Mrs. Eliza Mackenzie, the Navy’s answer to Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War. This became the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service (QARNNS) which grew through two world wars and is with us still.

As in so many other fields, it took the brutal necessities of war to engender major change. What we know as the Wrens were established in 1917 as the Women’s Royal Naval Service, mainly to perform shore-based jobs that would free men to go to sea (whether they wanted to or not — quite often they didn’t). Under the redoubtable leadership of their first director, Katharine Furze, they willingly adopted the motto ‘Never at Sea’, and with equal willingness expanded their remit from domestic and clerical roles to include codes and communications, priming depth charges, maintaining searchlights, repairing hydrophones, despatch riding, driving, welding and lathe operating — anything, in fact, that the changing assumptions and values of the time permitted. As befitted the Senior Service, Wrens were usually seen as socially smarter and as more desirable assets than their Army and (later) RAF equivalents — albeit that the other services were often ahead of the Navy in female deployments.

Swingeing post-war cuts, however, put an end to the Wrens until 1939, when they were re-formed and allocated an even wider range of tasks, including at Bletchley Park and its intercept outstations. (An ex-Wren I knew — a charming and aristocratic lady — accidentally set light to one of the Bletchley huts. ‘Frightful fuss about it,’ she recalled.)

The second world war increased the overseas deployment of Wrens, paving the way for their continuing post-war existence and their modern sea-going roles. ‘Although progress was uneven, there were, from the 1970s, political and naval voices calling for Wrens to be fully absorbed into the Navy and subject to the Naval Discipline Act.’

This culminated with the 1989 West Report, which recommended that women should go to sea from 1990 and that the WRNS should merge with the Royal Navy one year later. It was contentious not only within the Navy but in the WRNS itself, where some preferred to remain a shore-based separate service. ‘It also meant spending scarce money on modifying ships. But it happened.’ By 2016 there were 2,740 serving women, representing 9 per cent of the Navy. They are fully combatant, some are in senior positions and all are now able (if qualified) to serve in submarines.

Jo Stanley sees her subject through a feminist prism, unsurprisingly, and is prone to a certain shade of received opinion: Eton is ‘arguably the most powerful institution on the planet’, and the UK is a ‘hypersexualised society’. However, she is fair-minded in her accounts of those stalwart older Wrens who did not agree that the modern Navy’s manifesto ‘embracing diversity and inclusion… maximises the operational effectiveness of the naval service’.

In the light of the disgraceful 2007 seizure of RN craft and personnel by Iranian gunboats, we might wonder whether the modern Navy is more concerned with diversity and inclusion than with the fighting spirit that made it feared and formidable for 200-plus years — but that’s another book.

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