Today women with the necessary skills can join any branch of the Royal Navy. A little over 100 years ago, the Women’s Royal Naval Service motto was ‘Never at Sea’ yet in fact women were actively working on board serving ships and supporting naval operations long before 1917.
A new exhibition has opened at the Fleet Air Arm Museum revealing remarkable stories of naval women. This traces the role of women in the Royal Navy from the 17th Century to present day highlighting the drastic changes that have taken place.
Leading by example, these pioneering women comprehensively demonstrated their capabilities and so laid the foundations for the eventual integration of the WRNS into the Royal Navy in 1993. Today females in the Royal Navy and Royal Marines make up 9.3% of the force in the UK Regular Forces and Future Reserves. Furthermore, the percentage of officers who are female in the Royal Navy and Royal Marines, in the UK Regular Forces, stands at 10.6%. In July 2016, the government announced the lifting of restrictions on women serving in ground close combat roles, removing the last remaining barriers to full integration.
Women’s contribution to the Royal Navy has been overlooked in the past. It is a common misconception that until the introduction of the uniformed women’s service, the navy was an exclusively male domain. However, from the 17th century early pioneers disguised themselves as men or accompanied their husbands to sea on warships and this continued into the early 19th century.
The formation of the Women’s Royal Naval Service in 1917 was an important milestone for the history of women and the Royal Navy. It allowed women to work in an official capacity in shore-based roles thus releasing men for shipboard service. Artefacts and photographs from the early years of the WRNS on display in this exhibition include a WRNS Director’s Log Book, images of those pioneer Wrens and drawings from the time.
During World War 2, the reformed WRNS took on an even wider variety of vital roles than their World War 1 forerunners. They were Aircraft and Radio Mechanics with the Fleet Air Arm, code-breakers at Bletchley Park and Despatch Riders ferrying important messages. Some received gallantry awards for their courage and fortitude. The exhibition profiles just a few of their contributions including an evocative tableau of a Despatch Rider in the midst of an air raid and a display showing Wrens assisting with the training of Fighter Direction Control Officers using an adapted ice cream seller’s tricycle.
Post-World War 2, women continued to expand the part they played in the Royal Navy and today are able to play an active role across all naval operations. Many have risen through the ranks to senior positions and in some cases have received gallantry awards for their actions.
‘Pioneers to Professionals’ underlines the key place of women in the Royal Navy story and what they have achieved over the past 250 years. The exhibition’s final collage of images depicts the huge variety of roles undertaken by women in the modern navy, roles that their early predecessors would never have imagined possible.
Curator Susan Dearing said “Women have been contributing to the work of the Royal Navy for over 250 years but their story has tended to remain in the background and their accomplishments largely unrecognised. But those who so successfully took up the challenge of working in the Royal Navy made possible the fact that women today enjoy the same service opportunities as their male colleagues. This exhibition provides a great opportunity to bring their inspiring story to the forefront.”
Entry to the Fleet Air Arm Museum costs from £12.75 per adult and £9.50 per child, with family tickets available from £37.50 for 2 adults and up to 3 children. Book online at www.fleetairarm.com