Princess Anne with 'Pioneers to Professionals' Curator Victoria Ingles and Professor Dominic Tweddle, Director General of the National Museum of the Royal Navy (Photo: NMRN)

Royal opening for 'Women and the Royal Navy' centenary exhibition

Posted on on 13 March 2017
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Princess Anne has officially opened a centenary exhibition dedicated to the role of women in the British navy.

Pioneers to Professionals - at the National Museum of the Royal Navy - is being held in the year that marks the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Women's Royal Naval Service during the First World War.  

The Princess Royal toured the Portsmouth-based museum on 8 March 2017, International Women's Day, meeting WRNS veterans and women serving in today's integrated navy. 

100 years ago, the immense demands of the Great War forced changes in attitudes to women in the military.

The urgent need for more sailors at sea led to the WRNS being formed in November 1917, releasing men from shore jobs.

Similar women's services were also created for the British Army, and from 1918, the newly-created Royal Air Force, to which some 'Wrens' transferred.

Many women were already working in munitions factories, or bolstering the war effort as volunteer nurses and drivers in Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs).

Dame Katharine Furse was appointed as the first Director of the Women's Royal Naval Service, just after resigning as VAD chief. 

Many women followed her into the WRNS forming the nucleus of the new organisation, rapidly become known as the 'Wrens'. 

WRNS members on parade at the Peace Pageant, Portsmouth, in July 1919, from a photo album compiled by Beatrice Brown, WRNS (Image: National Museum of the Royal Navy-RNM 1988/350/170/54)

The service grew quickly, with bases in London, Portsmouth, Chatham, Devonport, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Immingham and Harwich.

Women took over shore-based duties, filling roles such as telephonists, wireless operators and drivers  in order to ‘free a man for the fleet’. 

The WRNS campaigned for a permanent service when the Great War was over. But the calls were dismissed until war again loomed in 1939.

The Royal Navy Museum's exhibition aims to trace women's stories from the age of sail to the founding of the WRNS in November 1917, and onwards to the Second World War, the Cold War and the present day.

In 1993, the WRNS was disbanded and women were integrated into the Royal Navy. 

Pioneers to Professionals Curator Victoria Ingles said: "Historically the work of naval women was rarely recorded and often overlooked, yet thousands have actively contributed to worldwide naval operations over centuries. During this time, women have undertaken a huge range of jobs and have often confounded expectations about what they could do and this exhibition seeks to bring some of these inspirational stories to attention. 

"We are also keen to highlight the everyday experience of naval women past and present and are encouraging visitors to contribute their own stories helping us to fully reflect the scale and significance of women’s work within the navy."

'Women and the Royal Navy: Pioneers to Professionals' is at the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN), Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

For more about the WRNS Centenary, see WRNS100.

Information & images: NMRN 

Posted by: CN Editorial Team