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International Women's Day - Women from the Royal Navy's History

International Women’s Day

The National Museum of the Royal Navy looks after a collection of internationally significant artefacts from ships to aircraft to people’s stories.

For International Women’s Day we’ve taken a look at women featured in our collection that represent the different museums and service history we care for.

From Explosion! Royal Navy Museum of Firepower…

Women were just as keen as men to contribute to the war effort when it began in 1914, but their opportunities were limited. Initially banned from military service, many worked in munitions factories.

The Explosion Museum is set in the former naval armament depot at Priddy’s Hard in Gosport. During the First World War, Priddy’s Hard was the first depot to employ women with 709 working there in 1915.

Louisa Dykes and Colleague, Munitions Workers at Priddy’s Hard during the First World War, wearing the overalls that were their uniform

Priddy’s Hard Munitions Workers 1916

From our records:
At Priddy’s Hard women have worked entirely using the power sewing machine for making up empty cartridges, overalls, etc. and have filled large quantities of small and medium cartridges, and it is observed that whatever work has been given them, they have undertaken it cheerfully and with enthusiasm, at the same time being always well disciplined.

During the Second World War, the Priddy’s Hard depot employed 2,500 women. There was little industry in Gosport other than boat building, few if any factories, so employment was narrowed down to shop work, secretarial, waitressing and domestic service. The chance to join Priddy’s Hard and to earn a reasonable salary was an opportunity many women – young and older - jumped at. 

This Munitions Girl Booklet was issued to munitions workers at Priddy’s. It includes information on engineering, training, wages, doing sums, trade unions, uniforms and welfare.

The women proved to be dexterous when working on tasks requiring care and skill. Girls were supposed to be 18 in order to start work at Priddy’s Hard but we have evidence of girls as young as 16 working with high explosives.

Workers of Shell Area at the Royal Navy Armaments Depot Priddy's Hard, 1945

Some of the more dangerous jobs required special clothing and a wedding ring was the only permitted jewellery.  Working with cordite was particularly hazardous.  Handling it over time resulted in swollen eyes, headaches, yellow hair, yellow skin and dermatitis.  Everyone in the town knew where you worked by looking at your hair. It earned them the name Canary Girls.
At the end of the Second World War, women found the advances they had made were greatly reduced as men returned from fighting abroad and the need for munitions significantly decreased.
Many women left Priddy’s Hard, although some reliable workers were requested to stay and others were asked to briefly return for Korean War in 1950.

Nevertheless, for many, wartime work became a symbol of freedom. It had given women opportunities and responsibilities denied to them during peace time and had instilled a sense of comradeship and self-confidence.    
“Women before the war, well their place was in the home, lookin’ after the kids, ‘avin’ the meal on the table, and that was that. But I think the wars changed all that. I think it give them the freedom that they sort of deserved.”
Olive Winman, Chargehand, Components Room

Ethel Reeves

Ethel worked from 1941-46 in the Priddy’s Hard Armament Depot.

Local Gosport girl Ethel Woods joined Priddy’s Hard at 15 years and 10 months. She told a white lie about her age as you weren’t allowed to work at the depot until you reached 16. The depot paid well and it was a chance for Ethel to earn some money.

She worked from 1941-46 as a munitions worker and returned again in the early 1950s but this time in the offices. Ethel was expected to be adaptable as she was one of the youngest. She put the shells together, added fuses and stamped plates for the outside of the boxes.

The work was very manual but Ethel says you got through this hard work through having a good sense of humour “The girls that worked on the TNT did often have yellow skin and where referred to as the canaries, they also got ‘dirty’ money but they never had to pay to get their hair died blonde.”

A normal day for Ethel

“7am – I arrived at work by bike and would enter the shifting room. Here I hung up my clothes and got changed in to my uniform then crossed over the red line into the ‘clean area’. This meant that I had nothing flammable on me and we were often inspected just to make sure. I would then go from here to wherever I was based on that day.  The uniform was ill-fitting and uncomfortable. You weren’t allowed to take food in but often we snuck It in our tops as lunch was quite a long time off. One lady loved dripping and marmite sandwiches and she got caught during an inspection. Not much fuss was made though.

1.30pm– We had an hour for lunch, we could bring in our on lunch or could go to the canteen. We would sometimes be lucky enough to have lunch time concerts and comedians. You could also take your sandwiches and go to the ‘Big House’ for lunch if you wished to.

2.30pm – After lunch we would have 20minutes mess around before Ron the foreman returned. You would have two lookouts each end of the laboratory.

5pm– Time to go home but often you could do overtime until 7pm and on Saturday mornings sometimes.”

Ethel says she could still pack a shell now!

From The National Museum of the Royal Navy Hartlepool…

Eliza Bunt

Eliza Bunt was one of the many women of the 1800s who lived on board Royal Navy ships with their husbands, without actually being listed as crew.

She was married to a boatswain called John Bunt who in 1816 was appointed boatswain for the Royal Navy dockyard in Trincomalee, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

On the way to Ceylon, travelling on HMS Minden, Eliza gave birth to a son. It is hard for us to imagine the discomfort of living on board a Royal Navy ship of that era, but to have given birth on one must have been traumatic. At least there was likely a ship’s surgeon there in case anything went wrong.

When Eliza’s husband died two years later in 1818, she was entitled to travel home to England on a Royal navy ship and that happened to be HMS Trincomalee, a frigate now at the National Museum of the Royal Navy Hartlepool.

In 1817, HMS Trincomalee had left the Bombay dockyard where she was built and docked at her namesake port where she collected Eliza and her two small children.
The ship was also carrying several Royal Navy invalids who were sick or injured and being sent home.

While on the five month journey back to England, Eliza kept a diary which gives us a unique insight into life on board for a woman. 

Eliza’s diary is on loan to the National Museum of the Royal Navy Hartlepool from her descendant, Mary Hope Monnery.

A transcript is available as an e-book: www.amazon.co.uk/Trincomalee-Portsea-Mary-Hope-Monnery/dp/B001I11O5K


From the Fleet Air Arm Museum…

Claire Donegan

In 1998, Lt Claire Donegan qualified as a Sea King pilot with 820 Squadron. She was the first female pilot in the Royal Navy. During her training, Donegan won two trophies, one for “best all-around pilot.”

In 2003, Lt Donegan piloted a Sea King helicopter of 771 Naval Air Squadron to rescue a yachtsman.

Despite a 40-foot swell, Donegan managed to bring the helicopter to a stable hover at 60 feet and lower two aircrewman onto the deck of the small yacht.

As there was not enough space to lift the casualty with a stretcher, the aircrewmen stayed with him until a RNLI lifeboat could reach them.

The casualty was transferred to the lifeboat and taken to hospital. For this seven and a half hour rescue, the helicopter crew were awarded the Prince Philip Helicopter Rescue Award for outstanding devotion to duty during a search and rescue operation. 

The citation for the award praised their courage, professional skill, exemplary flying skills, selfless disregard for their own safety in extremely trying conditions and outstanding teamwork.

Claire donated her flying suit to the Fleet Air Arm Museum and it is on display in Hall 2.

From The National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth…

Ruby Mason

In 1918, Ruby Mason became a despatch rider for the newly formed Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS).

Her primary role was to ferry urgent orders and messages between Admiralty Headquarters and naval bases in the Dover area.

To do this she rode a motorbike, which was very unusual for a woman at this time, and she would have no doubt faced curiosity and, perhaps even some hostility, from the men around her.

During the First World War, Dover was one of the most important military centres in Britain. Lots of men went through it on their way to the battlefields in France and it also housed the Dover Patrol, a collection of warships and fishing vessels which helped protect the Channel.

As a result, the town was always under threat from German bombing and Ruby would have been in real danger riding around its streets unprotected.She would also have had to contend with the traffic, the weather and the dark.

WRNS Despatch Rider at Dover, 1918

From the Royal Navy Submarine Museum…

To release men for sea duty, Wrens at the submarine base of HMS Dolphin took over many of the shore-based jobs, such as cooks, stewards, writers, wireless operators, telegraphists, laundresses, bookkeepers and telephonists.

Wrens on surrendered German submarine U-123 at Fort Blockhouse, circa 1919.

Women were not allowed into active service, but by the end of the Second World War there were 74,000 women in the Royal Navy doing a wide variety of jobs that had previously been done by men.
They were given more active roles and trained as welders and carpenters, carrying out maintenance and repair. They were involved in loading torpedoes onto submarines and in training of submarine officers at the Attack Teacher.

Wrens undertaking maintenance in the torpedo workshop at HMS Dolphin, 1943

Torpedo wrens wheeling a torpedo through HMS Dolphin, to be loaded onto a submarine before deployment.

Wrens setting up the equipment at the Submarine Attack Teacher.

A ban on women serving in submarines was lifted in 2011. In 2014 three women, Lieutenants Maxine Stiles, Alexandra Olsson and Penny Thackray, were the first to enter the Submarine Service serving on HMS Vigilant.

Patricia Jeffreys

Patricia, a leading Wren, was one of thousands who joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service during the Second World War. She specifically wanted to work with Coastal Forces. As women were restricted to shore-based roles, she helped maintain depth charges and torpedoes.

The women who carried out this work gained the nickname of Torpedo Wrens.

‘We were doing a man’s job…it was very hard work and I’ve never been so tired. It was very unglamorous, in overalls covered in grease loading torpedoes onto the boats…but it was a wonderful life.’ – Patricia Jeffreys speaking in 2010.

From HMS Caroline…

Women first joined HMS Caroline during the Second World War.  Although no longer a sea-going vessel, Caroline played a vital role in the Battle of the Atlantic as static operations base. The wartime Wrens based onboard carried out range of roles including operating communications equipment and maintaining and repairing ships.

After the war, Caroline resumed her role as a drill ship for the Ulster Division of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) (later RNR). In 1952, a new women’s unit was formed, creating an additional pool of trained personnel who could supplement the regular service in times of emergency.

Typical categories for post-war female Reservists on HMS Caroline included Writer (administration), Communications, Stores and Degaussing (the demagnetisation of ships against magnetic mines).

Women remained onboard Caroline until 2009 when the RNR moved ashore to Thiepval Barracks in Lisburn, recommissioned as HMS Hibernia.

Patricia Shaw (nee Lee)

Patricia was one of the many women who joined the Women’s Royal Naval Reserves unit on HMS Caroline.  As a member of the reserves she was part of pool of trained personnel who could supplement the regular service in times of emergency. They learned their skills at the twice weekly drill sessions on board and during a two-week residential training trip further afield. 
Patricia initially trained as a Radar Plotter and later switched to degaussing (the de-magnetisation of ships against magnetic mines).  After gaining a commission as an officer she steadily rose through the ranks to become Chief Officer and the Senior Wren Officer of the Women’s Royal Naval Reserve which meant she had to keep an eye on all the units around the UK.  She retired after more than 30 years in the service.

Patricia Shaw (née Lee) served on HMS Caroline for over thirty years and retired in 1989. Reproduced with the kind permission of Patricia Shaw.

From The National Museum of the Royal Navy’s Devonport collection…

Agnes Weston

Agnes Weston, a friend to the Forces and active in the temperance movement, visited Devonport in 1873 where she would remain for the rest of her life.

She worked tirelessly to support the Royal Navy Temperance Society, and in 1876 opened the Sailor’s Rest as a “bar without drink” close to the dockyard gate. Further successful establishments followed in Portsmouth, Portland and Sheerness.

In 1918, Weston was made a Dame of the British Empire shortly before her death. She became the first woman ever to be buried with full naval honours and is buried in Plymouth’s Weston Mill Cemetery.

From the Royal Marines Museum…

Hannah Snell

Hannah Snell’s portrait makes up a small but significant part of NMRN’s Portsmouth Collection. Having previously cross-dressed as a man to serve the British Army in 1745, she deserted after surviving 500 lashes, and joined the Marines at Portsmouth.

In 1748, her unit was sent to capture the French colony of Pondicherry in India, where she was wounded in the legs 11 times during battle.

She famously allowed the ship’s surgeon to remove all bullets but the one in her groin, which she removed herself to preserve her true identity.

She returned to Britain in 1750 and petitioned the head of the army for her pension, identifying now as a woman. She was honourably discharged and received her full pension.

Strong women throughout history

The Royal Navy has many well known and hidden stories of women who have pioneered, invented, discovered, fought and sacrificed throughout history.

While this blog showcases a selection of women, this is obviously just a mere scratch on the surface of the incredible women that have been, are current and will be a part of the Royal Navy's future.

Through social media, exhibitions and online The National Museum of the Royal Navy will continue to highlight women from history.

Keep your eye on this blog and our social platforms to find out about more incredible women from the Royal Navy’s past and present.

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