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Exhibition pays tribute to women in Naval Service

20 February 2017
Personal items and stories are used in a new exhibition which tells the story of women working in the Naval Service.

Pioneers to Professionals: Women and the Royal Navy has opened at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth to mark the centenary year of the Women’s Royal Naval Service.

But it is the personal stories which bring to life how women contributed to British Naval history, right back from the age of sail when many women were unofficially on warships, some disguised as men.

“Historically the work of Naval women was rarely recorded and often overlooked, yet thousands have actively contributed to worldwide Naval operations over centuries,” said Curator Victoria Ingles.

It is important to recognise that the Wrens were not sat in office jobs but were putting themselves in danger

Victoria Ingles

“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.”

A section of the exhibition highlights the early pioneers from the 18th and 19th Centuries, during which time a number of women disguised themselves as men, while others openly lived with their husbands on board.

The formation of the WRNS in 1917 was seen as an important milestone as it allowed women to work in an official capacity in shore-based roles as cooks, stewards, dispatch riders, sail makers and in intelligence – the WRNS motto was Never at Sea.

Initially the Service – around 7,000 Wrens served during WW1 – was heavily influenced by the Volunteer Aid Detachment – an organisation trained in first aid.

“It is important to recognise that the Wrens were not sat in office jobs but were putting themselves in danger,” added Victoria.

“The attraction for many women was the chance to do something different and travel the world. It changed people’s perspective and also gave them skills and confidence, which helped them in life outside of the Service.

“From talking to former Wrens who have visited it is clear that it was something special to be in the WRNS.”

Members of the WRNS also heavily influenced the introduction of women into the navies of Australia, Canada, India and the Netherlands.

It wasn’t until 1949 that a long-term Royal Navy career for women became possible and it was as late as 1990 before women were able to serve in ships at sea. Three years later the WRNS was disbanded and women were fully integrated into the Royal Navy.

Today females in the Royal Navy and Royal Marines make up 9.3 percent of the force in the UK Regular Forces and Future Reserves. The percentage of officers who are female in the Royal Navy and Royal Marines, in the UK Regular Forces, stands at 10.6 percent.

Now Royal Navy women serve under and on the waves, in the air and on land – and are also eligible to apply to become a Royal Marine Commando.

The Princess Royal, Admiral Chief Commandant for Women in the Royal Navy, will officially launch the exhibition, which runs until the end of the year, on March 8, International Women’s Day.

For more details on WRNS100 events see


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