History

Founding Directors

Dame Katharine Furse as First Director (1917)
Dame Vera Laughton Mathews as Director (1939)

1917

“Women for the Navy – new shore service to be formed.” – by 1919 there were 7,000  Wrens including Cooks and Stewards, Despatch Riders, Sail Makers and those in Intelligence. The motto was ‘Never at Sea’.

Wrens at HMS Dolphin 1919
WRNS Household Workers being demobbed

1939

Free a Man for the Fleet’ 3,000 women recruited as before and also in new roles such as Radio Operators, Meteorologists, Bomb Range Markers together with sea-going  Cypher Officers, Coders and Boat’s Crew Wrens.

1944

W.R.N.S. Officers and ratings numbers, at their peak, were 74,000

Wren Telegraphists in Colombo
Wren Aircraft Mechanics

Post-war

A small permanent WRNS service of 3,000 retained for mainly administrative and support roles at RN establishments and Royal Naval Air Stations, UK and overseas.

1954 New entrants at Dauntless
1959 Stewards at Duchess of Kent Barracks
1963 RNAS Halfar
1963 Gibraltar Wrens rowing Club

1974

A survey observed that changing social structures and career limitations indicated the need for integration with the Royal Navy.

Leaving Duchess of Kent Barracks for the last time
The Flying Girls RNAS Yeovilton

1976

WRNS Officers’ Training moved from the Royal Naval College, Greenwich to Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth.

Wrens choir at Greenwich
BRNC Dartmouth

1981

The New Entry Training Establishment HMS DAUNTLESS closed after 35 years of training some 30,000 Wrens. Initial training now takes place alongside male ratings at HMS RALEIGH. Wrens were now subject to the Naval Discipline Act and given longer terms of service in a wide range of technical support roles in operational areas.

Victory Division HMS Dauntless
HMS Raleigh

1990

Falling R.N. recruitment raised the need for Wrens to go to sea. The first 20 volunteer Wren Officers and ratings joined HMS BRILLIANT.

First Wrens sea draft HMS Brilliant
Wren signallers at sea

1993

The Women’s Royal Naval Service was disbanded and 4535 women were integrated fully into the Royal Navy and able to serve on HM Ships at sea, at all ranks and rates.

Dining our the last Commandant WRNS
Fully integrated into the Royal Navy

21st Century

Women in the Royal Navy serve in many roles; as pilots, observers and air-crew personnel; as divers, and Commanding Officers of HM Ships and shore establishments, notably Cdr Sarah West, who took up her appointment as CO of HMS PORTLAND in 2012,  taking her ship from a refit in Rosyth to her current deployment as an Atlantic Patrol vessel.

In another milestone for the Royal Navy, Commander Sue Moore was the first woman to command a squadron of minor war vessels; the First Patrol Boat Squadron (1PBS). Read more.

Women can serve in the Royal Marines but not as RM Commandos.

 
 
Commander Sarah West RN
Commander Sue Moore RN

2009

MA Kate Nesbitt’s 'inspirational' bravery was rewarded at Buckingham Palace when she became the Navy's first woman to be invested with the Military Cross in November 2009.

She entered the records as only the second woman to be awarded the MC, one of Britain's highest gallantry awards, as well as becoming the only female MC Wren. Presenting her award, the Prince of Wales praised her 'extraordinary' heroism. 

Her citation read:

Under fire and under pressure her commitment and courage were inspirational and made the difference between life and death.

 

Medical Assistant Kate Nesbitt

2010

The first female to train as a Royal Navy Minewarfare and Clearance Diving Officer (MCDO) has graduated from the Defence Diving School.

Lieutenant Catherine Ker has become the first to benefit from a change in the Naval Service policy that female divers ran a greater risk of suffering from decompression sickness than their male counterparts.

The Royal Navy has had female divers in the past, but Lieutenant Ker is the first to graduate from the Diving School since the policy changed. Read more

Lieutenant Catherine Ker

2011

A Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander has made history by becoming the Fleet Air Arm's first ever female Senior Observer at one of Europe's largest helicopter bases.

829 Naval Air Squadron at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose has recently welcomed Lieutenant Commander Kay Burbidge, who took up her post after completing a Flight Commander’s appointment on HMS Monmouth.

Lt Cdr Burbidge joined the Royal Navy in 1988 as a Wren Air Engineering Mechanic (Weapons Electrical) and was selected for commission in 1995. She said:

Joining up as a non-seagoing, blue-badge-wearing Wren, my recent appointment is a true reflection as to the advances in the opportunities available to females in the Armed Forces today.

Read more

Lieutenant Commander Kay Burbidge

2014

Three RN Lieutenants, Maxine Styles, Alexandra Ollson and Penny Thackray, earned their ‘dolphin’ clasps as qualified members of the Submarine Service, the first females to do so since the service was established 110 years ago. Read more

Lieutenants Maxine Stiles, Alex Olsson and Penny Thackray

History in Depth

The Women's Royal Naval Service Benevolent Trust celebrated its 70th Anniversary in 2012 and marked this milestone by publishing a commemorative book "70 Years of Trust".

The book was launched at the Trust's Annual General Meeting in the presence of its Patron, HRH The Princess Royal at the Mansion House in London.

"70 Years of Trust" looks back at the charity's history and its work over the last 7 decades. It contains dozens of rare photographs of former Wrens at work and at play donated by its 50,000 current members.

HRH The Princess Royal has written the foreword to the book writing about the success and achievements of the Trust.

She writes: "Every woman who served in the WRNS is a member of the Benevolent Trust and over the last 70 years the Trust has cared for its own by helping thousands of women with regular or individual grants; last year we distributed £350,000, a huge achievement."

"The Trust has been highly successful and continues to be relevant because it has evolved its policies and practices to meet different times and the changing needs of its beneficiaries."

Money raised by the book will enable the Trust to continue helping those in need, promote awareness of the charity to the many former Wrens who don't know that there is assistance available and be a fitting record of its work over the past 70 years.

The Trust received over 2,000 photographs, documents, poems and other contributions from members to support this project. They have all been passed onto the National Museum of the Royal Navy for the WRNS archive.

460 former Wrens kindly agreed to help with the printing costs by offering to be sponsors in return for having their name and service details entered in a special section of the book. The Trust is most grateful for their support.

The 144-page book costs £15 including postage and packaging.

Find out more about the commemorative book on the Wrns BT site or complete the order form.

BT Anniversary Book