Centenary of the formation of the Women's Royal Naval Service

Women in the Navy, 1918The Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) was founded in November 1917, as a branch of the Royal Navy.

To celebrate its centenary, an exhibition has opened at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, charting the history of women and the Royal Navy.

In 1917, women could officially work in shore-based roles, giving rise to the WRNS motto, ‘Never at sea’, but their contribution was rarely recorded or widely known. 

The exhibition, open from February, highlights early trailblazers from the 18th and 19th centuries, when women openly lived (and worked) with their husbands on board, or disguised themselves as men to allow them to work. Curator of the exhibition, Victoria Ingles, said: “It is important to recognise that the Wrens were not sat in office jobs but were putting themselves in danger.”

The first mention of the WRNS in The Gazette is the appointment of its personnel, including its first director, Dame Katherine Furse, in 1918 (Gazette issue 30668). 

The WRNS disbanded in 1919 and then reformed in 1939, when new roles such as radio operators were introduced. It wasn’t until 1949 that a long-term Royal Navy career for women was possible, and it was 1990 before women could serve in ships at sea, when the first 20 volunteer Wrens officers and ratings joined HMS Brilliant, as recorded in a 1991 Gazette issue Gulf War despatch (Gazette issue 52589):

‘A minor but nonetheless notable aspect of HMS BRILLIANT'S arrival was the inclusion in her complement of members of the Women's Royal Naval Service who were serving in combatant ships in a war zone for the first time.’

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

The first woman in the Royal Navy to be awarded the Military Cross was medic Able Seaman Kate Nesbitt, for actions in Afghanistan in 2009 (Gazette issue 59182).

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Image: © The National Museum of the Royal Navy, WRNS personnel at Lowestoft physical training by club swinging, 1918