Museum Crush

11 objects that tell the story of Women and the Royal Navy

Hannah Snell spent four and a half years dressed as a man named ‘James Gray’ in order to serve in the Royal Marines.

November 2017 marks the centenary of the formation of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), or the ‘Wrens’ and The National Museum of the Royal Navy is marking the centenary with its Pioneers to Professionals: Women and the Royal Navy exhibition which runs until January 2018. Here are 11 artefacts showing the history of women and the Royal Navy

Print of Hannah Snell

Courtesy NMRN.

Hannah Snell spent four and a half years dressed as a man named ‘James Gray’ in order to serve in the Royal Marines. Though this seems like an odd thing to do, from the mid-1700s there are a handful of accounts that describe women putting on men’s clothes and joining the navy. Getting away with pretending to be a man was easier than it might seem. Sailors wore baggy clothes and bathed very infrequently. Women passed themselves off as one of the many adolescent boys that were serving at this time.

Britain was almost continuously at war in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and officers would take any healthy volunteers they could find, without enquiring too closely into their backgrounds or giving a medical examination. The reason usually given for these women joining the navy was to follow a male lover out to sea. But the truth may have been different. Sailing away in disguise provided women with freedom to live and earn as they wanted. When they were found out, they were seen as an unusual model of patriotism, and were celebrated. Hannah Snell printed her biography and took to the London stage dressed in her uniform. As we only have evidence of a few of these women, it is likely to be more common than we might think.

Two sailors and a Marine with a VAD nurse’ drawn by Joyce Dennys

Courtesy NMRN

Joyce served in the Voluntary Aid Detachments until 1917 when she transferred to the WRNS. She designed the iconic WRNS recruitment poster of the First World War. There were around 74,000 VADs at the outbreak of the First World War, of which two thirds were women. They provided medical assistance at naval hospitals in the UK and in France. Most of these women had little experience of a work environment before this. This gave them the opportunity to develop new skills including personnel management and to gain confidence in their abilities. Most importantly they showed women could make a vital contribution to the war effort, challenging beliefs about what they could do. Several of the first WRNS were VADs and left with Katherine Furse in 1917 to form the nucleus of the service.

WRNS First World War Recruitment Poster

Courtesy NMRN

The poster was designed by Joyce Dennys in 1917. Joyce was an artist who joined the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) and served in the First World War after her art school training. This was the iconic poster for the First World War WRNS and shows a romantic view of a Wren standing at the White Cliffs of Dover. Later Joyce became well-known as an author for ‘Henrietta’s War’, a series of fiction articles about women’s lives at home during the Second World War.

Ceramic Wren

Courtesy NMRN

This symbolic ceramic wren was given to Katharine Furse, the first Director of the WRNS. The model perched on her office desk. The service quickly became known as the ‘Wrens’ after its creation in 1917. Other titles considered for the service included the Royal Naval Women’s Service or ‘RNWS’ and the Women’s Auxiliary Naval Corps or ‘WANCS’.

Signed key

Courtesy NMRM

One of the most sought after opportunities when joining the WRNS was the chance to work overseas. Margaret Hodgson was amongst the first draft of Wrens posted overseas to Singapore in 1941. Whilst sailing there Margaret celebrated her 21st birthday and her fellow Wrens presented her with this signed key as a gift.

Aircraft checkers course notebook

Courtesy NMRN

Courtesy NMRN

Courtesy NMRN

During the Second World War the range of jobs undertaken by WRNS quickly widened. Air mechanics, for example, grew in number. The role required the women to do detailed inspections of the aircraft and sign them off as safe to fly. As such they were highly trained and needed good levels of mathematics to join. This Aircraft Checkers Course notebook was kept by Margaret Field in 1944.

WRNS Second World War Recruitment Poster

Courtesy NMRN

Recruitment posters were a vital part of Second World War propaganda, encouraging women to join the services so they could ‘free a man for the fleet’. WRNS were needed to take over shore-based jobs so that men could go to sea. This model for this poster was Sylvia Henderson, who served as a Wren Writer during the Second World War at WRNS Headquarters.


Courtesy NMRN

This handbag was issued to Leading Wren (Visualler Signaller) Winifred Boumphrey in 1944. Following complaints from Wrens that they had nowhere to keep their personal belongings and that they were forced to have bulging pockets which ruined the outline of their smart uniforms, the Navy introduced canvas shoulder bags as part of the uniform in 1943. Despite this, some Wrens chose to buy more stylish unofficial leather handbags instead. When this bag was opened it was found to contain not lipstick and powder, but a bottle opener, some needles and thread and bath plug-clearly essentials for a Leading Wren! The WRNS were the only ladies’ service permitted handbags in the Second World War.

Souvenirs from the SS Aguila when a passenger ship

Plaque commemorating Wrens who died on SS Aguila. Courtesy NMRN

SS Aguila Souvenirs. Courtesy NMRN

During the Second World War, the SS Aguila became a troop ship. In 1941 a group of 21 Wrens and a Queen Alexandra Royal Naval Nursing Service (QARNNS) nurse were sent to Gibraltar for cypher and wireless duties. However U-boats attacked the ship on 19th August and SS Aguila sank in under two minutes, with the loss of 152 souls. Six Wrens survived and were picked up by Empire Oak. However, this was torpedoed three days later with the loss of 19 lives, including the remaining Wrens. These were some of the first females to volunteer for overseas service.

WRNS memorial stained glass window

WRNS chapel window. Courtesy NMRN

This window, made using a ship’s wheel, was first installed above the altar in St. Andrew’s church in HMS Cochrane, Rosyth Naval Dockyard, in 1940. In 1968 it moved to the new Anglican church of St. Margaret’s in the Dockyard. Originally it had plain glass but was later transformed with the addition of the coloured glass panels – a gift of Wrens past and present who had served at HMS Cochrane. The artist who created the panels is unknown but it depicts a verse from psalm 29:3 with eight figures representing security, guidance, stars and moon, storm, sun, rain, and wind.

Maternity Dress

WRNS Pregnancy Uniform. Courtesy NMRN

Many Wrens left the service on marriage, and until 1990 it was compulsory to leave the service if they became pregnant. Today the Royal Navy is keen to support new mothers and 97% of women choose to return to the Navy after having a baby. Recent changes in the uniform include the introduction of this maternity dress, belonging to Laura Parker.

Pioneers to Professionals: Women and the Royal Navy runs until the end of January 2018 at The National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. For further information about visiting see


The National Museum of the Royal Navy, in Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard, is one of Britain’s oldest maritime museums. The Museum’s mission is to preserve and present the history of the 'Fleet' - the ships and the men and women who manned them. The National Museum of the Royal Navy is…