Thursday, 20 July 2017

The Wrens and The Royal Naval College, Greenwich

A familiar view (author's photo)

As regular readers of this blog will know by now, I'm a Southeast Londoner, born in Greenwich and continue to be a proud resident of the Royal Borough of Greenwich as we are now honoured to be called.

Centrepiece of the Maritime Greenwich UNESCO World Heritage Site is the Old Royal Naval College, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, built between 1696 and 1712 and originally designed to serve as the Greenwich Hospital, a home for retired and disabled sailors, in which role the magnificent buildings served until 1869. It was established as The Royal Naval College in 1873 and was designed to act as a centre for further education of officers - indeed it was described as "The University of The Navy" and over the years became an established part of officer training within the Senior Service. In October 1939, it gained a new function when the training of officers of the Womens Royal Naval Service, the WRNS or Wrens as they were affectionately known, began to be undertaken here.

The WRNS had originally been established in 1917 during the First World War and having been established solely as a wartime expedient, was disbanded in 1919. The coming of a new conflict in 1939 saw the WRNS re-born with a greatly expanded list of duties on offer for new recruits, which included piloting aircraft on ferry duties, acting as mechanics for a vast range of equipment and serving aboard small boats such as harbour launches. In their new incarnation, the Wrens made an invaluable contribution to the running of the Royal Navy.

They were again perhaps seen as a temporary expedient for wartime and one of their wartime recruiting posters which proclaimed "Join the Wrens - and Free a Man for the Fleet" tended to support this feeling. This time however, the sterling work done by the Wrens during wartime, ensured that they had a role to play in the peacetime Navy and the training of new officers continued at Greenwich until 1976. Over the years, the WRNS gradually became more and more integrated within the main service. The first Wrens served at sea from October 1990 in HMS Brilliant and in 1993, achieved complete integration with the Royal Navy when the WRNS was abolished as a separate service. 

Join The Wrens (author's collection)

Sadly, since the war, a succession of governments have suffered from "sea blindness" and have taken any possible opportunity to slash the defence budget, especially that of the Royal Navy and one of the consequences of this was the closure of the Royal Naval College as a service establishment in 1998. Fortunately, the buildings continue to serve in an educational function, today being home to the University of Greenwich as well as the Trinity Laban College of Music.

To mark the centenary of the establishment of the WRNS and acknowledging the important role played by the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, a special exhibition - WRNS Untold Stories: The Women's Royal Naval Service at Greenwich - is being held at The Visitor Centre until 5 December 2017 and I was fortunate enough to pay a visit to this fascinating exhibition last week.

The exhibition tells the story through a mixture of film, still photography and oral histories of how the Wrens overcame initial skepticism and sometimes downright hostility in a predominantly male environment, to win the respect and affection of their colleagues. During the First World War, they were given menial tasks such as serving as cooks, drivers and telephonists, thus releasing men to serve with the fleet but as mentioned previously, during the WRNS' second incarnation, in the Second World War, the roles given to the Wrens were far more varied and responsible.

W/T Operator (author's image from the exhibition)

Torpedo Wren (author's image from the exhibition)

To emphasise this growth in the range of roles available, the exhibition is illustrated by some delightful drawings showing some of the new roles given to the young Wrens, which must have seemed completely alien to the vast majority of the new recruits. We also see some newsreel footage of the time shot at Greenwich showing the Wrens in some of their more traditional roles, such as cooking and being taught how to cater for large numbers of hungry sailors. Other new responsibilities for the Wrens included jobs such as Radio Operators, Meterologists, Cypher Officers and Boat Crews.

Sadly, as with all service personnel in wartime, there were casualties and the worst incident came when the ss Aguila bound for Gibraltar, was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of twenty one Wrens who were heading for their first overseas posting as Cypher Officers. The author Nicholas Monsarrat, aluded to this tragedy when he included a similar incident in his masterful novel on the Battle of the Atlantic, The Cruel Sea.

The wartime training at Greenwich had to contend with the Blitz and the building attracted the attention of the Luftwaffe on several occasions. Perhaps the most notable incident came on 20 January 1943 during one of the so-called Tip and Run raids following the main Night Blitz of 1940-41, when the Admiral's House in King Charles Court was bombed with the loss of life of a Royal Navy Officer, Commander Alexander Reginald Chalmer. This was a day when for some unaccountable reason, the capital's balloon barrage was not deployed and the FW190 fighter-bombers used on the raid were also able to bomb Sandhurst Road School in Catford at low level, killing thirty eight children and six staff. The attackers also machine-gunned the streets of Greenwich and Charlton, with one eye-witness claiming that he could "see the pilot grinning as he gunned up the tram yard."

The Admiral's House after the bombing on 20 January 1943 (author's collection)

In 1949 with the war over, it was decided that the WRNS would continue as a part of the peacetime Royal Navy and the exhibition continues to tell the stories of the peacetime training that took place at the Royal Naval College right up until 1976, when the training of Wren officers was transferred to the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth.

A group of Wrens being shown around the Painted Hall in 1961 (author's collection)

In closing, I feel it appropriate to include below, the following piece which was written by Second Officer Nancy Spain WRNS in 1945 about her experiences in joining the Wrens during the winter of 1940/41. The experiences Nancy Spain refers to are relevent to the exhibition and as I was born and grew up within a stone's throw of the Royal Naval College, I make no apologies for repeating it verbatim below, with acknowledgements of course.

"The lorry stopped inside a courtyard, I think, where dusk was already falling and I saw nothing but a dark hall and cold grey stones and a strip of carpet and the superintendent of the OTC reading out names from a list held in the left hand.

This moment was not altogether a shock to me. The superintendent had once taught me history at school when I was eleven years old and I was prepared for her to be there, as she was for me.

She nodded at me as she called my name and I knew that the years had not impaired her perception, nor the war her kindliness, nor circumstances her friendly interest in human nature. Just the same, I felt she knew there was a hole in my stocking. But the moments that followed. They were like a blow between my eyes.

Like many people in England, many Wrens indeed, I was still unaware of much of the inheritance that Nelson, Drake, Frobisher, Raleigh and the rest, fought for and held for us serenely and splendidly over five centuries."

Second Officer Nancy Spain WRNS

"Until the moment that I walked out into the January dusk and saw the white Palladian colonnades and domes of which Samuel Pepys wrote "The King (Charles II) is mightily pleased with his new building", I was almost unaware of Greenwich.

But that evening, rising from the snow, like a conception of God rather than of man, all English history spread itself before my eyes.

The history of England, of which Nelson is a part and which I, and so many others like me, had taken for granted. And I knew that I too, should in future feel a sense of responsibility.

So, with Pepys, to dinner.

A joy, the selection of a table napkin from the pigeon-holed erection under the blind, marble stare of Nelson and St Vincent....and then....the Painted Hall, for which no contemporary eulogy, nor nineteenth century engraving, had wholly prepared me.

How could I know what I ate, under the lovely, silly paintings of Sir James Thornhill, from the perfect copies of Queen Anne tables, carved from the timbers of ships that had fought at Trafalgar, that had sailed against the enemies of England. The lights blazing from a thousand points in silver candlesticks, again 'after' Queen Anne, seemed limelight as much as illumination. The echoing floor, the lofty grandeur of the high tables under rarer, sillier paintings recalled the cold to me.

It certainly was cold.

And what was that?

We had to sleep in the air raid shelter?


And sure enough, through the Painted Hall there echoed the sound of the guns from Woolwich. England's enemies, at it again.

The Blitz punctuated the whole of that fortnight. It held up our trains, it disturbed our sleep, it smashed the buildings around us, it sent us to bed at 2200 hours like a lot of gloomy, eiderdown-trailing sheep, but it did one good thing, for me at any rate. It made me appreciate still more the beauty and power of those buildings which mere Luftwaffes could not damage."

The exhibition encourages visits from past members of the WRNS and features a 'Memory Board' at which former Wrens who trained at Greenwich are asked to share their reminiscences and experiences.

The exhibition, to which entry is free and which runs until 5 December 2017, is well worth an hour of anyone's time and I would thoroughly recommend a visit either as part of a wider day spent in Greenwich, or as a stand alone visit.

Internet Sources:

WRNS Untold Stories website 

Printed Sources:

Red Alert - Lewis Blake, self-published, 1982
Thank You, Nelson - Nancy Spain, Hutchinson 1945


  1. Thanks, Steve, for a great piece & for alerting me to this fascinating exhibition - hopefully I'll get to visit in the next few weeks.

    1. Thanks Pam - let me know when you're planning a visit and will try and meet up. Be nice to see you. Best wishes, Steve