Registered Charity No. 257040 • Tel: 02392 725141

Our History

Start of World War One.

A woman’s place was considered to be in the home and the Admiralty were reluctant to employ women. Gradually it became obvious that with the high mortality rate amongst the men, something had to be done.   As there were fewer men available, the Admiralty realised that women would need to be employed to take over some of the tasks previously carried out by the men, such as cooking and secretarial work.

Formation of the WRNS

Dame Katharine Furse was invited by the First Lord of the Admiralty to form a “Naval Organisation of Women” and to become the first Director WRNS. Various names were discussed but the favourite was The Women’s Royal Naval Service and the name “Wrens” was approved.

29 November 1917  HM The King approved the formation the Women’s Royal Naval Service to provide personnel wherever the Admiralty required them to serve. Over 6,000 women undertook a variety of duties including Cooks, Writers, Telephonists, Stores and other shore based jobs before they gradually took over some jobs that were deemed too difficult for women such as aircraft handling and mechanics.

The Royal Navy were the first of the armed forces to recruit women.

RMS Leinster was torpedoed by a German Submarine.  Three Wrens were onboard but only one lost her life – Wren Josephine Carr.  The first Wren to lose her life in WWI and the only one to die as a result of enemy action.

By the end of the war the service had 5,500 members, 500 of them officers. In addition, 2,867 Wrens, 46 officers and 2,821 other ranks who had previously supported the Royal Naval Air Service chose to be transferred to the RAF.

The Women’s Royal Naval Service was disbanded


In 1920 Dame Katharine Furse formed the Association of Wrens to keep alive the ‘esprit de corps”

Dame Katharine Furse offered the services of the Association of Wrens to the Admiralty.

The Admiralty set out the rules for reforming the WRNS.  The first public announcement of the reformation was announced 22nd November 1938

“Free A Man For The Fleet!”

Vera Laughton Matthews was invited to become a Director of the WRNS with Ethel (Angela) Goodenough as her deputy.  Laughton Matthews had served in WWI and after the war was one of the pioneers of the Sea Ranger Branch of the Girl Guides.  The early plan for the WRNS was to recruit 126 officers and 1,475 ratings.

By the end of WWII over 74,000 women had served in over 70 categories and despite entering a predominantly male environment, they won the respect of their colleagues despite initial scepticism.

Foundation of WRNS Benevolent Trust

After Vera Laughton Mathews became Director of WRNS for the Second World War it became evident that a Benevolent Trust would be required, not only to help in cases of hardship during the war, but also to help ex-Wrens returning to civilian life after demobilisation. A draft constitution was circulated in 1941.

Sinking of SS Aguila

On 19th August 1941, the SS Aguila was sunk, resulting in the loss of 21 Wrens and 1 Nursing Sister.

There is a commemoration to the loss of lives from SS Aguila at the National Memorial Arboretum, in the WRNS Garden.

Sinking of SS Khedive Ismael

On 5 February 1944 Khedive Ismail left Mombasa bound for Colombo carrying 1,348 passengers including 996 members of the East African Artillery’s 301st Field Regiment, 271 Royal Navy personnel, 19 Wrens, 53 nursing sisters and their matron, nine members of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry.  On 12th February 1944 the SS Khedive Ismael was sunk by a Japanese submarine I-27.

Of 1,511 people aboard Khedive Ismail, only 208 men and 6 women survived the sinking, 2 of whom were Wrens.


A small permanent WRNS service of 3,000 were retained for mainly administrative and support roles at RN establishments and Royal Naval Air Stations, UK and overseas.  Dame Jocelyn Woollcombe becomes DWRNS until 1950

Wrens become subject to the Naval Discipline Act

Women were made subject to the Naval Discipline Act and given longer terms of service in a wide range of technical support roles in operational areas.

Royal Navy integration

The WRNS continued as a separate organisation to the male-dominated Royal Navy with only minor changes until the 1970s, when it became obvious that equal pay for women and the need to remove sexual discrimination meant that the WRNS and the Royal Navy would need to become a single organisation.

WRNS Officers’ Training

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

Vonia McBride becomes DWRNS

Having joined the WRNS in 1949, her career made rapid progress, although she was prevented from becoming a French interpreter. This was one of the roles that only men were allowed to do. She was sent to advise Haile Selassie when he wanted to create a women’s service.

HMS Dauntless closes


The New Entry Training Establishment HMS DAUNTLESS closed after 35 years of training some 30,000 Wrens. Initial training would now take 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.

First WRNS officer to command a Royal Navy shore establishment

While as a Chief Officer in the WRNS (equivalent to a Commander in the Royal Navy), she was named as the commanding officer of the shore establishment HMS Warrior at Northwood. This made her the first woman, and first WRNS officer, to command a Royal Navy shore establishment other than the WRNS training establishment HMS Dauntless

Wrens to sea

Commandant Anthea Larkin (DWRNS)  oversees the transition the experiment of three Wren officers and 16 female ratings allowed to go to sea in the Type 22 Frigate HMS Brilliant during the Gulf War in October 1990.

Women fully integrated into the RN

Commandant Anne Spencer oversees the transition of the Women’s Royal Naval Service being disbanded and 4,535 women being integrated fully into the Royal Navy and able to serve on HM Ships at sea, at all ranks and rates, including the Royal Marines Band.

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).

Women became eligible to join the Royal Marines Commandos in 2019.

Inspirational bravery

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 reads:

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

First female graduates from Defence Diving School

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.

First female to become Senior Observer

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.


First females to earn their ‘Dolphin’ Clasps


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

First Woman To Take Command At HMS Raleigh

Captain Ellie Ablett MBE becomes the first woman to take command of the Royal Navy basic training base.


First Female Engineering Captain in RFA.

Captain (E) Kate Morgan becomes the first female engineer Captain in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s 116 year history.

Royal Navy Appoints First Female Admiral.

For the first time in the centuries-long history of the Royal Navy, a woman officer has been appointed to the rank of Admiral.

Commodore Jude Terry, has been selected for promotion to Rear Admiral, making her the most senior woman ever in the Royal Navy.

She will take over as the Royal Navy’s Director of People and Training and Naval Secretary, being responsible for Sailors and Royal Marines from the moment they are recruited to their final day in Service – spanning their entire career by overseeing training, welfare and career management.

The longest career in the Navy (active duty/service) (female) is 43 years, 189 days, achieved by Barbara Mary McGregor (UK) from 26th July 1977 to 31st January 2021.  WO1 Barbara McGregor served in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy for the duration of her record-breaking career.

Barbara, (an AOW Trustee) became a Guinness World Record Holder in early 2021.

Four female Commanding Officers

In a historic moment for the Royal Navy, this is the first time HMS Raleigh, Britannia Royal Naval College, HMS Sultan, and HMS Collingwood have all been commanded by women.  More here



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.

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.