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Rosie Wilson OBE 1950 – 2023

In thinking of what I should say in this brief tribute to that force of nature that went by the name of Rosie Wilson, I was struck by how often the same words and phrases came up. Not only in my own thoughts but in the contributions I have received from others. Professional, perceptive, stylish, focussed, strong leader, caring, supportive all appeared several times but the one that appeared most and – IN VERY LARGE CAPITALS – was FUN!

I first met Rosie when we were both Appointers in the MOD in the late 1980s. Paddy McClurg, who will be known to many of you, was the third occupant of that office, but he is sadly unable to be with us today. Jane Walton was also part of the team in those days although working out of a different office. Come to think of it, Jane spent so much time in our office, she might as well have moved in permanently. It is very good to see her here today.

As the “new boy” joining a well-established team, I could not have had better mentors or role models to ease myself into the job. Paddy I already knew and valued, but Rosie impressed me right from the start. She was an excellent appointer and a very perceptive judge of people whose opinion I learned not only to respect but actively to seek. Her intelligence system was second to none and her agents – and by that I mean everyone on her plot – kept us so well informed that some very senior Officers would routinely call in to our office to find out if such and such a rumour was true or not!

Rosie brought a huge dose of style to the Appointers’ office. It didn’t take me long to discover that one notable expression of this was Rosie’s enjoyment of a good “lunch”. It took me only slightly longer to learn that it was essential to clear one’s diary completely for the afternoon and probably also for the evening if you accepted a lunch invitation from Rosie. Paddy and I would exchange pitying glances as yet another unsuspecting young WRNS Officer would be whisked off by Rosie to her favourite Wine Bar for “lunch” after which, having demolished most of the contents of a bottle of white port, the poor lass was only too happy to accept whatever appointment was on the table. Or perhaps under the table might be a more appropriate description!

Rosie had strong views on many subjects and was not afraid to express them. But that expression was often tempered by her innate compassion for people and, in particular, by a wicked sense of humour. Nowhere were her views stronger than on the subject of the wider employment of women within the Services and the Royal Navy in particular. At a time when the Women at Sea study was getting underway, Rosie pursued this cause with passion, energy and- occasionally – just a little guile. She was the right person in the right job at the right time to contribute to and influence this study. She continued doing this when she left our office to become Deputy Director WRNS in 1989 and then, subsequently, as Deputy Head of the WRNS Sea Service Implementation Team, she was able to put in place some of the steps she had long been advocating.

Despite championing the full integration of women in the Service, Rosie was keen to maintain the unique identity of the WRNS. As a Trustee of the WRNS Benevolent Trust as far back as 1991, she put her heart and soul into the work of the Trust, serving for 4 years as its Chairman. In 2014, she took on the role of Chairman of the hugely successful WRNS100 Project Group, charged with commemorating and celebrating the centenary of the formation of the WRNS in 1917.

She remained an active Vice President of the Trust and of the Association of WRNS and Women of the Royal Naval Services until her untimely death. I understand that, as recently as last year, she enjoyed a splendid lunch – now there’s a surprise – with the Chairman, Trustees and Staff of the Trust, appropriately enough at the A Bar Bistro, one of her favourite haunts.

But her influence was also felt in academia where she was recruited by retired General Tim Toyne-Sewell to help him smarten up Goodenough College, a residential college for international post graduate students. The General had worked with Rosie on a study to merge the recruiting systems of the 3 services and considered he had – in his own words – “struck gold” when Rosie joined the study. Her trademark common sense, organising ability and humour were fully appreciated at the College by both the students and her boss, who sensibly made her his sole deputy.

Strangely enough, one of General Tim’s most vivid memories of Rosie’s time at Goodenough concerns the establishment of a new tradition of WRNS lunches. He recalls, and I quote, “the din was incredible as were the numbers of giggling ladies leaving the College having been suitably entertained”. I imagine that there may be one or two members of this congregation today who might be able to recall such events.

Her time at the college came to an end when, as we have heard from Rosie’s brother, Paul, she left to help look after her ailing mother.

She continued her charitable work well into so-called retirement, taking on important roles in The Naval Ladies Club and Charitable Trust, the British Limbless Ex Servicemens’ Association, the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity and the Shipwrecked Mariners Society. I always felt that her involvement with the last of these was an act of atonement for the many mariners who had been wrecked after one of her lunches!

But retirement did allow Rosie to have more time to enjoy her connections with dear friends. She had been close to both Jane Walton and Barbara Hines and their families for many years, becoming Godmother or Honorary Godmother to both Barbara’s boys and to Jane’s daughter, Jenny, who turned to Rosie for advice on her future career. There could have been no prouder Godmother – official or honorary – than Rosie, when she attended Jenny’s Passing Out Parade at Dartmouth in 2017.

She also enlivened many Hines family holidays in France and Italy with her own brand of “Joie de Vivre” where the attractions of good food and wine – and apparently limoncello – seemed to take precedence over the more usual sightseeing objectives. On one such family holiday with the Waltons on a barge trip down the Canal du Midi, Jane’s sister could not get over the fact that Rosie wore her pearls every day, no matter the weather or the activity. Now that’s the Rosie I know!

Naomi and Phil Ingham were also dear friends for many years, where Rosie brought a sense of fun and her deep, throaty laughter to family weddings and other occasions, most notably champagne on the lawn at Dowell House when Covid restrictions were relaxed sufficiently.

But there was a darker side to Rosie. One that I was only dimly aware of but which featured prominently in the memories of both Jane Walton and Barbara Hines. So, to my list of words which kept recurring I now need to add “impatient”. I do not actually recall ever being in a car driven by Rosie, but both Jane and Barbara relate that it could be an interesting experience. Rosie had Road Rage long before that term gained traction in our language and she frequently berated other drivers verbally and by use of her horn. This was not always wise or well received by the object of her impatience, resulting on one occasion in a confrontation in Wandsworth with the biggest and most scary Rastafarian Rosie’s passengers had ever seen! Barbara also informs me that Rosie had collected more speeding tickets and done more speed awareness courses that anyone else she knows.

I am sure we were all very shocked at the news of Rosie’s untimely death last month. Certainly, I was. But I have derived much comfort in preparing this tribute which has allowed me to recall so many fabulous moments in the company of a truly inspirational person, a fine Naval Officer and an exceptional human being. May she rest in peace and let us make a solemn vow to remember her on every occasion that we hear a champagne cork pop. God bless you, Rosie.

Alan Wright