Maritime Charity Celebrates Women’s Contributions to Armed Forces on International Women’s Day

Banstead-based maritime charity The Royal Alfred Seafarers’ Society is celebrating International Women’s Day by sharing the stories of the five Wrens living at its care home, Belvedere House.

Wrens (Women’s Royal Naval Service) played a huge part in the war efforts of WWI and WWII, with women carrying out important roles such as Radio Operators, Meteorologists, Bomb Range Markers and Coders. On International Women’s Day, the Society wanted to highlight the often-overlooked role women and Wrens in particular, have played in the UK armed forces over the years.

The care home and charity, which caters for retired seafarers and dependents, as well as residents living with dementia, first opened its doors in 1865 to allow care for ‘worn-out and disabled merchant seamen’ and did so until 1966 when widows of seafarers and retired stewardesses moved in.

The Wrens living at the Society, Mrs Joan Traverse-Healy, Mrs Joan Hatfield and Mrs Antoinette Porter, who live in the care home at Belvedere House, and Mrs Jean Howard and Mrs Anne Macleod-Carey who reside as tenants, shared their stories of life in the Wrens ahead of this year’s International Women’s Day.

Ordinary Wren, Anne Macleod-Carey, said of her experience: “I joined the Wrens in 1943 as a Visual Signaller and trained at HMS CABBALLA with 600 sailors and 400 Wrens for three months learning Morse and semaphore to become a Visual Signaller. In 1945, I was the first British woman to be invited upon Hitler’s captured German aviso Grille ship (a state yacht used by Hitler and other individuals in the Nazi regime) for dinner with the Captain!

“It was a very exciting time in my life; every working day was different. We would man the unlit lighthouses, constantly watching the horizon for enemy ships. There’s so many stories that people can’t believe of my time in the Wrens so it is a huge comfort that here at the Royal Alfred we can all share our tales from sea together.”

Third Officer, Jean Howard, said: “On International Women’s Day it’s important that we remember the Wrens, and those of us who dedicated parts of our life to the sea. After joining the Wrens aged 22, I really enjoyed the opportunity of a career and the structure of naval life.

“I have such fond memories of my time in service and worked as a Wren Officer for four years, in charge of 200 people, overseeing food and accommodation. I loved my time in the Royal Navy and I know how much the role of women has progressed in the services over the last few years which is encouraging.”

The Women’s Royal Naval Service was first formed in 1917, before being disbanded in 1919 and then revived in 1939 and played a vital role in both World Wars before being integrated into the Royal Navy in 1993. The Wrens were at their peak in the 1940s, with more than 74,000 in service, skilled in roles such as Aircraft Mechanics and Wireless Telegraphists that listened out for enemy messages.

Commander Brian Boxall-Hunt, Chief Executive of the Society, said: “Today, we are proud to house some of the marvellous Wrens women who contributed so much to the British Services over the years. Compared to when the Royal Alfred was originally a home for ‘worn-out and disabled merchant seamen’ – we have come a long way.

“Now, the home has an almost 50/50 split with male and female residents and we are proud to say several Wrens have chosen to live with us here in our home. Sometimes it can be easy to forget the role women played during the war effort, our Wrens have such interesting tales from their time in service and we believe their stories should be kept alive for others to hear.”

International Women’s Day (8 March) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women and was first commemorated in 1911.

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