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Remembering the WRNS – Student Project

By Sara Higson,

Sara has been working with the Scottish Maritime Museum on the collection associated with Helena Adams Henry and has been investigating the important, and often overlooked, involvement of women as part of the Royal Navy. 

There is a tin containing forty-seven Royal Navy cap tallies on my desk, all of which will be catalogued over the course of my work placement with the Scottish Maritime Museum (SMM). The tallies I am cataloguing belonged to Helena Adams Hendry, who served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) between 1964 and 1967. As a member of the WRNS, or wrens as they affectionately became known, Helena had her own cap tallies from when she was assigned to the shore bases HMS Dauntless near Reading, HMS Raleigh in Cornwall, HMS Fulmar in Lossiemouth, and HMS Collingwood in Fareham, but most of the tallies in her collection came via other means. Helena sadly passed away in early 2020 and her family has generously donated her collection of personal objects and photographs from the time she spent in the WRNS to the museum. A time in her life she looked back on fondly and with happiness. Prior to this work placement I did not know what cap tallies were! While cataloguing Helena’s collection, however, I’ve learned tallies are the ribbons with gold lettering which are tied around the crown of a Royal Navy cap to identify the wearer’s assigned ship or shore base. So why did Helena have so many?  And why did she hold on to them for 56 years?  The answer to that was supplied by Helena’s family, who were told, with a wry smile and some pride by Helena, that cap tallies were presented as trophies to the prettiest girls from visiting sailors. She amassed quite a collection of tallies given that she only served for four years, having left the service when she got married in 1967. The collection attests to how much her fellow servicemen appreciated her and represents the contact Helena was able to have with her fellow naval personnel.

Helena, 19 years old, 1965.

Helena’s collection also includes a number of photographs taken by her and her friends during her service. These photos reveal that life in the service, though structured by work, also left time for fun, excitement, and socialising. The images show Helena sharing experiences with other wrens such as going on beach trips, attending the wedding of a friend, horseback riding, and preparing for the Tens Tor expedition at Dartmoor that Helena and a team of wrens successfully completed. The photos also depict Helena and friends socialising with Royal Navy sailors and attending parties and social gatherings.

Helena (in sunglasses, centre) on a Tens Tor expedition, 1965.
Helena while stationed at HMS Raleigh, 1964.
Helena while stationed at HMS Raleigh, 1964.

 

Helena (in sailors cap) and fellow wrens off duty in Cornwall, 1964.

 

Wrens (maybe with Helena among them) off duty and dressed up, 1964.

Amongst all this fun, work is being done. Yet the images are playful and convey the friendships that grew between Helena and her fellow wrens at a time when adventure and opportunities for women were still controlled and restricted. While serving in the navy is of course serious business, it also appears to have been where many new experiences were had and where personal relationships were formed that lasted many years. There are many images of Helena and her best friend Leslie, who joined the WRNS from British Guyana. These photographs, along with the cap tallies and the story of how Helena acquired them, paint a nuanced as well as sometimes entirely normal and even mundane picture of what daily life was like in the Royal Navy for both men and women. These objects help us understand why Helena looked back on this period as one of the best times of her life, often saying ‘once a Wren, always a Wren’, and why many other women in the WRNS felt the same way. Helena’s generously donated collection is the beginning of the Scottish Maritime Museum’s focus on women in naval and maritime work. By creating this collection, the SMM hopes to highlight the women who served and to eventually create an exhibition that will illustrate their stories and experiences so that more people can learn about this important history.

Helena (left) and Leslie, her best friend, 1965.

 

Helena (in a yellow jacket) and friends.

If you would like to find out more or would like to donate anything related women’s work in the navy please contact one of our curators at – 

Abigail@scotmaritime.org.uk

James@scotmaritime.org.uk

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