From the women of the Spinning Rooms and Sail and Colour Loft, to tales of stowaways, women masquerading as men and the extraordinary women whose impact left a lasting legacy.
Hidden Heroines challenges the misconceptions and superstitions of women at sea, explores women’s place in war and highlights some colourful characters including Jane Austen’s sister-in-law, Fanny, and Zandra Bradley, the first female apprentice, whilst not forgetting those who continue to work at The Historic Dockyard Chatham to this day.
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In April 1803, an urgent need to repair the flags of ships returning with the fleet, at the end of the French Revolutionary War (1793-1803), led the Navy Board to grant permission for the first women to be recruited to Chatham Dockyard’s workforce.
This was a troubling time for the Royal Navy faced with a shortage of skilled men and the high cost of war. Six ‘colour women’ were employed to make signal colours from old material. They are never named but
were used as an example for other Royal Navy ‘yards to follow.
In 1810 the Board reviewed all trades and, in a document marked ‘secret’, first proposed recruiting women to work in the Ropery. However, it was not until 1864 and the mechanisation of the spinning process that the opportunity arose for local women. The work deemed to be less arduous and ‘suitable for women’. It also enabled the Navy to save money by releasing higher paid male spinners.
In 1805 the other five Royal Naval Dockyards (Deptford, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Sheerness & Woolwich) were also required to employ women to repair flags. In 1806, the first Union Jack to be sewn at Chatham was ordered.
By 1816, it was clear this emergency war time need for women workers would change female employment at Naval Dockyards forever. Women were deemed ‘unproblematic’, ‘nimble fingered’ and ‘more contented with their pay’. Subsequently, they received permanent employment, pay above that of a labourer and their numbers quickly expanded. However, ‘established’ status and pensions did not arrive until much later.
The women initially worked 12-hour days in the Sail and Colour loft from ‘Breakfast time to Bellringing Nights’ with half an hour break for dinner. Soon they joined the sailmakers in sewing, repairing and manufacturing all the textile items needed to fit out a ship, and later submarines. Curtains for portholes, sails, covers for furniture, curtains for bunks on a submarine, overalls, protective covers for Ships’ equipment, flags – they made it all!
In 1864 mechanisation saw steam powered yarn spinning machines introduced to the Ropery and women recruited to operate them. By 1875, over 100 women were embracing the challenges of this new technology and earning 13 to 20 shillings a week. This was less that the ordinary male labourer.
The highly skilled male spinners who had spun the yarn by hand were given the choice of being discharged or becoming general labourers at a reduced wage. Their wives and daughters received preference for working in the new Spinning Rooms – followed by the widows and daughters of Dockyard or Navy men.
Louisa was initially a servant but later became a spinner at Chatham Dockyard. It is likely she took on this job after the death of her husband as such work was initially reserved for widows of sailors and dockyard men.
In 1875, Louisa was the first of eighty-eight women of the Ropery to sign a petition against the dockyard’s implementation of the 1874 Factory Act ‘for the sake of our children’.
The Act reduced the hours they were allowed to work during long summer days but the Admiralty sought to also increase their winter hours. The women accepted the life-shortening effects the job had on their health but argued that implementing the Act would force them to pay more for childcare and leave them with less money to support their family.
In Britain before the 20th century a woman’s place was believed to be at home, either as a dutiful wife or as a domestic servant. Women were restricted to roles deemed appropriate by society.
The freedom women could experience depended on their class.
For the upper classes, marrying well became a career path. In the Navy, the wives of senior officers had the expectation of organising lavish balls and dinners to increase the social standing of their families. They also had the opportunity to earn their own position in society through charity work.
For domestic servants work was hard, the hours were long, and wages were very low. The Census records between 1841 and 1911 reveal that 250 female domestic servants worked at Chatham Dockyard. Often all we know about them is found in the records of their birth, marriage, or death. Each one of these women remain an untold story.
We learn about the lives of the upper-class women that lived at Chatham Dockyard from the accounts of two women who lived 100 years apart. Elizabeth Proby, daughter of the Resident Commissioner who married a Russian Admiral in 1799 and Lady Ida Poore, wife of the Commander in Chief Nore at the beginning of the First World War.
Both clearly show that the wives of senior naval officers had significant social duties and expectations thrust upon them in support of their husband’s official roles. Manners and social etiquette were of the utmost importance.
The Book of Household Management (published in 24 parts 1859 – 1861)
― Isabella Mary Beeton,
This book contains all that was needed for a newly married woman to face keeping a house with confidence—what kitchen equipment to buy, how to clean everything, what servants to have, what to look for in hiring them, how to raise children and cure their diseases, fashionable recipes (turtle soup to pickled oysters and beef cake) and much more.
Would you be a good wife, and Mistress of a house, by Mrs Beeton’s standards?
Elizabeth Proby, daughter of Charles Proby, the Navy Board’s Resident Commissioner at Chatham, was brought up in Commissioner’s House. In 1799 she married a brilliant young Russian Admiral, Pavel Chichagov and returned with him to St Petersburg.
Their marriage was a love story that provides a unique insight into the life of the Dockyard where foreign Royalty, Ambassadors and senior officers regularly visited and were dutifully entertained by the Commissioner.
Elizabeth was seven months pregnant and only 18 when she travelled, with no maids, to Russia’s Baltic naval base at Kronstadt, St Petersburg. Even before she embarked on her journey, she would have been aware of the impact on life in Europe that followed on from the French Revolution and the dangers of being at the mercy of hardships the Russian Emperor might inflict upon them.
Paval writes to the Russian Ambassador to Britain ‘I know very well that no one could judge better than you the sacrifices that my wife is making in following me.’ Elizabeth was courageous in response to her husband’s increasing responsibility at war and soon admired by fashionable society at court in St Petersburg.
Ida Poore was married to Admiral Sir Richard Poore, Commander in Chief Nore 1911-1915. They lived at Chatham in Admiralty House, his official residence, built close to HMS Pembroke in 1907.
Lady Poore was an author and a poet, writing two autobiographical books on life as a woman and as the wife of an Admiral. She was known as ‘Flag Mother’ to the sailors who worked for her husband and played a significant role during the war; setting up three committees in Chatham Town Hall to support the wives and widows of men at war and visiting the sick and wounded men at the naval hospital. She also hosted Royal and political visits including one by Winston Churchill in 1914 in his role as First Lord of the Admiralty.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo
In the late 18th Century King George III initiated the custom of breaking a bottle of wine on the bow of a ship as it was launched to bid it good fortune.
By 1811 a Royal Navy vessel, was always launched by a royal personage or Dockyard Commissioner and it had become custom for a woman to perform the Office of Launching. This tradition continues to this day. A woman who launches the ship is also known as the ship’s ‘sponsor’ and can act as a ‘patron’ to the ship’s company during the commission of the vessel.
For centuries, the sea was seen as a male domain. Women were not integrated into the Royal Navy as fully fledged sailors until as late as 1993. However, during the Age of Sail an astounding number of women did go to sea in warships.
The experiences of these women were very different from the those of women serving today. Some were the wives or mistresses of captains and other officers; others were prostitutes were smuggled aboard by sailors.
In recent years, stories of young women dressing in men’s clothes and working alongside sailors for months, sometimes years, without revealing their gender have also been unearthed. Their presence at sea disregarded by historians for years.
Many wives and their children spent years living on board and some would even call it their only home. The exact number of wives that lived on board will ever be known , despite their vital role on board, as their presence was never official acknowledged. These women would not be recorded on the ship’s muster book and rarely appeared in the Captains letters or logbooks. They did not officially exist.
Research by Suzanne Stark in her book ‘Female Tars’ provides us with a little more insight into the wives that lived onboard:
The constant danger, uncomfortable living and high chance of disease made a warship at sea often deemed as no place for a woman, especially a gentlewoman.
Fanny Palmer Austen, wife of Captain Charles John Austen, and youngest brother of novelist Jane Austen, often sailed with her husband whilst he served on the North American Station of the British Navy and later lived with him onboard the 74-gun Namur when stationed off Sheerness, Kent as the Napoleonic War drew to an end. During this time, the Namur was guardship for the Nore anchorage and provided floating accommodation for men waiting to be assigned to a Ship.
Fanny’s letters provide a rare and honest account of what it was to be a young wife living at sea with her daughters. Fanny also had a close connection to her sister-in-law, Jane Austen, the acclaimed 19th century novelist, and was a source of inspiration for the naval wives in Jane Austen’s novel, Persuasion.
This sounds like a made-up story, and, yes, reports are often exaggerated to cause scandal or provoke interest with the public. However, when deciphering fact from fiction, we find 20 known stories of incredibly brave women who served in naval crews or as marines between 1650-1815.
We will never know exactly how many women went to sea dressed as men as they are only ever revealed if caught and it was publicised. There is no doubt that there were many more women who sailed as men and their sex was never discovered.
The most famous woman who joined the Royal Navy was Hannah Snell, reaching ‘celebrity’ status through vivid accounts in newspapers and her biography. For three months Snell took to a London stage to make money from her experience.
Hannah spent four and a half years dressed as a man. In 1747 she joined the marines, sailed to India onboard HMS Swallow and took part in the siege of Pondicherry. Here she was wounded, receiving six shot in her right leg, five in her left arm and one in her groin. At the hospital she allowed the surgeons to treat the gunshots in her legs but claims to have extracted the musket ball from her groin herself.
In 1750, aged 27, Hannah became one of two women to receive a pension for her injuries from Royal Hospital, Chelsea.
Image: © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, PAH7355 (detail)
Brown is the first known black female to serve in the Royal Navy. She spent at least 12 years on British warships and showed incredible nerve, strength and ability as she rose up the ranks to become Captain of the foretop. Here she led a team of sailors in all weathers to set the sails on the Foremast. At over a hundred feet high this was a very dangerous job indeed.
A married woman she joined the Royal Navy around 1804 to escape her husband. For several years she served amongst a crew of 850 onboard the 100-gun Queen Charlotte. In 1815 Brown was discovered and her story made the papers, but this did not affect her naval career. She returned to serve on HMS Queen Charlotte and was able to collect her considerable sum of prize money – which her husband tried to cheat her out of! We do not know what happened to her after 1816.
Image: ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, PAH0775 (detail)
Mary Lacy was the first known female Shipwright. She not only survived the physical demands of the role and the long hours but earned the men’s respect with records describing her as the ‘best boy on board’.
In May 1759, aged 19, Lacy changed into men’s clothes, travelled to Chatham and joined the crew of the newly launched 90-gun ship Sandwich as Carpenter’s Mate under the name of William Chandler. She served on board the Sandwich for a year during the Seven Years War between Britain and France.
She later became a Shipwright’s Apprentice and passed the exams to qualify in 1770. Lacy was forced to reveal herself when she was injured in 1770 and forced to retire, she successfully applied to the Admiralty for a disability pension.
Welding Acheron’s Bulkhead. The submarine Acheron was laid down at Chatham on the 26 August 1944 and launched on 25 March 1947.
The First World War (1914-18) saw the lives of women overturned as they replaced men in the workplace to support the war effort. At Chatham women were employed in warship construction and repair for the first time.
Although Dockyard workers were protected from conscription (being forced to serve in the Navy or Army) social pressure to ‘fight for King and Country’ was strong. By 1916, over 2000 women were employed to replace Dockyard men who had volunteered for active service. During the Second World War (1939-45) severe labour shortages saw women conscripted to work in industry or in the auxiliary services from December 1941. Even more women joined the Dockyard workforce.
Today we hear a lot about the Land Girls and the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) but little has been told about the women who worked in the Dockyard. It is important their story is heard.
Constance Huggett was one of many women drafted into replace the men away at war. Constance was one of the first women to work as a welder, drilling machinist and overhead electric crane driver.
During the First World War the Dockyard had to deal with the warships that had been badly damaged by mines and torpedoes. Constance worked in No. 5 Machine Shop and would have been making parts for both ship repair and new construction. Once the war ended most women were discharged due to spending cuts and the expectation that they would give up their job for the men returning from war. Many, like Constance, returned to work at the Dockyard again during the Second World War.
War was a man’s world. It was unthinkable for women to fight alongside men, yet by end of the Second World War over 200,000 women were in uniform, officially serving their countries.
For centuries, women played an unofficial role on military campaigns. Acting as cooks, nurses, midwives, seamstresses and laundresses. The professionalisation of military services during the 1800’s saw women
excluded and the establishment of voluntary first aid organisations.
The outbreak of the First World War forced the debate on women’s role in conflict. In July 1915 suffragettes marched to London to persuade the authorities to widen women’s roles. Heavy military losses in the summer of 1916 led to a small, but significant number of women being recruited, blurring the lines of gender division in the armed forces. They provided invaluable support, from driving ambulances to setting up soup kitchens, manning anti-aircraft guns, first-aid posts in the trenches, despatch riders and codebreakers, all with minimal training.
The Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) was first established in 1917, with 3000 women, but was disbanded in 1920. The WRNS reformed in April 1939 and women were recruited for shore-based jobs to release men for service at sea.
By 1943, there were 74,000 WRNS (or ‘Wrens’) serving in the UK and overseas. Wrens played a major part in the planning and organisation of naval operations including working in Commander in Chief Nore’s underground bunker built deep beneath the Dockyard’s Lower Lines defences. From 1941, Wrens served at Bletchley Park and its outstations operating machines used in code breaking.
Lady Anne was the only sibling of the 8th Earl Spencer and aunt of Princess Diana. When war broke out, she was determined to play her part and trained as a St John’s nurse. In 1942, Anne joined the WRNS and became a plotter at Chatham. She recalled she was on duty the night the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau escaped from Brest up the Channel to Kiel, and that on another occasion, she failed to halt a squad of WRNS she was marching at Greenwich before they ended up in the River Thames!
By 1943, Third Officer Spencer was based at Immingham and met her future husband Lieutenant Christopher Wake-Walker, first lieutenant of HMS Pytchley, a destroyer protecting North Sea convoys. In 1944 they married at Westminster Abbey with Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret representing the King and Queen.
Grace was one of 18 motor drivers and 1 of 3 dispatch riders for the WRNS, based at HMS Pembroke Chatham Dockyard during the First World War.
During times of war, when telecommunications were limited and insecure dispatch riders (a military messenger on motorcycle) were used by the armed forces to deliver urgent orders and messages between headquarters and military units. Women excelled as dispatch riders and were often seen taking their motorcycles, in the name of duty through perilous conditions.
Grace married Henry Powell Mulford, a Chief Petty Officer in the Royal Navy, in 1923. Grace and Henry had four children and raised them single-handedly while Henry was on naval and training ship duties.
Post war periods are generally times of hope for a brighter future because they carry opportunity for transformation. The periods following the end of the First and Second World Wars were turning points for women’s rights and roles in society.
Women continued to work outside the home, not wanting to lose their newfound independence and took on roles such as pay clerks, typists and tracers. The 1960’s and 70’s saw the emergence of feminist groups and heightened awareness of gender inequality – campaigning for more rights and greater opportunities. Zandra Bradley paved the way and entered the yard in 1971 as the first female apprentice.
The attitude to this change was not always positive. A female journalist interviewing the first two female Chatham ‘Dockers’ (Slingers) in 1977 commented ‘with a world constantly infiltrated by Women’s Lib(eration), you think there would be one place that was safe’ and asked if they had lost their sense of femininity.
Until the outbreak of war women faced the same restraints and limitations in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics that they faced in their everyday life: lack of autonomy, support, recognition, and lack of educational opportunities. white men who did not always prioritise the demands of their women and non-white members.
Despite some progress into wider Dockyard trades during the 60’s, most women workers had jobs which were gender segregated and where no men were employed in roles such as secretaries, cleaners and typists. Women in these workplaces remained excluded from any of the ongoing debates about equal pay.
The 1975 Sex Discrimination Act made it illegal to discriminate against women in employment, education, and training. It also allowed women to take out a current account in their name, as well as apply for a credit card or loan and enabled females to apply for apprenticeships and follow a career in roles they would never have had access to before.
Zandra Bradley entered Chatham Dockyard in 1971 hoping to join the apprenticeship scheme. Zandra was initially rejected from the scheme and it was recommended she join the clerical department. She persisted. She even attended night school to ensure she would pass the entrance exams, which included engineering maths that was not included in female maths syllabus.
Zandra joined as electrical fitter and later transferred to a technician apprenticeship.
Linda Brown’s life has been interwoven with Chatham Dockyard since she first began working here in 1970. Her first role was as a Clerical Officer in the Personnel Department before being promoted to an Executive Officer in the new Nuclear Submarine Refitting Facility. She, like the other female employees, were not permitted to work on the Nuclear Submarines ‘due to the radiation levels’.
Linda left her role In 1978 to have her first baby and was ‘devastated’ by the closure of the Dockyard in 1984 as she had ‘always hoped to comeback’. After 19 years in teaching, she finally did return in 2009 as one of our Learning Assistants, a position she holds to this day.
The closure of Chatham Dockyard on 31 March 1984 ended more than 400 years of shipbuilding and naval tradition and also the opportunity for local people, men and women, to pursue a technical education and career at the dockyard. The news was badly felt both locally and further afield.
In 2021 gender inequality still exists but this exhibition allows us to celebrate the success of women in the workplace – only made possible by amazing Hidden Heroines who bravely broke down barriers, challenged gender roles and paved the way.
The Royal Navy has progressed from women having to dress as men to gain opportunity to go to sea to being named one of the UK’s top employers of women 2020 by The Times.
Leanne is our only female Master Ropemaker –one of five highly skilled ropemakers who keep traditional ropemaking skills alive at The Historic Dockyard.
Leanne first saw the Ropery in action when she started work with the Historic Dockyard’s Front of House team and immediately fell in love with the place. She was amazed that the ropewalk’s Victorian machinery was still used to make and sell rope commercially.
In 2012 Leanne jumped at the opportunity to train to become a Master Ropemaker. It took about two and a half years to learn how to use the historic machinery and to make rope products. The first knot she learnt to tie was a bow line hitch and she went on to intricate knotwork which she taught herself through books.
Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust has moved the dockyard forward from gender segregated roles to an inclusive culture. Women make up 57% of the Historic Dockyard’s workforce and are represented across all departments.
We acknowledge we could do more, and this exhibition provides a catalyst for change. The workers of today’s Dockyard have the responsibility to champion the heroines of the past and through learning more about their stories, the Trust pledges to promote further equality and inclusion in its workforce, empowering future generations.
“Hidden Heroines: the untold stories of the women of the Dockyard” explores the valuable roles women played throughout the Dockyard’s 400-year history, right up to present day. As we prepare unveil Hidden Heroines for the first time, we would like to take you behind the scenes for a small insight into what is involved in putting together a new exhibition …
Listen back to Sheila Johnson Kindred, author of the award-winning book, Jane Austen’s Transatlantic Sister: The Life and Letters of Fanny Palmer Austen (2017), when she spoke about Fanny Austen’s unusual experiences as a naval wife and mother. During the later years of the Napoleonic Wars, she lived at sea aboard one of the most famous warships built at the Chatham Dockyard.
Join us on Thursday 15 July, when Dr. Margarette Lincoln will explore the importance of Mary Lacy’s biography, published in 1773. We will examine her story in the context of contemporary attitudes to women, as well as the fascination for cross-dressing women and how they were represented in the eighteenth century.
Using examples from Portsmouth Royal Dockyard and other UK dockyard establishments, Dr Melanie Bassett will explore aspects of work, womanhood and widowhood to highlight their wartime experiences and their contribution to the male-dominated heavy industry of shipbuilding during a time of ‘total war’.
A lot of work goes into creating exhibitions. From finding the stories that need to be told, to selecting objects and artefacts which help bring those stories to life. Take a look behind the scenes at the work that goes into preparing a Second World War Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) uniform to go on display in the gallery.
Hidden Heroines: the untold stories of the women of the Dockyard has been created by a group of Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust’s ‘Women of Today,’ Helen Brown, Lynnette Crisp, Alexandra Curson and Victoria Mulford, along with a ‘Man of Today,’ Stephen Billington.
Hidden Heroines has kindly been supported by the Garfield Weston Foundation.
Without the support of these individuals and organisations this exhibition would not have been possible:
Alamy, Bodleian Library, Chatham Dockyard Historical Society, Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust Researchers, Desiree Home, Fremantle Media, National Maritime Museum, Medway Archives Centre, Linda Brown, Phyllis Graham, Brian Hooper, Imperial War Museum, Mary Evans Picture Library, Pam Wood, The National Archives, Tony Peacock, Sheila Kindred, , Margaret Lincoln, John Mulford, Sandra Fraser, Maria Rillstone.
We are looking to hear and record the stories of women who lived and/or worked at the Dockyard, served in the Royal Navy or any related trade. Domestic help, ex-apprentices, WRNS, ropery workers, nurses, volunteers, Sail & Colour loft ladies, apprentices, wives who lived on site, caterers, pub landlords, civil servants, engineers, painters, electricians … we would love to hear your stories. In addition any images or objects relating to this theme.
If you have anything relevant, please fill in a few details on the form below: