The Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich is celebrating 100 years of the formation of the Woman’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) by launching a special exhibition exploring the lives and experiences of the women who served and trained in Greenwich.
Opening on 7 July 2017, the free exhibition spans the period from the First World War to the late 1970s.
The Old Royal Naval College, then simply called the Royal Naval College, was a naval training establishment for most of the 20th century, but few appreciate the role that women played here. As early as 1918, Wrens were posted to Greenwich to relieve men for active service. The exhibition explores changing attitudes to women in uniform and puts the development of the WRNS into the context of wider social change at the time.
During the Second World War, the opportunities open to women expanded rapidly. No longer confined to clerical and domestic roles, Wrens served as radio and cypher operators, despatch riders and signals personnel to name just a few. Over 74,000 women served during the war and the shortage of officers had to be addressed by expanding the WRNS Officers’ Training Course at Greenwich. Between 1939 and 1945 around 8,500 women were trained at the site.
The exhibition explores their wartime experiences, from dining in the luxurious surroundings of the Painted Hall to taking shelter in the cavernous tunnels beneath the site during air raids. It also sheds light on the other specialised courses that were taught here, including women who were trained to intercept signals from German ships and submarines.
Post war, the story draws heavily on the recollections of many former Wrens who trained in Greenwich. Sixteen new interviews have been undertaken and the exhibition includes rarely seen photographs bringing to life this important chapter of the Old Royal Naval College’s history.
Sarah Duthie, Director of Public Engagement, said: “This exhibition has given us a unique opportunity to explore how extraordinary women have contributed to the history of the Old Royal Naval College and we have been thrilled at some of the discoveries the team has made. Wrens consistently pushed the boundaries of what was expected of them. The exhibition tells stories of their experience at Greenwich, not just the pioneering activity of the Wrens but also the fun they had and the joy they felt at living and learning on this spectacular site.”
The exhibition has been researched and curated by a team of volunteers from the University of the Third Age in collaboration with former Wrens and the Old Royal Naval College. Entry is free.