Was your female British ancestor a Wren? Formed in 1917, The Women’s Royal Naval Service or WRNS, recruited women eager to do their bit for the war effort in WW1. Women were recruited to take over the menial jobs that were keeping men from active service. Throughout the First World War they cooked, cleaned and drove as well as serving as clerks, messengers, telephonists and code breakers.
Each record is a transcript from original material held at The National Archives in London in Series ADM 336. The amount of information varies but you should find out the following about your ancestor:
Rank or roll
Link to image of the original documents on The National Archives website which can be downloaded for a small fee
National Archives reference
The Women’s Royal Naval Service was started as a shore service that would allow women to take up the menial jobs in the Navy, allowing men to go to active service. One of their initial recruitment slogans was “Join the Wrens – free a man for the fleet”. From the start the standard for recruitment was very high – it was recognised that for the new service to be taken seriously the women would have to prove themselves beyond any kind of reproach. Dame Katherine Furse, who had founded the Voluntary Aid Detachment force, was the first Director.
Initially it was believed that women could be recruited from around the main naval bases – so that they wouldn’t need to leave home, but soon there were applications from all over the British Isles and beyond. There were soon divisions in every major port and eventually spread to Ireland – in Kingstown, Dublin, Buncrana, Belfast, Larne, and Queenstown, and to the Mediterranean - with bases in Malta, Gibraltar and Genoa. Civilian women already working for the Navy in places like Liverpool, were initially resistant to the Wrens but as recruitment grew they were absorbed into the ranks.
Women took over duties as cooks, clerks and drivers, wireless telegraphists, code experts and electricians. They were so successful that the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and the Women’s Royal Air Force were also established. You can find their records on Findmypast as well. Writing to Katherine Furse as Director in June 1918, the Second Sea Lord expressed the Navy’s pride in the Wrens. “I must express to you my very sincere congratulations on the good appearance, deportment and smartness of the WRNS. I was very much struck by their general appearance of well-being and contentment. I hope you will let it be known to all concerned how proud the Navy felt of our WRNS.”
But the Wren’s were not simply working on shore - despite their motto being “Never at Sea” they did serve on the fleet as well. In October 1918 19-year-old Cork-born Wren Josephine Cox became the first Wren to lose her life on active duty when she was lost at sea after the mail steamer Leinster was torpedoed between Ireland and England.
By the end of the war there were 5,500 members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service with 500 officers. As well as this around 2000 members of the WRAF had served in the Wrens supporting the Royal Naval Air Service, before being transferred when the RAF was created. The Wrens were disbanded in 1919 but reformed in 1939 with an expanded list of activities, including flying transport planes. At their peak in 1944 there were 75,000 people. The Wrens were eventually integrated into the regular navy in 1993.