Thursday, 1 June 2017

Race and the Sea conference, Liverpool Sept 2017

(Black seafarers were part of the crew. Racial mixing and integration was normal, as this image by Maclise, The Death of Nelson, indicates.)

Race and the Sea is something maritime historians in the UK are giving attention to.

Liverpool's Centre for Port and Maritime History is making an important step towards making research visible by organising a conference on this theme on September 15, 2017 at Liverpool John Moores University, UK.

"Since ancient times peoples of different races have enjoyed a relationship with the sea. This has included trade, exploration and the pursuit of empire. We seek to better understand the relationship between race and the ocean." say the organisers.

Conference themes include Maritime History, Transport, Port-towns,Activities on-board ship, Conflict & reconciliation at sea, Maritime warfare, Maritime exploration & science, Maritime economies, Maritime law, Maritime art, Tourism & leisure at sea.

For more information go to:

Women in relation to race at sea can be found on this blog using the search terms 'race' and 'black.' For example, the UK's first black woman cruise ship captain was Belinda Bennett in 2016.

And the tragic loss at sea of Akhona Geveza (was she murdered to shut her up or was it suicide?) after her sexual harassment allegation can never be highlighted enough. (pictured below left)

Friday, 12 May 2017

Nursing in the Navy: Nora Miller: passenger ship nurse and QARNNS pioneer.

Nora Miller, later Lewis, (born 1940) (pictured above in Malta when she was a QARNNS) is one of the rare women who nursed in both UK navies, Merchant and Royal. She is part of a remarkable cluster of women who did an archetypal feminine job but at officer-level, and in a workforce where men dominated. Such women numbered hundreds not thousands.
Her memoir, Nurse in the Navy, was published in 2016. It is all too brief: just 136 pages. But two of its key elements are her experience on the prestigious liner/cruiseship Queen Elizabeth from 1966-68, and in the Royal Navy from 1970- 1981.

Looking after cruisers and crew: 1966-68
In commercial shipping women had nursed on passenger ships since before 1900. For the first few decades of the twentieth century they were often employed as stewardesses but expected to nurse when needed, on top of their regular work. When Nora Miller, a former head-girl, joined the iconic Queen Elizabeth in 1966 she joined a world where the two or three Sisters were a respected full-time part of the medical team. (See picture of QE team above: Nora is far right)
‘I settled into a pleasant routine of crossing the Atlantic in winter followed by a cruise, either to the Caribbean from New York or to the Mediterranean from Southampton.’ In summer her ships simply crossed between New York and Southampton.
‘After two years this wonderful adventure came to an end for me.’ Cunard replaced the ship with the QEII in 1968. Jobs were lost. ‘It was last in, first out’ and she went ‘drearily back to life ashore. In the long term it was a good thing as for me it was not a life with any real substance.’ She left ‘far more worldly wise then when I joined.’
Many seafarers eventually become tired of living out of a suitcase, but still addicted to travel. For Nora "I loved the idea of a regular change of job and realise that if I joined the Royal Navy they would do it for me with regular postings, some abroad.’ She became a Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service Sister in 1970.
Navy and QARNNS: 1970-81
By contrast to nurses on passenger ships, women had nursed intermittently in Royal Navy hospital ships near combat situations since at least 1660. They became a separate professional force in 1884, which was in 1902 named Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service.
They worked on hospital ships in the First and Second World War and in Korea. However QARNNS’ usual place was in naval hospitals ashore.
Many QARNNS longed to be based with the Navy overseas. Nora too had looked ‘forward to foreign postings and was dismayed to see the Navy withdraw from Hong Kong, Singapore and Mauritius the very year I joined.’
In fact, she was lucky. In 1971 she was posted to Malta, one of the few remaining overseas naval bases in this Cold War. She afterwards went to the US on an exchange scheme. Then in 1979 Nora had ‘another ground-breaking posting abroad’ at RAF hospital Wegberg near Düsseldorf where she taught obstetrics to Royal Navy student nurses. (See picture above, Nora is on right).

Changing times: 1970-90
Naval nurses were not allowed to serve at sea in this period (male sick berth assistants did that work). But in 1971 when she was allowed on board HMS Glamorgan for a family day Nora told an officer she met that ‘"It won’t be long before we women are at sea with you"… To my astonishment he replied angrily, "You can stop talking like that! It's very unlucky to have women at sea!"
In fact, it took another two decades before women in naval service were allowed to routinely serve at sea, just like males. Exceptionally, ‘in the 1970s [naval] nurses were quickly put on board ship if it was sailing off to evacuate British families from some danger zone, as happened several times’, she explained.
When she returned to Portsmouth in 1973 ‘Sexist attitudes in hospital were being challenged at last… One of the Ear Nose and Throat doctors… told me to fetch him a cup of coffee. "Get your own coffee," I replied. He looked startled. "But nurses are the handmaids of the doctors!" he said and was only half joking. "Not on my ward, they’re not!" I told him firmly. "And don't you go asking any of my staff to do it either.’

The two key changes that affected naval nursing were:
~ 1977. The decision to include women under the Naval Discipline Act, just as men were. Nora Miller told me ‘It changed everything.’ QARNNS became properly affiliated to the Royal Navy, although remaining a separate service. They wore a more naval uniform with gold braid on their sleeves. Nora found that when the QARNNS came back from their post-NDA course some male medical assistants were quite hostile because the women now had a more naval status. They got used to it.’
~ 1990. NDA was followed by the 1990 decision that women could serve at sea on naval ships. By that time Nora had left the QARNNS to be with her husband.
In both Merchant and Royal Navies, a few women were also serving as doctors from the 1960s.

After 1983 males were allowed to be QARNNS. Today mixed health-care teams serve on all ships. Men still predominate in the higher medical jobs.

~ Nursing in the Navy can be bought via
~ Naval nursing history is outlined in my forthcoming book Women and the Royal Navy (IB Tauris/NMRN).
~ Passenger ship nurses’ history is in my From Cabin “Boys” to Captain: 250 years of Women at Sea (History Press, 2016).

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Naval women made music

The Royal Navy Ladies Orchestra, 1892-c1914 is one of the lost stories of women's history in music and and in service life. It's possible to piece fragments of it together but really it requires a collective effort, if anyone would like to co-operate.

The Navy and Royal Marines had their own full-time professional musicians. But in addition, there seems to have been a separate, less integral musical initiative by pre-WW1 women: The Royal Navy Ladies Orchestra. They were probably women who were raising money for naval charities.

'Delightfully cerulean'

Generally they were well-received. The orchestra was applauded by one reviewer as ‘agreeable and diversified.’ By 1909 they were advertised as ‘Acknowledged to be the Finest Ladies' Band now before the Public. ‘ They belonged to the stately end of musical entertainment, not the bawdy cross-dressing music hall end. They didn’t wear a snappy version of a naval trousers but were ‘ladies in blue, who look delightfully cerulean’.

At piers and kursaals
The orchestra mainly played in the north, at end-of-pier events and charitable occasions. But it also appeared at august venues such as the Royal Albert Hall and Crystal Palace. In Europe after 1870 ladies orchestras proliferated, and were very popular, especially at kursaals, a stately equivalent of medical spas at watering places.
The RN Ladies Orchestra must have been up with the best because it played in Hamburg, Leipzig, and Dresden.
At the start of WW1 they were playing in Portsmouth and Worthing, perhaps as a way to boost recruitment and morale. On Worthing Pier that August 1914 they played every weekday and also gave 8.30pm promenade concerts to strollers on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.

It appears that there were usually at least eight members. Twelve are in this 1914 picture. Some were instrumentalists, such as cellist Winifred Parsons in October 1909. Vocalists included sopranos Miss Winnie Lincoln and Miss Elsie Raynor.
Their director was Miss Florence Sidney Jones (see pic), who later began calling herself Mme Flo Sidney. Reviewers praised her as ‘painstaking and capable’. She was the sister of James Sidney Jones, composer of musical comedies. Her address was Bellcare House in Leeds (Not findable). She sang a song in c1883 that James had composed. (see sheet music)

Timeline for Florence Jones' musical evolution

1860 & 70s: Flo must have grown up steeped in music. Her military father, James Sidney Jones senior (c1837–1914), was a military bandmaster and conductor. One of her other brothers Guy Sidney Jones (1875–1959) was a musical director and composer too. The family moved many times as their father was sent to new military stations such as Colchester, Aldershot, York, and Dublin before settling at Bellcare House in Leeds. There Flo’s father was conductor of the Leeds Rifles, musical director at the Grand Theatre and conductor of the Spa Orchestra at Harrogate.
1882: Flo’s brother James Sidney Jones junior travelled as a conductor of touring musical shows, which must have made it easier for Flo to later consider an itinerant musical career too. One of his stars was Lucy Carr-Shaw (1853-1920) (see picture), George Bernard Shaw’s sister, who may have encouraged Flo to become an independent thinker and New Woman.

1883: James seems to have briefly taken responsibility for the orchestra initially.
1893: After his tour to Australia and when his West End career took off in 1893 it was Flo’s name that appeared everywhere in relation to the RN Ladies Orchestra, particularly in newspaper announcements of events, called ‘Provincial Theatricals’ in The Era.
By 1896 James Sidney Jones created The Geisha, ‘by far the biggest hit of that decade, its popularity outstripping everything else, even The Mikado, throughout Europe.’ The Gilbert& Sullivan-like show features naval officers and ‘the amorous goings-on when Lieutenant Reggie Fairfax and his fellow officers from HMS Turtle descend on 'The Tea-House of Ten Thousand Joys' in Japan, longing for a cup of tea and female company.’
It’s likely that Flo stayed with her wealthy brother James when in London.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Black woman cross-dressed seafarer 'William Brown' - exhibition

(TNA ADM ADM 37/5039, Annual Register, September 1815, Chronicle, p. 64. William's details are on the fourth line from top, of the lower image).

Seaman William Brown was from Grenada and sailing on the HMS Queen Charlotte in 1815 when she was discovered to be a woman - and dismissed. That was normal. All the known women who disguised themselves as boys at sea were put ashore as soon as possible.

I have found at least 47: she is the only known black woman to sail cross-dressed.

Why was she ejected? Because it was not seemly to have a woman aboard, certainly not if she was mixing - unchaperoned- with all the men below. Because it was feared that men would have sex with any woman unaccompanied by a husband. And sexual relations could bring rivalry and destabilize the ship's company.

So this was not a racial matter. It was a gender matter. And it was related to anxieties about social stability and the operational effectiveness of a war-ready ship, rather than morality.

William's story has been often told (see ).

But her ejection from sea life, age 27, has come to prominence again because a new exhibition about naval women shows the muster book (ship's register) in which her details appear.

Women and the Royal Navy: From Pioneers to Professionals, at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, UK, shows something I have never seen before: 'Whither or for what reasons [discharged]: Being a Female.

Just after the exhibition opened The One Show featured 'William'. I was filmed talking about her and looking at the muster book. And GG (Gamuchirai Gweza) dressed as William and was filmed on HMS Victory. Here she is jumping for joy at getting ashore, on the quayside afterwards. The show was aired on 10 April.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Women make waves, London, March 11.

This is to announce a day of events at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, UK. I'm not involved, so please contact the organisers, not me, with queries.

Discover the stories of incredible women who made waves, some of whom you’ve probably never heard of!

Celebrate the lives and achievements of women whose adventures and stories have been lost to history:
~ women like Ching Shih (who may have been one of the most powerful pirates in history), better known as Ching Yih Sao

~ Phillis Wheatley (the first published African-American female poet)
~ Jeanne Baret (the first woman to have completed a circumnavigation of the world)
~ many others.

Become a curator for the day and put together your own mini-exhibition of the pioneering women who made waves.
And join us at noon in the Queen’s House for a dance performance inspired by our female portraits, choreographed and performed by girls from Sydenham High School.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Royal Navy's pioneering women doctors

Move over Dr Stephen Maturin? Make room, Dr Roderick Random?

Britain's Royal Navy was slow to accept women medical offices, certainly at sea. A sawbones and a woman was surely a contradiction in terms, it was thought.

Today I'm just discovering the women pioneers in this field in the 1960s. Colette Green in 1963 was the Navy's first woman doctor to be commissioned for 10 years. This is picture from the Imperial War Museum that I found with great delight and surprise. IWM A 34746. Part of ADMIRALTY OFFICIAL COLLECTION

Finding these naval women is all part of the exploratory process involved in writing my new book: Women and the Royal Navy, to be published later this year by IB Taurus/National Museum of the Royal Navy.

Dr Green had a very few predecessors, seemingly less than 20. See below.

Early pioneers

1. Dr Dorothy Hare (1876-67) Medical Superintendent for the WRNS in WW1 but initially a doctor with the Royal Army medical Corps in 1916. Pictured below, courtesy of IWM.

2. Dr Genevieve Rewcastle (1897-1951) obstetrician and the Medical Superintendent for the WRNS. She had 21-25 other doctors in her team including Ailsa Whitehouse, WW2. They worked mainly with Wrens

3. Toweringly stellar pioneer and First World War veteran Louise McIlroy. In World War I she had been a leading figure the Scottish Women's Ambulance movement, including in Serbia and Salonika. In WW2 she was a consultant gynaecologist to the Second World War WRNS. Miss McIlroy (1874-1968) was the only woman among the twenty-eight civilian medical consultants for the wartime Navy and the only woman consultant to the Navy until that point.

4. Dr Patricia MacDonald, later Morley (1929-2003), c.1954. She became an ultrasound pioneer after she left the Navy

5. Dr Colette Green in 1963 (born 1934).She was especially interested in orthopaedics

And later pioneers

6. Dr Victoria McMaster (born 1961), the first woman doctor in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (the Merchant Service organisation that provides support ships to the Royal Navy).

7. Surgeon Captain Fleur Marshall, the Medical Officer in Charge of the Institute of Naval Medicine (pictured below, right).

What sort of situations did RN women medics face in their early history?
~ exclusion from seagoing, which meant they could never acquire the seniority to gain a high-level career
~ Jack Tars who were embarrassed at baring their bits to ladies - or rather titillated by the idea
~ a Treasury who thought the MOs should be waged as women, not as doctors i.e. low paid (1949)
~ exclusion from the naval medical team in the Falklands Conflict (1982)

What changed?
~ From the early 1960s the acute shortage of medical and nursing personnel meant women had to be accepted or the Navy simply wouldn't have had the healthcare needed to make it operational. Women doctors were able to work on short-term contracts.
~ From 1993, naval women of all sorts were allowed to go to sea, and so their career became similar in structure to men

Today all the Navy's women doctors are seagoing. For the story of one, Surgeon Lieutenant Dr Jo Laird on HMS Somerset in 2014, go to

Queer Seas talk, Liverpool on Feb 11.

LGBTQI+ lives in the Merchant and Royal Navy.That's the title of a talk I am giving on Saturday 11 February 2017: 2.30–3.15pm.

It's in Liverpool at the Merseyside Maritime Museum, Albert Dock.

What's it about?

Camp men on 20th century passenger ships found seafaring queer heaven. Some even transitioned. But Royal Navy men faced the noose in the past. Many women and men were dismissed and their careers ruined until as late as 2000. Find out the contrasting LGBTQI+ history of the two navies.

Are there pictures?
You bet. Scores.

What does it cost?
It's free. No booking necessary.

Is the related Hello Sailor! Gay Life on the Ocean Wave exhibition still on at the Museum?
Yes, you can see it before or after the talk. It's displayed at the far end on the first floor. Museum is open till 5pm.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Celebrating Wrens' centenary year

Champagne time! November 2017 marks the start of the Women's Royal Naval Service in 1917.

I myself am writing a history of not just the WRNS but also naval nurses: QARNNS and Voluntary Aid Detachments, and Reservists, as well as women and girls in the Sea Rangers and Girls' Nautical Training Corps.
It's called Women and the Royal Navy (IB Tauris/National Museum of the Royal Navy).

My book will be coming out at some point in this year. It looks at the Navy's history of working with women, from women's perspective. It covers the past 600 years to today.

One of the VADs who has been helping me by telling her story, Norah Hanson, kindly loaned this picture which shows the variety of women in naval life in World War II.

Picture shows women working together despite being in different parts of naval services: HMS Cabbala signal school sick bay personnel, 1943: Lto R on back row: the Wren steward who cleaned the ward; two Red Cross VADs; the RNVR medical officer; a St John's VAD, Norma Wilson(a Red Cross VAD), and Wren writer who did the sick berth’s clerical work.
Front row: St John's VAD and QARNNS Sister (almost certainly a Reserve).

February 18 will see the exhibition at the National Museum of the Royal Navy: ‘Pioneers to Professionals: Women and the Royal Navy’, From now on there will be frequent blog items with exciting photographs. One of the main images they are using for the exhibition is also the one we will be using for the cover of my book. Other smaller exhibitions and on-line exhibits are expected too.

PICTURE: Off to Arromanches. Wrens set off for France on HMS St Helier just after D-day, 15 August 1944. From the album of Elizabeth Ashton, NMRN


The Association of Wrens and WRNS 100 are organising many celebratory activities which can be found on this website:

At least two books are coming out as well as mine.They include:

~ Autumn: Hannah Roberts'academic book focused on wars: A History of the WRNS in Two World Wars (IB Tauris).

~ April: The 64-page version by Neil R Storey, WRNS: The Women’s Royal Naval Service a Shire publication).