Wednesday, 21 March 2018

WW2: BOAC lady 'seamen' and Poole flying boats

Normally you'd think that chic lady employees of airline operators BOAC in the Second World War would never be blue-sweatered handlers of small boats. Wet ropes, oily hands, Aldis lamps? It sounds more like the work of Boats Crew Wrens servicing warships.

But Dr Nina Baker of the Women's Engineering Society has discovered a crucial image that gives the inklings of another story. In a Glasgow junk shop Nina found this material from The Second War, a popular as-it-happens publication. (The port referred to was surely Poole in Dorset.)

The text reads "Seawomen of B.O.A.C.
British Oversea Airways employed a number of 'women seamen' at the little fishing town which was the Corporation's wartime base. They worked on the launches used to service the four-engined flying-boats coming in from West Africa, Lisbon and America.
"These launches required skillful and delicate handling, especially in bad weather, to get them safely alongside the easily-damaged aircraft. The women, whose ages ranged from twenty-five to thirty-eight were promoted coxswain and placed in charge of launch after they had successfully completed a three-month training in Morse, semaphore and lamp signalling, compass work and general seamanship.
"Duties of women seamen included embarking disembarking passengers, handling the launch while stevedores loaded and unloaded mail and freight, washing down and scrubbing decks, painting and splicing ropes.
"Pictures: Above: a BOAC coxswain signalling to the shore from the flying boat 'Berwick'. Left: Coxswain leaving the 'Berwick' after mooring her."

In over twelve years of writing about women and the sea in wartime I had never come across any such role.


But lo, when I googled I found there was more information about these women, even their names and their usual jobs. It's to be found at the website of the local charity Poole Flying Boats Celebration (Part 19.‘BOAC Staff at Poole: Towards 650+',

It says that
"During WW2 with many of the MCU (Marine Craft Unit] men [who provided the links between moorings and quays] enlisted in the Royal Navy or to serve elsewhere, a significant shortage arose, whereon 18 women were recruited to train as Seamen, at a School set up by BOAC at Poole expressly as replacements!"

The seawomen in training in 1943 included:
1.Mrs Betty Archer (ex-secretary)
2. Eileen Armstrong (nee Wigg) (Rigger)
3. Mrs Elizabeth Bainbridge (widow of an RAF Officer)
4. Miss Pamela Bate (ex-secretary)
5. Miss V Bates
6. Miss Nora V Bevis (pre-war she raced yachts and by 1947 was last woman coxswain 1st at Poole)
7. Mrs Minna Ann Hansford (lived on a house boat with her husband pre-war)
8. Mary Hill
9. Mrs Pamela Nisbet (former model, also studying for her Yacht Masters Coastal Cert.)
10. Bunny Reece
11. Isobel Rickard
12. Miss Lynette Rowland (ex-commercial artist)

The women's tasks are outlined, and some of the women above are photographed in Fabulous Flying Boats: A History of the World's Passenger Flying Boats, by Leslie Dawson, p100,

Coastal women everywhere in the UK were no strangers to handling small boats. Poole's Royal Motor Yacht Club's online history shows pioneer racing driver Dorothy Levitt (1882-1922) on her launch in 1903:


Serendipity today played another part in life. As I was reading Forces Sweetheart Vera Lynn's autobiography Some Sunny Day I found that she had sailed by Sunderland flying boat from 'somewhere on the coast' when she went off to sing in Burma on 23 March 1944. Soon after midnight she and her accompanist took off.
"It was my first ever fight and I didn't enjoy it. I was airsick the whole time long hours" to Gibraltar. Very nervous (she'd only left Britain once before) it seems she failed to notice that the crew on the little boat taking her to her flying boat were women.

A picture on the Poole Flying Boats website (page 9) shows BOAC seawoman Mollie Skinner (later Mollie Harman) escorting singer George Formby and Beryl, his wife, to their flying boat. In their ENSA khaki greatcoats they they too were going out to entertain the troops.

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