Thursday, 8 August 2019

Girls ranging the seas: Celebrating 100 years

Sea Rangers 

2020 sees the centenary of the founding of the Sea Rangers. Keep an eye on the website for details: So far their plans include a Centenary Parade and Service in Portsmouth on Saturday 25th April 2020.

By chance, I've just recorded the story of Sea Ranger Janet G. I'm interested in the way young women found ways to connect with seafaring.

Born in 1939 Janet became a Girl Guide, a Sea Ranger, a Wren, then a Girl Guide leader. Rangers were part of the Girl Guide movement.

Janet and her Sea Rangers pals (pictured left) especially loved going on summer training trips. For one or two weeks a year a SR unit would have a solid spell on the water, usually on a shared boat. For Janet in the 1950s this included being on the Sea Rangers' own motor torpedo boat at Dartmouth.

Being in a Sea Ranger unit meant any city girl, whatever her poverty, could almost become a Nancy Blackett, the boaty heroine of Arthur Ransome's inter-war children's books like Swallows and Amazons.

You learned so much...

Not only was membership of the SR  a way for young women over 16 to learn small boat skills and gain access to the sea at a time when gendered restrictions on mobility meant women travelled less than men.
(Only one per cent of UK merchant seafarers in the 1920s and 30s were women. Many ships had no woman crew at all until the 1970s and even later.)

But also being with the Sea Rangers also meant former WW1 Wrens could enjoy passing on nautical culture, volunteering as Sea Ranger officers.

And the would-be ‘sailorettes’ these officers trained could then be fast-tracked into the Women’s Royal Naval Service, as Janet G was in the 1950s.

But usually members did not go on to work on merchant ships as stewardesses. The SR didn't funnel women  into a water-based career. Rather it helped develop transferable skills as citizens and responsible human beings.

Other ‘Daughters of the sea’

Being a Sea Ranger, or a member of the other related organisation, the Girls Nautical Training Corps, meant being proudly part of a sea-minded network: rowing and sailing boats, tying knots, communicating by Morse and semaphore, learning maritime lore.

1920: The SR began, growing from the Girl Guides
1942: The more militaristic GNTC started, then really took off until 1946.

Patriotically, some members of these organisations, especially in the mid-20th century, saw themselves as ‘daughters of the sea’.

They had fun, for all that there was naval-style discipline too, as the picture of Janet's SR colleagues shows. (Pictured left, above)

As part of a strong, can-do, adventurous team, girls and young women in the SR and GNTC developed confidence, a sense of agency and also a sense of motility - the idea that one was capable of travel.

Happy Families playing card. Mrs
Jack Tar, the sailor's wife, and Miss Jack Tar
were usually portrayed as being on land.
Master and Mr Jack Tar were seagoing.
Women and girls could live a sea-minded life, generation after generation, in this way. Mothers and aunts and babies were part of this sea-focused community.

Gender did not have to be an obstacle to accessing maritime life directly. Thanks to the SR and GNTC women didn't have to rely on being the daughter or wife of Jack Tar as a way to connect on to maritime life. Any member could connect in her own right.

Sea novels for girls 

From the mid-1930s to the 1950s Sea Ranger novels boomed.  (GNTC novels, by contrast, seemingly did not exist). 
In genre such novels were far closer to the girls adventure juvenilia end of the spectrum, than to cruise ships novels (the other booming genre of sea fiction for women in the 1930s).
Authors of SR books such as Helen  Beatrice Davidson  (fl.1898- 1998) - see below, Lucy of the Rangers - also wrote about Brownies and Girl Guides.

Frances Olivia Hartopp Nash  (1887-1953) shows her sea-minded heroine transitioning from the Girl Guides, as in: 

  • (1922) How Audrey Became  a Guide 
  • (1923) Audrey in Camp 
  • (1925) Audrey at School
  • (1933) Audrey, The Sea Ranger

In other words, becoming a motile young woman - who got away from home - was represented as natural progress. The novels encouraged readers to see that they could move on from earlier girlhood in wholesome organisations within the scouting and guiding community, become women who travelled, and even be heroic. Frances also wrote about girls' adventures on land, including at boarding school.

Some Sea Rangers include:

1929 (and 1938): Ethel Talbot,  Skipper and Co, A story of Sea Rangers
1933: Frances Olivia Hartopp Nash, Audrey, the Sea Ranger 
1934 : Helen  Beatrice Davidson, Sea Rangers of the 'Rodney'
1934; Mary Shrewsbury, All Aboard the “Bundy”: A sea-ranger story
1935: Helen Beatrice Davidson,  Adventurers in Camp: A Sea Ranger Story
1935: Ethel Talbot, Sea Rangers All
1937: Ethel Talbot, Sea Rangers’ Holiday
1938 (and 1955) Ethel Talbot: Rangers and Strangers
1943:  Frances Olivia Hartopp  Nash, Lucy of the Sea Rangers
1948: Geoffrey Prout, Sea Rangers at Sloo 

And in the air too...

Sea Rangers stories have a counterpart in flying novels for girls by Dorothy Carter (1901-1948). That thrilling new field, civilian air transport, was a profitable topic for the Josephine March-type writers of the day.

Had Louisa May Alcott  still been around and in the UK she'd surely have written another quartet for girls: Little Brownies, Good Guides, Great Air Rangers, and Brilliant Girl Pilots.  Actually it appears  that there were no novels about Air Rangers, Sea Rangers’ counterparts.

Celebrating mobility,  and making clear that long-distance travel was not just confined to boys, these inspirational Sea Ranger novels were the ‘daughters’ of earlier girls’ boarding school novels such as those by Elinor Brent-Dyer and Angela Brazil.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

New women’s maritime award shortlist revealed.

International Maritime Rescue Federation awards for Search and Rescue will include a special new award for women this year. Shortlisted women were announced yesterday. 
What follows is mainly an extract from part of the press release, but with added pictures and personal details.
The SAR award honours both professionals and volunteers. Often volunteering is a way in for women.
Winners' outstanding commitment' is honored. But the awards also make the wider world aware of SAR.

The Women in SAR Award is part of the  International Maritime Rescue Federation's wider #WomenInSAR initiative. 
This is in support of the International Maritime Organisation's Empowering Women in Maritime campaign.  
“The Award will recognize someone who is an inspirational role model for others.
Shortlisted finalists for this inaugural Award are Captain Song Yin of the Donghai No.1 Rescue Flying Service in China and Isobel Tugwell, a crew member at the RNLI Shoreham Lifeboat Station in the UK. 

 Song Yin

Song Yin joined the Rescue Flying Service after graduating from Shanghai Maritime University in 2008. She has gained extensive flying and technical experience to become one of China's first female search and rescue helicopter captains.
A People’s Daily online article about this ‘most beautiful female rescue pilot’ and her feats can be seen at See their pic.

See a video about her at work:

Isobel Tugwell

Isobel Tugwell joined the Shoreham lifeboat crew at 17 and has been taking a full part in SAR operations ever since – even while she was studying for her A-levels.
There are two other women in her RNLI team too. See
Isobel is also a community police officer in Brighton and Hove. Her dad is part of the RNLI team and so was  her granddad.

Why this award matters

On announcing the shortlist Theresa Crossley,  the chief executive of the IMRF said: "The calibre of all the nominations continues to inspire and amaze the judges. All around the world there are breath-taking search and rescue operations being conducted in harrowing conditions with SAR professionals using their skill and expertise to save lives in remarkable circumstances.  Here are just some of those people, selected today as our finalists."

The winners of all the Awards will be announced at a presentation ceremony on 10 September, on board HQS Wellington, during London International Shipping Week. The Awards will be presented by Vice-Admiral Sir Tim Laurence. He is Anne, Princess Royal’s second husband.

My comment

Setting up this award is an important step in the struggle to encourage women into STEM jobs, and in recognising the achievements of those already in it.
‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it’ goes the slogan, highlighting the value of role models in helping young women see wider opportunities. This award helps us do that seeing.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Chinese women working with UK ships in 20C

British maritime labour history is largely a history of white and BAME men, and possibly 1 per cent white women. 
Women of other backgrounds, including Chinese, Yemeni, and African women are almost entirely absent. This is a brief introduction to Chinese women's relationship with sea mobility and British seafaring.

Adam Williams, his Chinese amah, and mother Anne at one of Hong Kong's many bays, 1956.
Chinese women accessed the sea and mobility because of their work. 
Image courtesy of


Q. Why the absence of Chinese, South Asian, Afro-Caribbean and African-origin women working on ships
A. The answer is that shipping companies deliberately excluded such women, despite their potential for being very cheap labour indeed, as both female and non-white. It's not that such women didn't want to go to sea.

Despite extensive research in shipping company and National Union of Seamen archives I have not found any  records of such women. Nor have I found discussions about excluding/including them. Reluctantly, I have to conclude that in the UK in 20C there were no BAME seafaring women. it seems extraordinary. 
I've had a lot of conversations with seafarers. From that I understand that the two main reason for this racialised and gendered exclusion are likely to have been on these grounds: 

1. PASSENGER ATTITUDES. Bedroom stewardess was the main job open to women until the 1970s. Companies probably believed that BAME women wouldn't have been acceptable to white lady passengers in the intense intimacy of a cabin. 

Yet such an objection doesn't seem quite plausible. White European women living in countries such as Singapore, Shanghai, Malaya, and Hong Kong readily employed Chinese servants, especially amahs (children's nurses, even wet nurses) in their homes. 
So it may be that actually the reason for the exclusion is about  the need for stewarding staff - as warders -  to subtly wield authority, to be a female-oriented part of the hegemonic and gendered control of passenger-inmates. 
Bedroom stewardesses and stewardesses had to, to some extent, regulate the passengers in their patch - for example ensuring they didn't request too much room service, and that they attended lifeboat drills.
It may be that shipping lines thought elite white passengers wouldn't accept such regulatory pressure from 'lower' status BAME women.

Also there were not enough Chinese or Indian female passengers to justify employers taking on women servants of the same nationality to look after them during the voyage. Cash-strapped shipping companies only do what they have to do, and employ specific staff only when it pays to do so. 
(This 'appropriateness' type of justification was later used in 1970s legal battles for equality. The concept of 'Genuine Occupational Qualification' was articulated, famously in a case where a gentlemen's tailoring firm remained men-only on the grounds that women should not measure male customers for trousers.) 
2.  UNION. The seafarers' union is likely to have opposed BAME women, on the grounds that white men, white women and BAME men - in that order - were more entitled to any available jobs. 


The main non-British women I have found working on ships have been:

 A. Europeans. Portuguese matrons or auxiliary nurses for migrants, pre WW2. They were employed by the shipping lines, usually Royal Mail and Blue Funnel, whose ships took some passengers of Portuguese background to Brazil. a former Portuguese colony. 
Crew agreements (registers of personnel aboard each voyage) show some of these women workers have British surnames. This suggests that local shipping agents in Portugal - say Lisbon - would have sought bilingual women, probably Portuguese women who were the wives and daughters of British men living there. 

Children were an increasing presence on ships after WW2. Their nannies, including ayahs and amahs, attended as part of their working day. Image from Tim Roberts' story,

B. Ayahs. 阿媽. Children's nurses - especially from India, Ceylon and non-mainland China. They were employed by the traveller's family, not by the shipping line. They therefore travelled as passengers although they worked all the voyage long. This included the usual nursing, dressing, playing with their charges, plus attending at children's sittings for meals on ship, such as the tea party pictured above.
There are records of Indian ayahs aboard, but few of Chinese or Japanese amahs. 
(For a brief summary of amahs' role on land see 'A Lifetime of Labour: Cantonese Amahs In Singapore', 

C. Gash Jennies, in port. These Chinese women in British colonies worked briefly on British ships in ports such as Hong Kong. 
Affectionate, if patronising, bonds existed between officers and well-organised teams of women who routinely serviced moored ships, doing women's work. 

The most famous 'Jenny', who died aged 92 in 2009, led  a gang who: 
took ''over the domestic economy and husbandry of each vessel. They washed and ironed, cleaned ship, chipped rust and painted, attended as buoy jumpers, and, dressed in their best, waited with grace and charm upon guests at cocktail parties.

Captains and first lieutenants would find fresh flowers in their cabins and newspapers delivered daily ...[jenny earned] by selling soft drinks to the ships' companies and scavenging every item of scrap and gash which could be found on board.' 

Could have been in...

1. Galleys and laundries. It never happened. But it wouldn't have been too abnormal for Chinese women living in the UK,  to be employed in jobs that didn't involve passenger contact, such as laundry and galley work. 
It would have been especially 'natural' for employers to take on those women who were part of British culture because of their family connections with British seamen, as in the Portuguese example above
(By the early 20th century Hong Kong-origin Cantonese men were routinely employed in the laundries of some shipping lines.)  And British women to do such work were so hard to get that in the 1930s shipping companies took on criminalised young women from penal institutions. 
One reason for women not being taken on for such backstage work may have been cultural resistance from the community. Chinese people in the UK possibly did not think it desirable for Chinese women work away from home for months on ships. Their shipboard position would have been lowly, and perhaps morally compromised.  

Amah holding Linga in HongKong, c 1919.
Image via
2. Ship's nurseries. From the 1930s major passenger ships had nurseries, staffed by one nursery stewardess. 
From the 1950s a hierarchy emerged, as was traditional in grand houses: a high-status 'children's nurse' supervised the nursery stewardess, who had a more maid-like status, for example cleaning up spills. 
It would not have been odd if Chinese women did this work on ship. In fact they were never employed in this capacity on UK ships. There was no transition from land-based amah to professional travelling amah, as there was with Indian ayahs.

Male counterparts

The UK history of Chinese men working on ships is as yet barely known, although this is now being addressed by some Heritage Lottery Funded projects. And perhaps men's history, in this case, is anyway not very helpful to understanding Chinese women's maritime history. It was so different.  
Any researcher wanting to go further in exploring men might try these sources, for starters:
A. 1915 crew agreements on line show brief details of Chinese seafaring men in WW1: 
To search you look up the seafarer by surname. So, for example, when I inserted the common name 'Ching' I found a firemen, carpenter, and steward. See

B. One of the recent digitally-available interviews with/about Chinese seafaring men includes this: Yew Chang (1919-2012). Pictured. From Hong Kong, he was a merchant seafarer from c1938 to the early 1950s. Initially in the engine room then a cook, he worked for the Netherlands company Shell, later Royal Dutch Shell group. Many Chinese seafarers in the UK worked for Blue Funnel.
In war BAME men were among those seafarers who were held in camps abroad. In WW2. Yew Chang was 'detained' in Calcutta for two years, and 'sent to repair damaged aircraft'.  
The British Chinese Heritage Centre has made available two interviews with him: and

C.You could try searching the records of the London School of  Nautical Cookery, currently held in the National Maritime Museum Archive, London, at SAH/63.They may include Chinese men, because cooking was one of the jobs Chinese men did on ships, especailly when Chinese food became more popular in the UK.
I recently looked through to find references to women of any ethnicity. The few female applicants were usually told there was no point in training, as no shipping company would take on women cooks.


I am grateful to Sha Zhou for inspiring this blog entry. Sha is at King's College, London, and looking for the history of amahs on ships as part of her Ph.D work on The Life Experience of Chinese Female Migrants in Britain after 1945.

Monday, 8 July 2019

Yachts, women and change: Maiden and Tracy Edwards

Maiden crew in 1989

This week in the US there’s much publicity about the new initiatives by pioneering yachtswoman Tracy Edwards MBE. 
In 1989, age 24, she skippered the first all-female crew in the Whitbread Round the World yacht race on the 58-foot yacht Maiden
Maiden, the documentary film about her and the crew, was screened in New York last week, It is just opening in Washington this week.
Tracy's original boat has been rescued. Since 2018 it is on a promotional voyage with a new crew, to enable greater opportunities for young women via the Anything is Possible program. 
And guess what? No-one is calling the boat 'she'.No-one is wondering if the women can cut the mustard.
But Edwards finds her new crew are part of generation who still face horrifying levels of sexism. And today it's more insidious, harder to tackle.

Maiden's new crew at Hawiai Yacht Club July 2019.
Picture from Maiden Factor blog


Maiden, the documentary about the original voyage, was made by Alex Holmes using much of the footage shot by women on board 30 years ago. 

++ When Maiden came out in the UK in March 2019 the Guardian reviewer Peter Bradshaw gave it 3 stars, commented on the sexism in articles of the time and added:
 “There is something that the film doesn’t address as clearly it could have done. In 1989, Edwards was asked if she was a feminist and she said no – and that she hated the word. ‘It’s probably clear enough what she meant: she just wanted an equal shot at yachting success, just as the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher once wanted an equal shot at political success. 
But, given that the present-day Edwards is interviewed at length, Holmes could perhaps have given her another chance to consider that question.’ See Maiden review – raging seas and sexist squalls, and some interesting comments by readers:

++ Yesterday's Independent, headlines its article 'Setting sail for feminism',

++ In current video interviews Edwards still refers to her colleagues as 'girls', not 'women'. But she does critique the sexists who 30 years ago asked her about packing waterproof mascara, handling female quarrels, and keeping one's lips soft with salve. 
There's also the men who said Edwards and her all-female crew 'would' - not 'might' - die in the process of competing. 
At the time Maiden's crew wanted to be seen as girly-girls when they arrived in port. They succeeded. But their impeccably-braided hair and makeup meant some people imagined their feat had been minor. It was, in fact, perilous,

++A Daily Telegraph article last year found 'Edwards is impressed by the voice of her daughter’s generation – ‘even boys her age are in MeToo T-shirts’ – and is amazed at the number of female applicants to crew the boat' on this new voyage.

The Maiden crew get together again in 2018.
Film-maker Jo is fifth from left. Tracy is first on the right.
 Picture is from Michael Chester and Maiden

Camera woman/cook

Many videos can be seen on YouTube including
It includes comments by Holmes but also Edwards' explanation of how Jo Gooding, their cook, had become the film-maker too. 
They had two cameras, not one (as on most boats), on board. 

Tracy and Mack at St Katherine's dock. Image courtesy of Mack and WP.

Moving on -- to help young women

Current online publicity heavily features Tracy’s daughter Mack Edwards-Mair, who, after seeing the film and the way her mother was acclaimed all over again, re-saw the situation.
‘Edwards and her daughter have teamed up to fight for gender equality in education,’ says the Washington Post. 
Maiden is at sea on its latest world tour, during which it is making 28 stops. 
‘The tour is led by a new generation of female sailors from around the world and is designed to help raise funds for the Maiden Factor’s affiliate charities.’
Mack Edwards-Mair, says the Washington Post, ‘will participate in a leg of Maiden’s journey as the ship sails from Vancouver to Seattle.
'While she admits she is actually “terrified” of the ocean and does not have a seafaring proclivity like her mother, Edwards-Mair said she is looking forward to participating in the journey. [She will take photos].
‘For her, it will be an opportunity to glimpse into the world of a woman she says has inspired her her whole life.
"She [Tracy] has made me believe that whatever I wanted to do, I could do it,” she said.’

The official blog is at

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Virgin's new cruiseship captain

This is a straight lift of a Virgin article, 11 Jun 2019 (with just some sub-headings and pix by me, for readability). 

I think the article is really interesting because of the way this woman captain - yet another to join the ten-plus in the cruise ship industry -  is applying emotional intelligence to the once patriarchal business of leading the shipboard team. 

Fascinatingly, Wendy Williams has been in the very hard work of fishing - as few UK women have been at all. No other women cruiseship captains have come from this gruelling industry.

Her adults-only ship, the Scarlet Lady,  is Virgin's first cruise ship. You can take a virtual tour of the ship here  

A captain's calling


The only thing that is going to limit you is your own imagination. A piece of advice Captain Wendy Williams’ parents gave her when she was a child, that she’s always held close.
 “Their message was that you can do and be anything you imagine,” she adds, “and I've always believed in that.
"You don't have to be limited by anything.”


As it turns out, they were right. Her imagination was vast, focused and driven, guiding her through a successful dream career at sea, where only under three percent of the world's mariners are female. That journey has led her to this moment, as she takes on the first captain role for Virgin Voyages’ premier vessel, Scarlet Lady, making her the first Canadian woman in history to captain a ship for a major cruise brand.


“If you're the heart of the ship and your heart’s in the wrong place, then you're not going to have a good ship. I’ve always been known as the captain with a heart.” she says about her approach to her new role, “I intend to be the best captain I can be and love every moment of it.” 
Born in Sept-Iles Quebec, on the Northeastern Coast of Canada, Captain Wendy is certainly no newcomer to the sea. She has spent the larger part of the last three decades on the water, in different capacities.
“I’m pretty sure I have sea water in my veins,” she says about her upbringing.


Commercial fishing was her first career at sea, starting out as a deckhand, then an observer and eventually working in all capacities, for her own vessels. During that time she became enamored with the sailing of the ships themselves and began to move in that direction.
She credits that background with giving her the confidence she has today. “Fishing brings you very close to the weather and how it changes,” she said, “I’ve learned a lot about reading the weather from being on a fishing vessel.”
After battling that very grueling industry for about a decade, during which time she met her husband, they decided to go to school together at The British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), Pacific Marine Training Institute, located in North Vancouver.  (Pictured)

Soon after Captain Wendy began her cruise ship career, still only one of very few women in the industry at the time.
Though she has captained many vessels in her career and was a Staff Captain for 6 of her 15 years in this industry, this Virgin Voyages role will be her first time mastering her own cruise ship.


“I think we're making amazing strides now,” says Captain Wendy about women in mariner roles. “When you walk onto the bridge you don’t have a gender. You’re a mariner. You’re an officer, this is what you do.
"This is what we do together. There should be no bearing on what our gender is. And that's the kind of bridge that we are going to have. There's no space in our day to have gender bias.” 
Captain Wendy says her primary focus at Virgin Voyages will be on crew. “While structure is of utmost importance for safety and order on a ship,” she adds.
“I'm driven to embrace inclusivity and set an example that all people should be treated with respect and integrity.”
A deep love for the sea drives all she does, and she’s described a life at sea as her calling, “For me, the sea is my religion. It’s where I think. It’s where I have clarity. I’m not afraid of it and I’m respectful of it.”
When this position with Virgin Voyages arose, she had been looking for a fresh perspective on the sea travel industry, which is why this partnership feels so destined, both for Captain Wendy and for the team at Virgin Voyages.

 Virgin's doing it differently in every way. This sort of advert for seagoing labour is no more standard in the biz than is the ship's revolutionary design.



“The whole thing for me is that [at Virgin Voyages] we’re going to do it differently,” said Captain Wendy, noting that she was drawn to the brand because of a shared drive for treating the sea with care and respect.
“I’ve encountered people in my career who feel being kind and smiling is a sign of weakness, but I believe it’s my greatest strength,” she says about her thoughtful approach to all she does.
“I have to care about everyone and everything. I’m the Captain.”
To that, we can only say: Aye aye! Welcome aboard, Captain Wendy!

This article is at

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Bisexual Falklands sailor takes action against MOD

Joe Ousalice (right) receives medal from Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, later Chief of Defence Staff.

This is a straight lift of a Telegraph article by Dominic Nicholls. 'Military veterans stripped of medals and discharged from the armed forces for their sexuality could have their honours returned as a bisexual Falklands sailor launches legal bid' appeared 8 May 2019, at 
You can see more pictures are there. I've added sub-headings here for readability.

'Military veterans stripped of medals and discharged from the armed forces for their sexuality could have their honours returned as a bisexual Falklands sailor launches legal bid. Joe Ousalice, 68, served for nearly 18 years in the Royal Navy but was discharged in 1993 prior to the lifting of the ban on LGBT people serving in the armed forces.
The Falklands veteran is taking action against the Ministry of Defence to have his Long Service and Good Conduct (LS&GC) medal returned after it was cut off his uniform following a Court Martial.

Northern Ireland and Middle East duties

An MoD spokesperson said it would be inappropriate to comment as legal proceedings are ongoing, but added, “we are currently looking at how personnel discharged from service because of their sexuality, or now abolished sexual offences, can have their medals returned.”
Mr Ousalice, a former radio operator, served in the Falklands War in which he lost two comrades, did six tours of duty in Northern Ireland and was also posted to conflict zones in the Middle East.
"I loved life in the navy, because of the comradeship," he told the BBC. "It was my life."
His work was praised by his seniors and he was awarded the LS&GC medal in 1991. Royal Navy regulations stipulate that LS&GC recipients must have served a minimum of 15 years continuous good conduct. It can be removed for later poor conduct.

Double life necessary

 However, Mr Ousalice said he knew when he joined up that he would have to hide the fact that he was bisexual.
"It was a double life I was living,” he said. “I was watching every day what I was saying, what I was doing."
He says that when ashore he never visited gay pubs and on board ship he didn't associate with sailors who he knew were gay.
"I knew if I did I would have the SIB (Special Investigation Branch) on my back doing covert operations, shadowing me with cameras, taking photographs of what I was getting up to."

Medal cut off uniform

Cleared at Court Martial of assaulting another sailor in the early 1990s, he was found guilty of being in bed with the other man - something he has always denied - and was dismissed on the grounds that his conduct was prejudicial to good order and naval discipline.
An officer wrote: "He may attempt to corrupt others in the future", adding that "the needs of the service must come first".
Although not official policy at the time, but not unheard of, Mr Ousalice had his LS&GC medal cut off his uniform following the verdict and hopes that the lifting of the ban on LGBT people in the armed forces in 2000 would help him to have his medal returned.

How many more?

The Telegraph understands that the MoD does not know how many individuals may be in the same situation as Mr Ousalice as it does not keep records of such matters, each one dealt with on a case-by- case basis by the respective service.
Amendments to the Policing and Crime Bill for England and Wales in 2017 allowed thousands of gay and bisexual men convicted of now abolished sexual offences to be posthumously pardoned.
The new ruling became widely known as the Turing Law, after Alan Turing, the World War II codebreaker and computing pioneer, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952. Turing received a royal pardon (posthumously) in 2013.
The Turing Law could see military veterans who were previously denied medals have them awarded. The Telegraph understands that no medals have been returned yet or awarded in the wake of the government’s implementation of the Turing Law and that work is still ongoing in the MoD.
Any military veteran is able to apply to the MoD Medals Office, the department based at Imjin Barracks in Gloucester responsible for issuing medals to currently serving members of the armed forces, veterans and MOD employees.

Mod Medal Office, Innsworth, Building 250 Raf Innsworth.27 Nov 2018
Address: Building 250 Raf Innsworth

Next steps

The Medals Office says that individuals should only wear official decorations, medals or emblems to which they are entitled and which have been approved for acceptance and wear. Unofficial medals should not be worn with official orders, decorations and other medals.
It is common practice for the next of kin of a deceased service person to wear their relative’s decorations and medals as a mark of remembrance. It is custom to wear such medals on the right breast in civilian dress only.
The MoD says official approval is not required to wear a relative’s medals, although current serving personnel should not wear relative’s medals or unofficial medals whilst in uniform.
The Telegraph understands that Liberty is setting up a helpline to help other LGBT veterans stripped of their medals to come forward.

See Feb 1919 article about Liberty's general support for service personnel.

At that point the helpline number was 020 3102 9313. It was open 10 am to 4pm Mon to Fri. Sorry I can't confirm if this is still the correct number. I couldn't get any reply from the Press Office.

Readers may like to also see an article I wrote about the hidden queer history aboard the ships going to and from the  Falklands Conflict, in Polari Magazine, 31.5.2012:

Pictured: Crew enjoying a camp version of the Neptune Ceremony, 1982, aboard the Norland en route to the Falklands. Picture courtesy of Frank Green

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Ships as she: anthropomorphism, linguistics and girly vessels

‘Stark staring bonkers...  political correctness gone mad… an insult to a generation of sailors, the ships are seen almost as a mother to preserve us from the dangers of the sea and also from the violence of the enemy”.

If you think these words about officially referring to ships as gender neutral were roared by dinosaurs a century ago, you’re in for a surprise. The comments were made just last week by a fairly progressive retired Admiral, Lord Alan West; see

The hoary ‘Is a ship a “she”, not an “it”?’ debate re-emerged when Glasgow Maritime Museum said it would now be referring to ships as gender neutral. Director David Mann said the museum ‘recognise[d] the changes in society’:

Lloyds List made a similar decision in 2002: these floating bits of real estate are to be called ‘it’. That arbitrating decision brought a huge postbag too. Then thing settled down, although the Royal Navy carried on 'she-ing'.

Silly or?

The usual protesters are naval, not maritime, people – and mostly older males. They’re not anti-women. They just don’t understand that they’re perpetuating old and destructive attitudes that positioned women as - at worst - Jack Tar's totty, incompetent outsiders, sex-providers, objects of up-skirting, and protectees (see images).

And it’s rather silly, ostensibly. Or is it? BBC Radio 4 News Quiz comedian Andy Zaltzman joked that a ship’s determining genitals were usually hidden. So you could only tell and mummy and daddy ships apart when the lady had little baby ships - called ‘submarines’

Behind it

In the last week of April 2019  the matter became transformed into a fuzzy and sentiment-led debate. The words ‘cultural imperialism’ and ‘anthropomorphism’ were not used. But in essence they lay behind the argument: ‘Why shouldn’t we be allowed to call our inanimate things whatever we want?’
The answer is a complex one.  I write about it here now because for years I’ve been collecting stories, funny postcards and tea-towels on 'ships as she' as part of my work on gendered maritime history. 
I would like to highlight the following points. They build up, step by step, what I hope is a sage and fair-minded fresh view on the subject.


Visitors to UK museums are rightly puzzled when they see, as in Glasgow Maritime Museum’s case, labels that refer to a ship as’ she’, and not as a gender neutral ‘it’.
English is not a gendered language, so it does not make sense for us in the UK to gender ships - or bicycles or nail extensions.
So it would be good to hear from experts on gendered languages explain this 'need' to assign gender to inanimate objects, taking a calm, systemic, approach based linguistics and neuroscience.
Mann and un-named colleague with the altered sign: image from Irvine Times 23.4.2019.

Protest and change

An unknown visitor scratched out the ‘she’ and the ‘her’ on Glasgow’s labels: The change was called 'graffiti', and the protester called a ‘vandal’. But actually the visitor-observer had informally made a correction that the museum was anyway going to effect when it could afford to do so.
The useful debate that has ensued brings to our attention two things: widespread, under-informed, deeply-held bigotry; and the fact that museums are too cash-starved to update their displays and descriptions as they wish.
My book on the history of seafaring women (which had an appendix on 'ships as she') was launched on board the Glenlee, a ship moored at Glasgow Maritime Museum - and referred to as 'she' on Wikipedia. So I know the museum well enough to be clear that its ethos is to embrace diversity, which most museums now do.
Australia’s National Maritime Museum was ahead of the all this and switched in the late 1990s. Although the radical move brought controversy, the sky did not fall. Princess Anne and George W Bush still visited; the Sunday Times still put it on their list of ''the world's 10 coolest museums'' in 2010.


Gendering a ship is part of the long-established general practice of attributing human qualities to inanimate objects, and to pets. Psychologists and anthropologists, for example, tend to see this as a creative problem-solving strategy: humanise a significant thing can give us an illusion of having some control over it, as well as bringing us closer to it.
'I love him, my necessary machine.'
Image courtesy of  The Atlantic, Dec 2017,
 by Christopher Delorenzo
Lonely and overwhelmed simple seafarers working on sailing ships, when navigation was less developed, must have especially needed strategies to help them cope with long bleak months of unpredictable and unknowable vicissitudes.
In that loneliness a ship was an intimate companion. Befriending it was a good tactic. And if the seafarer  didn't want to be accused of being homosexual or odd it was clearly politic to call that darling a she.   


But attributing (white) female gender to every inanimate object in a category - e.g. vessels - is troubling for our society. It's a sign of the habitual sexist thinking in the old navy.
Auto Trader’s website doesn’t refer to its vehicles as ‘the ladies’. No airport announces of a plane ‘she is boarding now’. 
Understandably, people on a ship come to ‘love’ their 24:7 residential workplace and to esteem its abilities to get them from A to B. Anyone can grasp that. Their collective lives depends on a good relationship with the machine, which some may see as a protective parent (female) – even a kind of god (dess) or simply their dearest pal and pet.
Feminising is not a consequence of the speakers being male. I, myself, a some-time boat-dweller, have called ships ‘she’. So do some seafaring women I know.  However, I’ve usually been fitting in politely rather than feeling convinced.
Individuals have the right to anthropomorphise their personal car, ship, fridge or cat if they want. It’s their private business. I stand back, too, when friends see their car as a naughty child or a treacherous tyrant.   It's their right be irrational – and it doesn’t do systemic harm to an already-oppressed group of humans: women.

Anthropomorphising can assuage loneliness. But is it alright?
Image by MJL,courtesy of

Humanising OK, but...

However, in the anthropomorphising process, people in a gendered society feel they have to decide whether their inanimate object is female or male.
Whatever the choice, it will bring entrenched and overwhelming stereotypes.
The controversy about gendering vessels comes up because some individuals are still basing their views on disrespectful and outdated ideas about women.
This behaviour is part of the climate that led to misogynists, especially under sail, superstitiously hating Woman’s presence on board and sabotaging real women's right to maritime work.  
Humanising should not not mean gendering, nor perpetuating negative stereotypes about one gender, race or class.


In my years of collecting such material, including teatowels like this one, (pictured below, right) no ship is ever seen as male. But women are seen as ships, such as fancy frigates who a swain  proudly parades in port. 

Published justifications for calling a ship ‘she’ range along a spectrum from filial devotion to the patronising.

  • NOBLE: At the one end, the mighty container is something grand: a goddess to be worshipped and placated. Those aboard position themselves as merely devoted minions of the sainted Virgin Mary-like ship, sometimes created as a figurehead. (This may not encourage teamwork because it disables the worshippers’ sense of agency).
  • GIRLY: At the spectrum’s other end, a ship is a demanding, vain flibbertigibbet who asks too much of men – as all women do. An example of this is the saying ‘the outfitting she wants costs more than her hull’.
  • CONTESTED AUTHORITY: Somewhere in between is the view that ‘She won’t be controlled, you have to woo her to get her to bow to your will. Humour her and she’ll eat out of your hand’.

Beyond binarity

The nineteenth-century products of patriarchal societies, who’ve been away in all-male situation since their boyhood, are understandably under-informed about the realities of everyday women and equal, non-dominating comradeship.
They've known women only as idealised personifications of home or workers in the waterfront sex industry. For all sorts of reasons such exiles feel the need to reassure themselves that malestream is still mainstream.
Boys and men were away  for months or years; unrealistic ideas
about distant women developed.
  Illustrated London News. 10.2.1883.

Changed times

But education and the seafaring profession are today much less gender-segregated.
People are actively looking for new, more embracing personal pronouns such as ‘ze’ or ‘hir’, not just 'they'. 
In the West, women’s rights have been on the agenda for nearly 150 years. The past five decades have seen some advances. Women are less often positioned as second-class or treated as jokes - at least in public.
Unacceptably sexist behaviour has never been more discussed than in these #MeToo times. It’s now recognised that society should stop routinely denigrating anything seen as female and locking it in the Bad Corner until it conforms to men’s rules.
The time for placing 'ladies' on fanciful pedestals is long gone too.
We live in a new age. So it’s appropriate that twenty-first century museums, publishers, writers, navies and seafarers move on from routinely ascribing hackneyed gendered characteristics to rectangular vessels.

Respect helps

There is room for acceptance of diversity. This includes people’s personal right to call their cars Fifi or Henry and their right to call their ships ‘her bloody ladyship’ but also ‘his effin nibs’. If such anthropomorphising helps them work in harmony with their machines then it's fair enough.
But no one should impose systemic sexist irrationality across the board and thereby perpetuate negative stereotypes. Respect helps us all.