Monday 27 May 2013

Iconic Wrenning... at the plotting table

Until I had the opportunity to pose at a mockup WW2 plotting table last month I hadn't realised how iconic the image of such Wrens is.

And I just had to have a go. And yes, pushing those fake ships around the world's ocean I could see you really would feel pride and deeply involved in naval operations.

The table - with handy uniform hats available - is at Scapa Flow Visitor centre at Hoy in Orkney.

The once-crucial communications centre at Wee Fea is now just an empty concrete block where sheep shelter. Birds have burst through the wire-netting over the former windows. But standing there overlooking Scapa Flow it's very easy to understand how Wrens working there would indeed have felt both at the heart of naval operations and very far from London.

Patsy Adam-Smith - first Australian woman seagoing wireless operator, 1950s

In looking for information about seagoing women Radio Officers I found this touching and lively memoir of a woman sailing round the Bass Strait and Tasmania area 1954-1960. Patsy Adam-Smith, There was a ship, Ringwood, Penguin, Victoria, Australia, 1995 first published 1965.

She was cook, she was on the wheel and she also operated the wireless on the small Naracoopa serving the remote Cape Barren Islands.It's rare evidence of women's seafaring work, because so few women were sailing coastally on cargo ships,in any country, at that time. She wrote:

‘To get a radio operators' certificate [Third Class] didn’t require any excess of intellect, but it did need a lot of courage to get going. The very first time I gave [our] sign the Melbourne operator said , "I'm imagining things today, chaps. I thought I heard a woman’s voice calling then, ha ha." It was difficult to call back after that...In time they all got over the shock’ and the operator referred to her as Mam’selle Naracoopa and ordered "Ladies first" if several senders spoke at once when Patsy was trying to transmit. (p171)

By contrast, there seems to have been only one British seagoing 'brass-pounder' at that time:Angela Firman. And she had to sail on Scandinavian vessels as British ones didn't allow women in such roles. Although women could readily acquire the skills to operate wirelesses on land, on ships it was seen as men's high(ish)-tech work

Patsy Adam-Smith (1924-2001), then the mother of a young daughter, became a prolific author. She writes well about life on board, where privacy was so respected that no-one ever asked her 'where's your husband?'

Perhaps the bonus is that she draws attention to a long-forgotten novel that seems to be the seafaring equivalent of DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. Robert Close's Love Me Sailor was prosecuted for obscene libel in 1945, in Australia (see

It describes a lone woman's passenger's experience on a windjammer full of men. Adam-Smith comments from her own experience as a lone but affable labourer on a ketch full of men: 'There is little scope on small ship for dalliance. Lack of privacy is one dissuading factor; another is fatigue. When I read Robert Close’s Love Me Sailor I laughed and laughed'.(p143).