Monday 23 February 2015

Nancy Spain: Wrens and same-sex love

It's LGBT History Month. So it's appropriate to talk here about the most famous ex-Wren who loved women: broadcaster and writer Nancy Spain (1917–1964).

Second Officer Spain (fourth from right, front row) in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of Nick Werner Laurie, from Rose Collis's "A Trouser-wearing character: The Life and Times of Nancy Spain", Cassell, London, 1997.

Think of an early Sandi Toksvig. Exuberant, heavy-eyebrowed, a toughish-talking wit from Newcastle, Nancy Spain was one of the most dynamic, mould-breaking women of the 1950s - because she was so bold.
But she never came out in public – not least because it would have wrecked her career as writer.
And while someone’s relationship is her own business, Nancy’s private life is important because it shows us two things: that there were women who disregarded patriarchal norms; and that in the 1940s and 50s even the bold ones needed be very circumspect about revealing their secret if they didn’t want to be pilloried.

From 1940-44 Nancy was in the wartime Wrens in the London press office. So she was partly responsible for forming the image of the WRNS we still have today. Her jobs included spinning news and suppressing revelations - of the very kind that could have been made about her.
Of course there was never a public whiff of Wrens having unorthodox relationships, or even loving friendships. However, many sailors whispered the usual urban myth: that Wrens who didn’t across were secretly those who batted for the non-heterosexual side.

Does the sea link matter? Perhaps not. After all, Nancy was not a port-based or seafaring or even boat’s crew Wren. Nor was her main partner, Joan ‘Jonny’ Werner Laurie (1920-1964) (pictured below). And they didn’t meet until they’d both left the WRNS.
But being in the WRNS, a somewhat feminist-all-women organisation, at a time of loosened ties when many wartime service workers away from home were exploring daring new identities, was very helpful to Nancy in living in a way that felt right to her. Any wartime service is significant for that reason.

Certainly Nancy’s boss was a role model for her in many way. Deep-voiced Esta Eldod , the WRNS principal Press Officer, lived with her dearest friend, promoted a photographic history of the WRNS that showed women as mechanics and in non-traditional roles, and was so confidently witty that that few would have dared to challenge her.
So this women-only, quite feminist organisation was a place where lower-ranked women would be shuffled away and whispered about, but higher-echelon women were supported in being unorthodox ‘characters’ living breezily, unmarried, in a style they chose.
Nancy went on to do so as a London journalist and writer, with several secret love nests. She had a son she passed off as Joan’s, and whom she may have had as a gift to Joan (who also had another live-in lover, Sheila Van Damm).


Rose Collis’s biography of Nancy, A Trouser-wearing Character, devotes a chapter to Nancy’s time as part of naval services.
And Rachel Cooke’s brief biographical chapter in Her Brilliant Career comments on Nancy’s ‘swashbuckling social climbing … not for nothing did Nancy’s friend think of her as a pirate.’ Did the Jack Tar style rub off on her?
But Nancy also learned chutzpah from novelist Naomi Jacobs, says Rachel. And anyway by the time Nancy went to boarding school (Roedean) her character was formed, according to Rose.

If Nancy hadn’t died young in a plane crash what might she have made of the queer-friendly climate that developed only ten years later, when women from Gateways, her lesbian club, helped develop a supportive culture?
Today the Navy’s 3,000 women include out lesbians. And the Navy is in Stonewall’s top 100 gay-friendly employers. Second Officer Spain would have been seen as perfectly unremarkable.

RN Second Sea Lord David Steel hands a pledge to Stonewall CEO Ruth Hunt, 2014.

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