Monday 4 December 2023

Novel views of sea, sex and gender: latest fiction

Creative thinking about gender and the sea is burgeoning this year.  Bayous, aquaria in shopping malls, English fishing villages: water and its denizens are central. 

These books are ideal booty for Xmas stockings because they're such a holiday from the maritime industry as we know it.   

In these novels, water is not just wet stuff; sea routes are not a sort of autostrada.  Water's a metaphor for our deep and puzzling places.

 Mermaids are nothing like Disneyesque hetereosexual cuties. Fishermen are not cosy Cap'n Birdseyes in sensible-bloke waders. 

Deep emotions - including longing and quests for identity and love - surface oddly and stir currents

Two of the latest of several new novels about sea  life - mixed with gender and sexuality - have just won national prizes.  In late November Julia Armfield was awarded the Polari overall prize for LGBTQ+ books for her novel Our Wives Under the Sea

The quotes immediately below are from the Guardian,“Our Wives Under the Sea tells the story of Leah, who unexpectedly returns from a disastrous deep-sea dive, and her wife, Miri, who grapples with the ways Leah changed while under water. ... Judge Joelle Taylor, said 'It is a strange, speculative, poetic and thrilling novel – a heart turner as much as a page turner.'"

In the same Polari prize competition, Jon Ransom’s The Whale Tattoo gained the first book award. 

The plot summarised: “Protagonist Joe Gunner navigates difficult memories as he returns to his Norfolk fishing town and renegotiates his relationships with those he left. 'It’s suffused with salt air and gay longing,' declared judge Adam Zmith."

Other  ‘queer’ maritime/ marine novels in 2023 include 

Chlorine by Jade Song. Compulsive swimmer Ren Yu grew up on stories of creatures of the deep ... She's always longed to become a mermaid. She will do anything she can to make a life for herself where she can be free. No matter the pain... No matter how much blood she has to spill. A powerful, relevant tale of immigration, sapphic longing, and fierce, defiant becoming” says Waterstones. 

The Immeasurable Depth of You , by Maria Ingrande Mora. "A queer supernatural coming-of-age story for young adults." Fifteen-year-old Brynn is lonely, staying with her father on a houseboat in the Florida mangroves. Horrors! There is no digital connection to her online friends. Then she meets "sultry, athletic, and confident Skylar. Brynn resolves to free her new crush from the dark waters of the bayou, even if it means confronting all of her worst fears."

Sea Change by Gina Chung. This novel's about Ro, a bereaved aquarium worker who’s drinking too many non-medicinal sharktinis. She loves Dolores, a  horny giant Pacific octopus,  Ro's last remaining link to her father. A marine biologist, he disappeared while on an expedition. This is about loss, healing, an Asian-American family, and tenderness. 

Surfacing in 2024

Feb 2024. In the Shallows  (also called The Mermaid of Black Rock) by Tanya Byrne

Young adult novel in which two girls fall in love during their attempt to understand a mystery: Nicoletta, a teenager, was hauled out of the ocean, after which her rescuing fishermen die. "Had Nicoletta lured them to their deaths―their lives in exchange for hers?" She becomes a legend and then meets Mara, who desires her, futilely. “Could there be a reason [why Nico has] locked everything behind a door? And once she's brave enough to open it, what will happen to her? To them?”

You can still catch ...

 2021:  The Mermaid of Black Conch, by Monique Roffey. Mermaid meets landsman. Their Caribbean community handles conflicts about masculinity and more.

Sunday 19 November 2023

Wrens at sea, movie style! Yellow Canary,1943.

On YouTube I’ve just spotted a film about a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) who sailed to Canada. Yellow Canary was directed by Herbert Wilcox in 1943. 

I’m delighted because I hadn’t got this movie on my (yes, very brief) list of WRNS films. See below. And it's the only one where a Wren is lethal toughie.

In WW2 Sally Maitland (played by Anna Neagle) wasn’t working on a warship as an RN person. No woman did.  Nor was she doing signalling and coding, as Wrens did on troop ships. 

Instead Sally was a deep-cover spy for British intelligence on a passenger ship. Her work was to act as a pro-Nazi but charming British civilian, including on the voyage from England to Halifax NS. 

She infiltrates, she plots, she nearly marries the dreadful Nazi. Only at the very end does she tie her deceitfully platinum waves back, tuck her hair under her uniform HMS cap and share family tea at home in an unimpeachable Home Counties sort of way.

Dear reader, yes, she marries the co-spy (Richard Greene). He turns out to have been trying to protect her all along.

Goodness, the blonde dame in the fur suddenly turns out to need a rescuer with a cocked gun. Didn't she have her own? Wasn't she in command of him a minute ago?

(At that point in the war, with all the labour shortages, real Wrens were allowed to carry on Wrenning after marriage. Neagle was actually married to the director, Herbert Wilcox.)

Box office takings revealed that the film didn’t do well because people were confused by the complex plot. Also Neagle, though the main star, never convincingly became a sympathetic character here.

In fact, if you don’t watch carefully you can easily end up not knowing that Sally truly was a nice Wren after all. She was not a double or treble agent just masquerading as a female member of the unimpeachable Senior Service.  

Basis? Mitford nazi and maybe a US cowboy fan. 

This film is based a little on aristocratic British nazi Unity Mitford. (Pictured with Hitler).  But Unity never was a Wren or spy – that we know of. Nor did she repent her fascism.

A story by one of the three screenwriters, PM Bower, is credited as the basis. PM Bower is untraceable. But literary sleuths know that if you scratch a set of initials (say CB: Charlotte Bronte) you may well find a woman underneath. 

There was, actually, a BM Bower (1871-1940).  A woman. Is she the originator? Bertha Muzzy Sinclair, formerly Bower, was a prolific US pulp novelist and scriptwriter, specialising in women in men’s worlds, such as the Wild West. Could an earlier BM Bower story have inspired the chaps’ screenplay?  

“Her work was unusual for its time … featuring female characters that were as developed as their male counterparts” says Britannica

The Yellow Canary's female characters are indeed developed. The ruthless leader of the Nova Scotia Nzi spy ring turns out to be the ‘poor old lady in the wheelchair’. The ‘carer’ pushing her invalid carriage is actually her evil henchwoman.

Bower’s The Flying U Strikes, and The Quirt are about spying, but  certainly not in Halifax NS in WW2. Yet the identity fits, just.  What’s your bet?

WRNS feature films 1940-1960. (* = my rating)

1943 Bell-Bottom George. Cheeky chappie waiter rejected by navy befriends Wren Pat (Anne Firth). He foils a spy ring, is allowed into the navy and Pat accepts him. Comedy
1944 Fiddlers Three.  Comedy about two sailors and Nora, a Wren (Elizabeth Welch). They are transported back to ancient Rome and treated as seers
*1945 Perfect Strangers. Poignant drama about married couple who join naval services. Cathy Wilson (Deborah Kerr) becomes a  boats crew Wren despite his objections. Wartime separation and other relationships then broaden their horizons and reignite their marriage
1946 Piccadilly Incident. Weepie about a briefly married Wren (Anna Neagle) who is soon torpedoed off Singapore, and presumed dead. Returns from three years on South Sea island (with sailors) to find husband has new wife and child
*1953 The Cruel Sea.  Classic drama battle of Atlantic action film, especially focusing on Hostilities Only sailors. WRNS Second Officer Julie Hallam (Virginia Mckenna) initially abjured by the Compass Rose’s second hero ,who puts war first 
1958 The Silent Enemy features naval frogmen in 1940s Gibraltar. Third Officer Jill Masters (Dawn Addams) is the minor love interest.
1960 Sink the Bismarck! Naval war film in which WRNS Second Officer Anne Davis (Dana Wynter) is the calm and very competent assistant of the Admiralty’s Chief of Operations. He turns their relationship towards romances the moment Germany’s iconic battleship is sunk. 
1961 Petticoat Pirates. This is the only film to tackle female-male relationships within naval services, excruciatingly. A comedy vehicle for Charlie Drake, it features many Wrens who, angered at being turned down for sea service, capture frigate HMS Huntress. They take it to sea in a NATO exercise, but then sunbathe and hang undies on the halyard. Finally the happy commander tells Admiralty that Wrens should be seagoing. Starring Anne Heywood as Chief Officer Anne Stevens

Monday 30 October 2023

‘Florence Nightingale’ afloat: Jane Fennell Swinton and the worst ‘coolie’ voyage to ‘El Dorado’, the Salsette 1858

 A full version of this item will appear here shortly. Here is the prelude.

The long-overlooked backstory of Jane Fennell Swinton (1821-72) is an odd and highly original finale to my contributions to Black History Month 2023. 

Cotton merchant's daughter Jane Fennell married Captain Edulph (sometime written Edulfus or Edolphus) Swinton and sailed with him on the most infamous ‘coolie ship’. On the Salsette 120 of the 324 Indian indentured labourers and their children died between Calcutta and Trinidad in 1858. Almost one a day died from starvation, dysentery, typhid, and pining.

Jane wrote up his account, added her comments, and had the story published, as part of what we might now call the black rights movement. Journal of a voyage with coolie emigrants, from Calcutta to Trinidad . By Captain and Mrs. Swinton, late of the ship Salsette (1859) can be read online, free, in an hour.  

There is also a hard-to-get facsimile edition edited by Ron Ramdin (1994).

She critiqued the damage caused by profiteers who sent unfit and distressed people far away on ill-provisioned ships. There were too few interpreters and no medical and nursing staff able to act as helpful intermediaries for people who were alarmed at Western medicine and uneasy about reporting to a western doctor.

Jane was not black. And she used racist language. But this brief book is important. No other captain, or captain’s wife, has written such a useful first-person account of life on what were, in effect, successors to slaveships, 1834-1917.

Who knows how much Jane contributed to the lessening of shipboard abuses? Her personal story  has never been told before, and it is only fragmentary.

Please keep your eyes open for my forthcoming blog item about this member of an Irish Quaker dynasty. Genealogical research reveals bankruptcy. It shows that she herself was of a family of migrants. Feminist abolitionism may have been her London context. And she had informed opinions about human cargo, including Chinese ‘coolies.’

 No other woman was in such a position of expertise about race on ships. Briefly, she was as effective a campaigner as Elizabeth Fry and Caroline Chisholm.  

Friday 27 October 2023

Maritime union women pulling together: visible

Women in maritime trades unions and guilds. They're not very visible. That's what I keep finding out as I research seafaring women's history. 

What's the reality? What's just inadequate recording?

The lack of available information about gender in maritime history means it's good to be able to pick out a few highlights from Pulling Together, Nautilus International's history, which has just been published this week. See 

Pulling Together's author Andrew Linington (pictured) mentions the following items about women in this history. Since 1857 predecessor unions have included MNAOA and NUMAST :

1933. Supporting the new  Watch Ashore (organising supportive women relatives of members)
1979. NUMAST establishes the Victoria Drummond Award for an outstanding contribution by a woman, boosting women's achivements at sea. (The first recipient is Sheila Edmundson, the first woman captain. Others are Rachel Dunn [2012], Barbara Campbell [2015], Helene Peter-Davies [2019].
2010. The Women's Forum begins, see pic.

2014. Union campaigns about cadet Akhona Geveza, who disappared overboard following her rape allegation
2016.  After working since 2002 at eliminating bullying and harassment at sea (which disproportionately affects women) Nautilus, ITF and the International Chamber of Shipping publish global guidance.
Many matters, of course, affect seafarers whatever their gender. The book is replete with evidence about how much the union has done.  

Other maritime unions

My knowledge of other unions, such as the National Union of Seamen (which was for ratings, and is now RMT), suggests that key milestones are when: 

  •  the first woman joins a union executive (usually early 1980s. I think Sheila was on NUMAST's council. She was certainly active in union matters.
  •  union has its first women's conference  (usually mid to-late 1980s. Women are so few in the maritime industry that a full 3-day conference would hardly have seemed appropriate)
  • union campaigns on behalf of a woman member who's experienced major, and symptomatic, difficulty in the industry
  • union appoints it first female general secretary (Brenda Dean of SOGAT was the first in UK in 1985).

The Captain's crucial partner

Spouses have played  a crucial part in the maritime unions community. They've been supportive 'members' while husbands were away at sea. Among their campaigns have been safety at sea and longer leaves, as the cartoon shows.

So it's important to mention the 1933 founding of The Watch Ashore by Dorothy Nelson-Ward, who was married to Philip, president of the Officers'  (Merchant Navy) Federation.  (page 59). 

# my blog about Dorothy:
# my article on seagoing wives in the union: 'Wives welcome ... with sewing kits,'

Key fragments known about UK women's maritime organised labour history generally are:

1775. In the Liverpool Seamen's Revolt a woman is among those imprisoned for  'aiding and abetting' the protestors. Crowds released her and others from jail.

1913. A Cunard lady passenger tries to set up a Guild of Stewardesses. (Women are already allowed in the seamen's union NUS so the Guild may have been a ploy to set up a conservative body, pitting ladies against militant men) 

1917. Suffragist Adela Pankhurst Walsh, Emmeline Pankhurt's estranged daughter, is active in the  Seamen's Union of Australia. She was criticised, then embraced, by the British NUS for her activism.

1913. Southampton politician Emily Palmer (pictured) becomes treasurer of the British Seafarers' Union. 

1953. The Queen honours Irene Combs, the Watch Ashore’s vice-president and treasurer,  for services to the Merchant Navy

1980. With the backing of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), Lucy Wallace, cinema projectionist, wins the very first maritime test case. Tribunal finds P&O had wrongfully discriminated against her.

1980s. Women join NUS executive

1988. UN agency International Maritime Organisation's gender programme begins. It's supported by unions, and continues today.

2013. International Labour Organisation brings out Working  Paper 298 on employing women in transport, which includes maritime

2022. International Day for Women in Maritime is instituted (May 18)

Pulling together matters

Not all human beings recognise how helpful a trades union can be. So there are also negative stories maritime labour I have glimpsed over the years. 

When  Aquitania seafarers struck in 1921 some stenographers were prepared to be strikebreakers. See pic of Cunard ladies standing by in the London EC headquarters. They signed up as 'volunteer helpers.' 

By contrast, the 'perspiring gang' of women supposed to be cleaning the ship emitted  'a running fire of comment' at the gents who'd laid down their pens to  scupper the solidarity. 

Reading more

  • A brief history of UK maritime women breaking through into non- traditional jobs, including the first coastguard Sue Nelson, in
  • UK women at sea. Pioneers are briefly discussed at
  • See the global and European story of formal challenges, in the ITF's Gender and Transport discussion paper, 2011, at
  • Canadian waterfront women: Linda Cullum, 'In Whose interest? Women Organizing on the Waterfront - St John's, Newfoundland, 1948' in Journal of Historical Sociology22.1, March 2009, pp108-44

Wednesday 18 October 2023

Queer Navy: seeing the documents, hearing the stories. Seth Stein LeJacq

I’m delighted that Dr Seth Stein LeJacq, my friend and colleague in queer maritime historiography, is bringing out his new book and giving a free zoom talk. 

Seth is an expert on the Royal Navy’s GBTQ+ history pre1900. By contrast, I know about the merchant service, from 1900. We dovetail well. I constantly learn from his findings - including Jane Austen's brother's role in judging a midshipman's alleged  heterosexual assault of a girl. 

If you want to see a collection of important records of 'gay' naval history, as evidenced by “the unnatural and detestable sin of buggery’ and how the Royal Navy handled 'homosexuality' – and more – then explore these transcripts. They reveal:

  • trials that erupted into public scandals
  • cases that offer a vivid window into naval sexual cultures
  • implicitly, varying attitudes towards diversity, human rights and inclusion that contrast with today's social climate 

Seth, an Assistant Professor at New York Institute of Technology, accompanies this verbatim material with invaluable editorial commentary. Together such material opens up an obscured past that is usually only accessible to those able to spend months in London archives reading handwritten ledgers. 

From November 9 2023: Pre-order a discount copy of Seth’s edited collection: Sexual and Gender Difference in the British Navy, 1690-1900, Routledge, London. ISBN 9781032409900.

January 30, 2024: Catch his free online talk ‘Recovering the Queer History of Britain’s Navy in the Age of Sail’. From 5.15pm to 6.30pm, by Zoom only, from the National Maritime Museum, London, UK . There is no need to book. Just before 5.15pm on the day simply click. For more information please go to

Seth finds gender and sexual diversity on naval ships, and a surprising amount of tolerance for that diversity. The talk will ‘investigate sexual cultures at sea, discipline and military justice, including the 1698 trial of Captain Edward Rigby. See pic.

Seth will tackle some FAQs about GBT+ maritime history:

What is the queer history of the Royal Navy in the age of sail? 

How did seafaring men break their society’s rules about sex and gender? 

To what extent did men enter into same-sex relationships, how and why? 

‘Queer’ can mean non-conforming, especially in social relationships. So in what other ways did that these men also act in other ways that men ‘weren’t supposed to’? 

What were the consequences of their diversity?

How can we learn more about these seafarers’ lives?

Why is it so important to know about LGBT+ lives?

Learning more

Going deeper, sooner: get instant free online access to both lite and academic pieces in the writing section of his website

Going wider, in terms of periods and navies:  see my online timeline of Queer seafaring history in both Royal and Merchant navies in the UK, up to the present day:   (Please feel free to add to it. Doing history is a cumulative ongoing process and you can enrich it.)

Friday 29 September 2023

Seawomen of colour: Where were they and why not?

In 40 years of researching seafarers’ histories on UK ships I’ve found very few women of colour. Was this somehow my error in researching?  Surely it was not an accurate picture?

Wrong. Speaking to Fazilette Khan (pictured) one of the few trail-blazers of women’s maritime history in the 1980's for #BlackHistoryMonth, it seems that yes, women of colour were indeed rare.

 The best known are:

  •  Fazilette herself, who was a radio officer from 1984, then electro-technical officer and finally an Environmental Officer
  • Belinda Bennett,now a captain, who began training in 1990. (See my video interview with Belinda for Lloyd’s register Foundation’s Rewriting Women into Maritime History Project: ).  


Fazilette (born 1960) worked at sea for 30 years. She still knows the industry well, because she networks as she campaigns for a better maritime environment (see #GreenSeasTrust:

Can she remember any other brown or black women colleagues on cargo vessels and tankers, (where she was often the only woman anyway)? No, she realises.

However on passenger ships from the 2000s she increasingly found a few women of colour. They included

  •  pursers’ department officers from South Asia, such as  a captain’s secretary and accountancy workers
  • tours department onboard staff who knew the countries being visited, such as Caribbean islands, or sold future cruises  
  •  housekeeping staff from the Philippines

The key question is how was the imbalance achieved? Did women of colour not apply, perhaps assuming they’d be blocked anyway? Or did schools and colleges fail to suggest such careers? Or did women train, but fall away after negative early sea experiences?


What about Fazilette’s own experiences of racism on board? She finds ‘I often can’t see whether the hostility was racism or sexism. It’s hard to tell the dividing line. You’re just getting negativity and you’ve got to deal with it.’ 

She was born and grew up in the UK. Her dad was a seafarer. Her mother Haida Khan was a renowned poet. Both supported her 'unusual' wish to go to sea

During her training at the Merchant Navy College in Greenhithe she was one of 3 women among 300 men on her course. ‘You learn to toughen up. You fight your corner.’ 

The hostility at that point was about gender. ‘After a while, it became water off a duck's back. Thinking back, it was probably quite character-building!’ The other two women were white, as were 98 per cent of the students. A few foreign male students from the Bahamas, Middle East were on short courses. 

Women at sea take care of all aspects of their personas so that they don’t get extra-victimized. Fazilette had thought ‘”Fazilette” sounded quite sweet - a bit of a pushover. But “Bobby” has a feisty resonance about it! It was actually my pet name since I was a kid. So on the tankers etc I was “Bobby”. And on the cruise ships I was “Fazilette”.’

She enjoyed the life, mainly. But on a tanker very early in her career she had a bad feeling even as she walked up the gangway: the only woman.  Men expressed hostility verbally and informally, mainly in off-duty moments. She identifies the slurs that she encountered as racial rather than gendered. 

But she was determined to carry on with her career. After all her years on investing in training she would not let a minority of bigots drive her out of the profession she had worked so hard for. 

Fed up with their constant goading, Fazilette decided to tackle the situation head-on. She used the analogy of the Klu Klux Klan's practice of hooded men burning crosses as they persecuted black victims to death in the US. 

As she stepped into the onboard bar one night in Rotterdam she challenged them from the threshold: ’Listen! Are you going to burn the crosses tonight? Or can I come in and sit in peace?’ 

They were quite taken aback, she recalls. ‘I don't know whether this was because I was no longer prepared to take it on the chin, or the fact that I was comparing their attitudes with such a prejudiced organisation. Either way, it worked!’

Her shipmates hadn’t realised that their so-called ‘banter’ was having a huge negative effect on her. Her challenge led to the racists backing off. Men even increasingly isolated the ring leader for his hostility too.

She tackled gender and race matters sassily. On a couple of documents that asked about her complexion she wrote ‘permanently tanned.’ 

One time, to halt a resentful but superstitious officer who was trying to make her life a misery, she made a BluTack voodoo doll in front of him. Quickly ‘he was cowering under the settee vowing to never bother me again. Sometimes having a thick skin and a smile like the Mona Lisa just isn’t enough!’

Fortunately Fazilette encountered many fair-minded shipmates over the years, who urged ‘give the girl a chance.’ (She was one of the pioneer non-Marconi operators, changing shipboard radio culture, which meant she faced discrimination on those grounds too.)

These days she’s seeking publication for an expanded version of the salty sailor articles she wrote for maritime magazine TradeWinds  in the 1990s.  

Learn more

  • her memorabilia are on display at Merseyside Maritime Museum’s ‘Life on Board.’ (pictured). Her artefacts are in the archive.
  •  See also 
  •  The National Maritime Museum’s Making Waves online exhibition features Fazilette’s story  as a campaigner against maritime pollution:


So what’s to be done about women facing racism on ships today? Many maritime professionals are working on diversity, equity and inclusion. See Maersk event this year (pictured), for example.

Fazilette thinks women need to assert themselves too. ‘Nowadays we are led to believe that our managers have the authority to deal with any and all problems. The reality is, it is simply not true.’

 As bigotry will continue, she advises women to do as she did and challenge the perpetrators. 'Don’t just complain to HR, who may not be effective enough. Deal direct with the men – even captains – who don’t play fair.’ She’s done so, and been surprised at how oppressors have backed down. Respect can indeed come.  

The off-the-record stories she’s told me show how much the tables can be turned by a brave challenger. But to my mind, systemic united team efforts, education, a changed culture, and enforced policies really help too.

I look forward to other women of colour getting in touch and telling me about life at sea for them before DEI policies began and sea women were even more isolated.

Friday 15 September 2023

Rainbow Seas in Maritime Museums: group summary

There's no doubt about it. Most maritime museums  could do with representing aspects of seafaring life that have hitherto been marginalised. That includes the ways LGBT+ seafarers used voyages as a exceptional opportunities to explore new identities and relationships. 

On some ships you could go beyond heteronormatvity. However, it took a while before seafarers could be seen brandishing rainbow flags at Pride (see above). Now there's modern visibility and inclusion, but the history is still under-visible. 

Since 2005 a number of museums in Euope, and two in Canada have put on special temporary exhibitions focused entirely on gay life at sea. See the main images of Victoria, BC, exhibition, right.) 

Other museums arrange events for LGBT+ History Month every February.

Curators and community outreach staff who work in this area are often trailblazers. They seek hard-to-find artefacts, struggle to be diplomatic, and sometimes face homophobic responses by visitors. 

Having experienced and supportive mates helps. Friendly peers share advice, explore, get inspired by others' ideas and endlessly seek to do better. 

The Rainbow Seas in Maritime Museums group has shared expertise remotely zoom for nearly two years. This blog is my attempt, as chair, to summarise it as I see it. And I do so in the hope that others with join in.

Describing a group that is evolving all the time is not easy. But these common FAQ's will help put you in the picture.

1.What does it do? Works informally via 90-minute meetings over Zoom to ensure the diverse history of LGBT+ life on ships and in ports is better represented in museums.

2. Who's in it? A small group of people in Europe, but with speakers from other time zones when possible.  Members are employed by museums, or work with them as expert consultants or interns. Some identify as queer, and some are queer allies. 

3. When do you meet?  About every two months over Zoom, usually on a Friday  morning (agreed at the previous meeting). The meetings are recorded so if you miss one you can still see the video of what happened, and make comments etc by email afterwards.

4. What happens in a typical meeting?  We check in briefly with news about what we are doing. Then the agreed speaker describes their current exhibition work (for example in Bergen 2023, see main image, left.) Or the guest speaker contributes for 30 mins on  a particular area. About 20 mins  chat follows, which usually involves a lot of sharing and recommending. 

5, How are meetings recorded? On the agreed platform, e.g. Teams. We do so because we see ourselves as creating something useful we can offer to the future.  

Sometimes I write a reflective diary,. I hope others do too. I circulate mine by email but am not sure anyone reads it!

6. What has the group done?  In 2022, when we began, three members were putting on displays about queer seafarers. Two others had already done so. 

Veterans offered a hand to the newcomers: this was both formal and informal consultancy. A key question was ‘How do we get hold of evidence?’ The answer: 'By appealing to older seafarers to come forward with artefacts and oral testimony and see themselves educators of newcomers.' 

Community participation is seen as invaluable. (Pictured, former steward Charles Traa and friend in foreign port. Charles was proud to help Amsterdam's National Maritime Museum by sharing his photo albums and being videod.)

7. Who are your guest speakers?  Sometimes we invite in speakers from the maritime industry today. That way, historical displays can be made relevant to present times and the future.  

8. What’s next?  It’s hard to know. It seems likely that some members will fall away because, having put on a exhibition focused on gay life, they now have to move on to mounting their next exhibition. It’s likely that they will be less frequent partiicipants, there in spirit but not in person. 

I certainly hope that people working with other maritime museums keen to represent the subject will join in. A dynamic organisation will be shaped by newcomers and new moves, such as rainbow capitalism. 

9. What future speakers do you have lined up? Professor Seth Stein LeJaq will speak at our next meeting, about using early Royal Navy archives. Our group members are always keen to work with local LGBT+ organisations including archives and universities. Luckily most museums offer talks programmes now, and even podcasts,  which continue to expand the positive effects of an exhibition long after it's over.   

And it seems possible that we may work with people in ports about queer seafarers’ use of ‘cottages’, gay brothels, Turkish baths, Seamen’s Homes. 

Antwerp, Australia and the Far East seem to be emerging as possible partners. We will be drawing in historians of queer life who are not necessarily interested in seafarers. Together we can make connections.

10. What are the side benefits of joining this peer support group with all its potential to help research? 

  • maritime museums are supported in being more inclusive (and thereby attracting new audiences)
  • museum workers don’t 'reinvent wheels'. It’s likely that increased international agency and consultancy will evolve
  •  there’s a domino effect: other museums will consider what they can do, even of it’s only expand their archives, not put on a whole exhibition.

11. How to join? Contact me by email in the first instance. Then I will put you on mailing list. 

Reading more 

Start here. For an introduction and recommeded reading see the LGBT+ Sea page on my website:

To read the latest on gay sea exhibitions see my articles:
  • 'Rainbow Seas Swelling:', Lloyd's Register Foundation Heritage and Education Centre, 20 June 2022, 
  • 'Museum musings: a cultural update from the world's maritime museums', Nautilus Telegraph,  26 August 2022,

Filmed talks by me. 
2023. “Revealing queer maritime history: international museums’ LGBT+ sea exhibitions,” Blaydes Maritime Centre webinar, University of Hull, May 2023.
2023. “Entertaining 4 Sanity@sea: Hull's glitzy ship’s steward Roy ‘Wendy’ Gibson and the history of shipboard entertainment,“ University of Hull, Blaydes Maritime Centre webinar, Feb 2023.
2023. “A Whirlwind Tour of a Jigsaw 1600-2020. 400 packed years of LGBTQI+ maritime history, “ Maritime UK, Pride in Diversity network webinar.
2008.  Homotopia. “Hello Sailor,” filmed interview with me touring an interviewer round the Merseyside Maritime Museum version of the Hello Sailor exhibition, 2008.

Sunday 27 August 2023

Pioneering trans ex-Wren dies: Mark Rees WRNS

Trans rights advocate and author Mark Rees, who died 26 July, was the second former Wren  (member of the Women's Royal Naval Service) to transition.* The funeral was 23 August.

Mark used the pronoun 'he' later. He was first trans person to take a case to the European Court of Human Rights. While not successful in 1987, his campaigning in Press for Change had a major impact for decades.

Christine Burns, trans actvist, was the first to make the announcement on social media. She's interviewed Mark too.
# hear her very moving interview at 
# see chapter 7 of her book Trans Britain. 


Mark (1942-23) was known for activism much later, not for being a 'lady Tar'. He was a WRNS driver 1962-64: a 'Motor Transport Wren'. **

I tried to interview him, for my book, Women in the Royal Navy, and then for an article on Trans seafarers. He never replied to my correspondence. I respected his choice - but regretted it. 

His dad Hubert Rees, known as William, was a merchant seaman who became an officer. Mark wanted to go to sea too. But women in the WRNS were not allowed to do so in until 1990. It appears that he didn't consider joining the MN.

Mark's career as a Wren included being interviewed aboard Captain Scott's Discovery at the Embankment; trained at Burghfield, then at RNAS Culdrose, Cornwall; and later drafted to HMS Excellent in Portsmouth. 

Mark was treated as a 'homosexual' when in the WRNS. At the time it was a homophobic organisation. The word 'trans' was barely used.

'I explained that it was my lack of femininity which posed more problems than my supposed sexuality,' Mark said in his autobiography (p56). 'Because of the lack of information, I regarded myself as some kind of "deviant" lesbian. I couldn't find another label.'

The Navy was far from understanding about diversity at that point. And some WRNS friends and officers were troubling too. But he was helped to a degree by:

# Ken, the RNAS Culdrose chaplain, with whom he remained in touch for 40 years

# the Senior Medical Officer at Culdrose, who nevertheleess 'was unable to offer any other hope regarding a "sex change". "No doctor would do that; he would regard it as a mutilation" .  The doctor was obviously unware there had been two female-to-male changes in the 1940s UK.

# a kind psychiatrist at the Portsmouth naval barracks who wanted Mark to do psychoanalysis twice a week for two years. 'I couldn't understand what the point of it all was. They'd not succeed in making me feminine unless they gave me a brain transplant.'

# warmly supportive WRNS Second Officer Nancy Thomson 'was probably of more help than the psychiatrist . I remain indebted to her.' (Nancy went on to become Deputy Director of the WRNS in 1977, active in WRNS Benevolent Trust, and was always renowned for humanity).

# Netley Military Psychiatric Hospital, who labelled Mark 'homosexual' and recommended a medical discharge as 'I was never going to settle in the service ... [so] it was almost a relief.' 

He transitioned in 1971 and published his memoir, "Dear Sir or Madam" (Cassell) in 1996. The WRNS bit is on pp50-67.

Other Wrens and diversity

*The first known Wren to transition was Stephen Davis, in 1961. Born in 1936 in rural County Durham. On marriage to a navy artificer this Wren found they could no longer pretend all was well in terms of identity. They and their husband split up. Stephen re-joined the WRNS, left again, and later transitioned F to M in the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle upon Tyne. Later they worked as a market clerk and planned to marry their cis girlfriend. No more is known.

**  Other path-breaking 'Motor Transport Wrens' were the famous lesbian WW2 Wren Nancy Spain. (top pic). Later a broadcaster, Nancy(1917-64)  was never formally out. 

Her partner was another Wren driver, publisher Joan Werner Laurie 1920-1964.  (Middle pic) For a time Nancy and Joan had a triangular arrangement with racing driver Sheila Van Damm. (Lower pic). 

If only Mark could have met them back them. His 1960s would have been a little easier.

Friday 21 April 2023

How is Nelson’s daughter connected to seafarers‘ welfare? Dorothy Caulfield's progress


On this day she .... on Sunday April 26 1942 Dorothy Nelson-Ward, age 54, (pictured) died in a German air attack on Bath’s Regina Hotel (picture on right). 

In these reprisal raids for RAF bombings of Rostov and Lubeck 26 other guests died too, including Dorothy's sister Rachel Caulfield. The high fatality rate is thought to be because guests refused to use the hotel’s basement shelter

Dorothy matters because in 1933 she founded  the Watch Ashore, the support organisation for partners of merchant seafarers. It still thrives today.

How did the Watch Ashore come about, under the aegis of the former Dorothy Caulfield? After all, the elite Dubliner was not a merchant seafarer herself. Her husband, Admiral Philip Nelson-Ward was Royal Navy. And her titled late father had been an Assistant Principal Clerk in the Admiralty.

The answer is that a committed and enterprising visitor to her home told her stories that inspired her: William Harry Coombs (pictured): jovial, 4ft 10 inches tall, full of concern. 

Inspired, near Chichester

In 1928 Dorothy’s husband Philip Nelson-Ward, was involved in founding the Officers (Merchant Navy) Federation, and had become its president. He remained active in it. Sometimes Captain William Coombs, the leader, came to their home at Crocker Hill House, Boxgrove, West Sussex  (pictured) to talk business.

According to Coombs’ own history of the Watch Ashore, ‘The Honourable Mrs. Nelson-Ward was keenly interested in these discussions and often said to her husband that the wives and mothers of officers would be only too eager to help in the cause of reform ....

‘Why should there not be a definite association of womenfolk, relatives of Merchant Navy officers? So asked Mrs. Nelson-Ward.‘

Blooming in London then in branches nationwide

And so the Watch Ashore began in 1933. ‘Mrs. Nelson-Ward set out a sound, practical idea of a body that would not be a women’s club on the pattern of those already existing. 

‘It would be an organization for the specific purpose of its members getting to know each other and working for the same end: to stimulate public interest in all matters concerning the Merchant Navy and its officers, and to enlist public support for the reforms which were urgently necessary. ‘

The founders ‘set up a ... “ginger group”  which would involve itself in writing letters to Members of Parliament, getting publicity in the Press, trying to interest influential people in the pressing problems of the Merchant Navy.’

On 20th February, 1933 Dorothy convened the first meeting, at the Officers (Merchant Navy) Federation premises. The Rules agreed that they shall 'form a bond of mutual interest between the wives, mothers, sisters, daughters and others interested in the wellbeing of the Officer personnel of the Merchant Navy of the British Empire' and 'further and promote the objects of the Officers (MN) Federation'. 

Other women, such as Lady Headley, the wife of master mariner, took on the leading roles. The branches flourished.

There had been similar organisations before, including city mission-type bodies run by ladies who pitied the RN sailor figure, and the Royal Naval Wives’ Association which was run by wives of naval officers. But never before had Merchant Navy officers' wives united as part of the organised labour movement.

Two years later, in 1935, the ‘men’s federation’ had become the Navigators' and Engineering Officers' Union, the forerunner of today’s Nautilus International. William Coombs became its General Secretary and possibly the Nelson-Wards were at a launch event.

(Pictured the Royal Arcade, Newcastle, offices of the union, which Watch Ahore members would have likely used for their 1940s meetings.)  

Irene, William’s wife, had become active in what was in effect the  union’s gendered auxiliary, the Watch Ashore. It seems that possibly she and Dorothy worked closely together, just as their husbands had done.

In 1937 Dorothy Nelson-Ward became a widow, living on at Crocker Hill House with her sister Rachel. The Watch Ashore had been going for just over nine years when the Luftwaffe bomb put an end to Dorothy’s life five years later. She is mentioned on Philip's memorial at Boxgrove, see picture below.

Irene Combs, the Watch Ashore’s vice-president and treasurer, kept on battling. In 1956 she was honoured for services to the Merchant Navy. Dorothy had not been given a similar award.

The Nelson link

What’s the connection with Nelson?  Dorothy was the granddaughter-in-law of Horatia Nelson (pictured), Admiral Lord Nelson’s daughter by Emma, Lady Hamilton. Horatia begat Philip, who later fathered the Philip whom Dorothy married. 

Dorothy did not meet Horatia (1801-1881), who died a year before Dorothy was born in 1882.  But Dorothy lived with Elizabeth Horatia Somerset, Philip Nelson-Ward’s sister, in Portsmouth. 

Finding out more

Anyone wishing to learn more about the Watch Ashore can find its archives at Hull archives. See 

The Watch Ashore can be visited via: