Centenary of Women’s Royal Naval Service marked at Ulster Museum

Liz Shanks, Patrica Shaw and Valerie Millington at HMS Caroline. Picture by Darren Kidd / Press Eye.
Liz Shanks, Patrica Shaw and Valerie Millington at HMS Caroline. Picture by Darren Kidd / Press Eye.

Co Down woman Patricia Shaw was the first of her family to take the plunge and join the Royal Navy, but now the extended Shaw family boasts a proud naval tradition.

Patricia, who served on HMS Caroline from 1955 to 1989, married a naval officer and named her daughter Caroline after the ship on which she served.

Patricia with her daughter Caroline at the HMS Caroline

Patricia with her daughter Caroline at the HMS Caroline

As fate would have it, Caroline married a naval officer, and Patricia’s son also joined the navy.

The 81-year-old from Holywood recalled fondly her days as a ‘wren’ in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS).

She explained how she signed up for the naval reserve in Northern Ireland: “I was a 19-year-old student at the time, not doing very much.

“I went down one evening and met a naval officer who was a friend of my mother’s at the gangway along with a wren recruiting officer and before I left that night I had signed up.”

Over the years Patricia progressed through the ranks to the position of senior wren officer for the UK reserves.

WRNS was formed in 1917 amid WWI, then re-established as war threatened again in 1939. It was disbanded in 1993 when women were able to serve in the Royal Navy.

While most wrens did not venture far from home, Patricia had the opportunity to enjoy both the home comforts on board HMS Caroline stationed in Belfast as well as frequent trips to check on her wrens throughout the UK and on training exercises in Gibraltar.

Patricia said the HMS Caroline was a “very safe place”, even during the Troubles: “The only thing was we weren’t allowed to wear uniforms to travel in which was very annoying because we’re all very proud of our uniform.

“There was good security in our compound. There was an IRA sniper who fired a bullet at the crow’s nest as it were, but that was the only damage she sustained.”

She said that is “more than the damage she got in the First World War when she was in the Battle of Jutland”.

Patricia said her most memorable moment as a wren was meeting her husband Terry Shaw, a surgeon captain: “He was senior medical officer in the reserves at the same time I was the senior wren officer in the reserves. So it was a family business in those days.”

Her husband died in 2005, with the pair having enjoyed 43 years of wedded bliss. They had three children together – Caroline, Stephen and Alison.

She said: “We always said that Caroline wasn’t named after HMS Caroline, but I think she probably was. She went on to marry a naval officer and is now back living in Holywood.

“The picture (above) was taken when I was going off on a weekend trip. Caroline, aged about five, had come down to see me off.”

She added: “Stephen was in the navy for three years and now runs a yachting business.

“Alison took a great interest in what I did, but she didn’t have any direct link.

“I don’t think any of my grandchildren will join the navy, but you never know.”

Of her time as a wren Patricia said: “I think it was a wonderful way to learn about the world and the people in it.

“The wrens aren’t still called the wrens sadly. They are female sailors now, but I think they’ll always be fondly remembered as wrens.

“There are many more opportunities for females at sea. They can go to sea now in any ship you care to think about, including submarines which I never expected.”

A lecture is taking place at the Ulster Museum on Tuesday, November 28 to mark the centenary of the Women’s Royal Naval Service.

Victoria Ingles, from the National Museum of the Royal Navy, will reveal stories of women’s involvement with the Navy, before the introduction of uniformed services, including the story of Hannah Snell who dressed as a man to be able to join in 1945.

The event takes place at the Ulster Museum between 1pm and 2pm and is free.

To book tickets contact ulstermuseumreception@nmni.com or call 028 9044 0000.