Furse, Katharine (1875–1952)

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Furse, Katharine (1875–1952)

English pioneer who was the first commandant of the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS). Name variations: Dame Katharine Furse. Born Katharine Symonds in 1875; died in 1952; fourth daughter of John Addington Symonds; educated privately; married C.W. Furse, in 1900.

The fourth daughter of English scholar John Addington Symonds, Katharine Furse grew up in Davos, Switzerland, and in 1900, at age 25, married C.W. Furse. In 1909, she enrolled in the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), an offshoot of Florence Nightingale 's "Naval Nursing Service," started in 1885. With the outbreak of the First World War, Furse, who had risen to the post of commandant of the VAD, was tapped as the first commandant of the newly formed Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS), a special uniformed service for women, organized to provide shore support for the Royal Navy. Working with Tilla Wallace and Rachel Crowdy , Furse helped organized the WRNS from the ground up, drafting the terms of pay, allowance and regulation, and even designing the uniforms. The women chose to call themselves "Wrens" in hope of warding off any objectionable nicknames. Following approval from King George V, the service began recruitment in November 1917. At that time Furse was appointed director and was also awarded a GBE for her outstanding work.

Response to the WRNS was overwhelming, and accommodations had to be expanded to handle all the applicants. At first, the Wrens primarily provided clerical and domestic support for naval officers, but as more men were sent abroad, the women took over more substantial jobs as telegraphers, signalers, designers, and coders. Soon they were involved in every aspect of onshore naval work, including preparing the blueprints for weapons, priming depth charges, and constructing submarine nets. By 1918, Wrens were stationed throughout the country, and in Malta, Gibraltar, Geneva, and Bizerta. At the end of the war, the service was disbanded, but when World War II seemed inevitable, the group reorganized. By that time, however, Furse had moved on to work with the Girl Guides.

Crowdy, Rachel (1884–1964)

English social reformer. Name variations: Dame Rachel Eleanor Crowdy. Born in 1884; died in 1964; educated at Hyde Park New College, London; trained as nurse at Guy's Hospital, 1908.

Rachel Crowdy joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) in 1911. From 1912 to 1914, she was a lecturer and demonstrator at the National Health Society, then worked with Katharine Furse to establish the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) during the First World War. Crowdy was awarded the DBE in 1919, the same year she was appointed chief of Social Questions and Opium Traffic Section at the League of Nations. In 1920–21, she was stationed with the International Typhus Commission in Poland, then pursued social work in many nations from 1931 to 1939. From 1939 to 1946, Crowdy was regions' advisor to the Ministry of Information.

As in 1917, women answered the call in record numbers, and by 1939 there were over 3,000 Wrens. The number grew to 74,620 by 1944, when Vera Laughton Mathews , a former WRNS officer and pioneer of the Sea Rangers branch of the Girl Guides, was appointed director. During World War II, the Wrens became involved in even more complex jobs, including some very dangerous ones, like driving bomb disposal experts close to UXBs and working with flammable hydrogen balloons. Although the women became an irreplaceable part of operations, they remained a separate entity from the Royal Naval Service and were unable to carry out crucial maneuvers or give orders. As the shortage of manpower grew, however, Wrens became more active at sea, sailing on troop ships as cypher officers and coders, often for months at a time.

At the end of the war, the government retained the WRNS as a permanent but still separate part of the Royal Navy. The service is represented all over the world, with Wrens serving with the Royal Marines in Northern Ireland and in research expeditions and military training units. In 1989, M.H. Fletcher, a former director of the WRNS, chronicled the history of the service in The WRNS: A History of the Women's Royal Naval Service.


Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

This England. Winter 1989, p. 75.