Mathews, Vera Laughton (1888–1959)

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Mathews, Vera Laughton (1888–1959)

British military officer who served as director of the British Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) during World War II . Name variations: Vera Laughton. Born Vera Elvira Sibyl Maria Laughton in London, England, on September 25, 1888; died in London on September 25, 1959; daughter of Sir John Knox Laughton and Maria Josefa di Alberti Laughton; attended the Convent of St. Andrew at Streatham and was also educated in Tournai, Belgium; attended King's College, London; married Gordon Dewar Mathews, in 1924; children: one daughter; two sons.

Served in WRNS (1917–19) and was recalled as its director on the eve of World War II; created a Commander of the British Empire (CBE, 1942); created a Dame of the British Empire (DBE, 1945); retired from WRNS (1946).

Vera Laughton Mathews, the future director of the British Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS), was born in 1888, the daughter of Sir John Knox Laughton, R.N., a highly respected naval historian, and Maria di Alberti Laughton , who was from Cadiz, Spain. Vera received an excellent education, first at the Convent of St. Andrew at Streatham, then in Tournai, Belgium, and finally at King's College, London. In 1917, determined to make a contribution to the war effort, she volunteered for service on the same day that the WRNS was created. Selected for the first officers' training course, she was placed in charge of a training depot at London's Crystal Palace, "H.M.S. Victory VI." Here her leadership talents came to the fore, and within six months Mathews had reached the rank of lieutenant commander and was in charge of a unit of 250 women. After the war, she was awarded an MBE for her achievements.

With victory, the WRNS was demobilized in 1919. Retaining close ties to her wartime colleagues and friends, Mathews was instrumental in forming an Old Comrades Association and served as editor of the organization's journal, The Wren, for many years. She also worked as a journalist, writing primarily for The Ladies' Field and Time and Tide. In her free time, Vera was active in the Girl Guide movement and helped to organize the London section of its newly formed Sea Ranger branch. After her 1924 marriage to the engineer Gordon Dewar Mathews, with whom she had two sons and a daughter, she lived for a number of years in Japan. While there, she remained active in the Girl Guide movement, serving as the organization's international commissioner for Japan. Following her return to London, Mathews served for almost a decade as Girl Guide division commissioner for one of the city's poorest areas.

Deciding that war was imminent, in early 1939 the British Admiralty made plans to revive a women's auxiliary service within the Royal Navy. In February of that year, Mathews was appointed director of the skeleton organization that would soon be the WRNS. By the time war with Germany was declared on September 3, 1939, considerable progress had already been made to create the new organization. Displaying immense confidence in the WRNS, Mathews declared: "Whatever the Navy demands of the Wrens shall be fulfilled." With few exceptions, this pledge would be kept, thanks to her efforts, abilities, and insistence that, both for and by the WRNS, only the best was good enough.

Mathews gained the affection of WRNS officers and enlisted women alike, at least in part because her remarkable memory enabled her to recognize every one of her officers at sight. Good judgment helped her more often than not to pick the best people for the jobs at hand, and she charmed the great majority of her officers into performing above and beyond the required limits of their responsibilities. A large woman physically, Mathews had a deep musical voice and cheerful laugh which reflected an essentially kindly, generous nature. Such traits allowed her to win over virtual strangers. She also relied on human psychology, once commenting, "It's difficult to recruit stewards to clean rooms, but put them in dungarees to swab a deck, call them 'Maintenance' and there's a queue."

In 1942, when the outcome of the world conflict was by no means certain, Mathews was honored by being appointed CBE, a Commander of the British Empire. For her work in connection with staff training for MARVA (the Free Dutch equivalent of the WRNS), she would receive the Cross of Orange Nassau from the Dutch Government-in-Exile. Mathews was unique among the directors of Britain's three women's services during World War II because she remained in her post from the very start to the end of the conflict. In 1945, she was created a Dame of the British Empire. In November 1946, having received the welcome news that the WRNS would continue as a permanent service, Dame Vera retired from her post. Over 100,000 women had served under her leadership as Wrens during the war.

After her retirement, Mathews continued to be active in various organizations, including the Gas Council, the Domestic Coal Consumers' Council (which she chaired), and the South Eastern Gas Board. Particularly concerned about the deterioration of the urban environment, she served for a number of years as president of the Smoke Abatement Society. Dame Vera Mathews died in London on her 71st birthday, September 25, 1959. Her life and accomplishments have been memorialized in an alcove in the north aisle of Westminster Cathedral in which St. Christopher is seen holding a boat with a wren perched on an anchor. A portrait of Mathews is displayed at London's Imperial War Museum, and a copy of the portrait also hangs in a place of honor at the WRNS establishment at Burghfield, Reading.


"Dame Vera Laughton Mathews, D.B.E.," in The Times [London]. September 28, 1959.

Hartley, Jenny, ed. Hearts Undefeated: Women's Writing of the Second World War. London: Virago Press, 1995.

Mathews, Vera Laughton. Blue Tapestry. London: Hollis & Carter, 1948.

Palmer, J.M. "Mathews, Dame Vera (Elvira Sibyl Maria) Laughton (1888–1959)," in E.T. Williams and Helen M. Palmer, eds., The Dictionary of National Biography, 1951–1960. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 716–717.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia