THE STORY of a pioneering woman who helped create the Women’s Royal Naval Service in the First World War is told in her own words at a new exhibition.
Helen Beale cast aside social restrictions of gender and class to grasp the opportunities offered by the First World War, becoming the the first female officer of the WRNS through to her role decommissioning the service after the war to make space for returning servicemen.
Now her family letters, diaries and photos are being used to tell her story in the exhibition entitled Helen Beale – Never at Sea: Discovering the pioneering women who went to war, which is at her former family home Standen House, the Arts & Crafts house near East Grinstead.
“Pretty much unknown outside of Standen, Helen Beale has an inspiring story of her own,” says House Steward Victoria Witty.
“From working as a voluntary aid detachment nurse in France during the very early part of the First World War, she went on to form the basis of uniformed women in the Navy as one of the first Wrens. She was promoted rapidly through the ranks, ending up as the most senior woman at Devonport. Thanks to a generous donation by Helen’s family of her First World War letters, we have an unprecedented opportunity to tell her story in her own voice.”
The exhibition tells the story of both the public and the more private aspects of Helen’s journey. As well as showing the pride Helen had for her war work, her letters provide a personal insight into society’s hostility to women in uniform and the challenges that the Wrens of the First World War had to overcome.
The team behind the exhibition at Standen have worked closely with the Association of Wrens and Women of the WRNS, including capturing the experiences of retired Wrens and current serving Royal Naval officers on film. They bring to life the achievements of trailblazers such as Helen and the impact on the role of women in the Royal Navy today.
Lieutenant Commander Jane Pitzii, who is currently serving in the Royal Navy, explains. “These women were pioneers. They were showing the Royal Navy that women could tread a path and actually make a difference, against all the odds and against the opinion of the general public as well as, quite often, their own families.”
Standen House was primarily a family home owned by the Beale family, one of a number of prominent non-conformist families from Birmingham who had prospered during the city’s manufacturing boom and dominated the social and business life of the city. With business at Beale & Co thriving, James Beale decided he would like to build a house in the countryside as a retreat for holidays, weekends, and – eventually – retirement. Through their wealthy neighbours in Holland Park, the Beales were introduced to the work of Philip Webb, an architect and leading figure in the Arts and Crafts movement, and the design of the house, hidden at the end of a quiet lane with breath-taking views over the High Weald and Weir Wood Reservoir, is a monument to the combined genius of the architect and his friend, the textile designer William Morris.
Above: A First World War WRNS recruiting poster/© Imperial War Museum
Above: Helen Beale in WRNS uniform/© National Trust
Below: Helen Beale (seated, centre) in WRNS uniform/© National Trust
Above: A letter from Helen Beale forms part of the exhibition/© National Trust
Below: A letter from Helen’s mother Margaret to her daughter/© National Trust
Helen Beale (1885-1972) was the youngest of the seven Beale children. After her time with the WRNS, Helen served as vice-chairman of the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, and when she died in 1972, she bequeathed Standen House and Garden to the National Trust.
The exhibition is timed to commemorate the centenaries of the end of the First World War as well as that of women gaining the vote, forming part of the National Trust’s 2018 Woman and Power programming shining a light on women’s histories to celebrate the anniversary of female suffrage in 2018. It explores the link between these through Helen Beale’s experiences, and the enfranchisement of women that was in part a consequence of women’s war work.
Helen Beale – Never at Sea: Discovering the pioneering women who went to war is at Standen House, Wet Loathly Road, East Grinstead, from April 28 until November 11. Phone 01342 323029 or visit nationaltrust.org.uk/standen-house-and-garden/features/exhibition-helen-beale-never-at-sea.