Matilda Talbot in the Wrens (1918-1919)

on Sunday, 19 June 2016. Posted in Matilda Talbot

Matilda Talbot's entry into the newly formed Women's Royal Naval Service, or simply the Wrens, would have surprised few, for it was entirely in keeping with her character. She was deeply patriotic, thoroughly modern in her outlook, and inspired by a line of illustrious women at Lacock Abbey.

 

Matilda WRENS uniform WSHC

Photograph (detail) of Matilda Talbot in Wrens uniform, circa 1918, probably at Cranwell, Lincolnshire. [1]

 

PART I - THE WRENS - INEXPERIENCE AND MIXED REACTIONS.

Independent from a young age, Matilda enjoyed the freedom of the Scottish countryside as a girl, while her excursions abroad as a young women enriched her outlook. Given the achievements of her mother, her Aunt Rosamond, the French governess at Lacock, Amélina Petit, as well as Ela, the first Abbess of Lacock, her naval appointment would not have seemed incongruent to her lineage. Matilda would have set out on her wartime mission as a Wrens officer, motivated and stirred by the message of Wrens Director Katharine Furse: "Let us, by our courtesy, sincerity of purpose and understanding of mutual differences, bind our Service together with a bond of Loyalty to our King and Empire." [3]

Matilda's inexperience did not discourage her from applying for the Wrens. As a child she had imagined herself one day serving as sailor, just like her godfather who had been an Admiral. Her dreams were shattered however when her mother explained to her that, "Little girls were not wanted for the Royal Navy, but only little boys". "I wept and was most bitterly disappointed", she recalls in her autobiography. [4] The longing for the Navy never left her and on hearing of the newly formed Wrens, she went to London to be interviewed. Fortunately for her, a childhood friend sitting on the selection board was ready to give her a leg up. Her application subsequently came with a high recommendation, propelling her to naval officer despite her limited experience. Earlier in World War I, Matilda had worked for L'Œuvre de la goutte de café which ran a canteen for convalescent soldiers near Paris, and then later at Bussang in the Vosges where troops went to the trenches or returned from them. Although commendable, these were hardly qualifications befitting a promotion to officer. Conscious of her inadequacies however, after a short while, she would wholly embrace the role, contributing greatly to the image of women in service. She was later promoted to Assistant Principal (equal to a Lieutenant), and then to a Principal and had just four women officers to help her manage over 200 ratings. [5]

Matilda WRENS Crystal Palace WSHC

Photograph featuring Matilda Talbot, possibly taken at Crystal Palace in early 1918 where she received officer training. [6]

 

Her training at Crystal Palace complete, she was posted to Royal Navy Air Service, Cranwell (Lincolnshire), a camp of several thousand men. Not everyone appreciated the idea of women in the Navy and circulating rumour would not have helped allay her apprehensions. In fact, she believed that Cranwell's Commander hated the very idea of the Wrens. In addition, comments from other women already on the camp were far from encouraging: "I wouldn't be in your shoes for anything", was Sister Marshall's remark to Matilda on arrival, who had been working as a nurse. [7] In her autobiography she recalls: "[The Commander] did not seem to be quite at ease with me, and I had a feeling that the influx of women into Cranwell was not going to be popular." [8] Two days after her arrival at Cranwell, Matilda received 30 women for training, know as ratings. While she judged the Commander's reaction a little hostile, receiving her with "cold civility" and looking "extremely gloomy", Lieutenant Catleugh was "most helpful and cheerful." [9]

 

Matilda WRENS officers WSHC

Photograph featuring officers and other ranks at Cranwell, cira 1918. Matida Talbot sits centre flanked by three of her Wrens Officers. Standing to the left of the photograph is Lieutenant J Harwood Catleugh, who welcomed Matilda warmly upon arrival at Cranwell. [10]

 

Despite the bleak outlook she kept upbeat, perhaps by the distant memories of her godfather and his successful Naval career: "When bedtime came, I felt both depressed and apprehensive. But there was a big anchor woven into the white coverlet on my bed, and this was a very consolatory emblem. It comforted so much that I didn't worry any more, but fell asleep quite happily." [11]

 

PART II - CHANGING TIMES AT CRANWELL.

Navy life got off to a bumpy start when she went to greet 30 ratings with no previous experience of Navy life. She expected them to arrive in uniform, so their civilian appearance gave Matilda quite a shock: "They tumbled out of the train dressed in all sorts of garments, of every kind and colour. One, I remember, had a brilliant rose pink satin blouse, and they chatted like starlings". The Commander agreed to provide them with more suitable attire and they were provided with "Thirty dark-blue munition overalls and caps to match [which] the girls quite liked." Matilda found the new recruits rather clueless about life in the armed services: "I found my ratings had never done any drill and therefore couldn't march to church, so they had to walk two and two like a crocodile at a girl's school." [12]

Their motto, 'Never at sea', translated into a number of non-combatant roles as the women were allotted into different categories: cooks, typists, clerks, domestic workers, etc. She explains that: "Some worked in the wireless section, some at 'deleting crashes,' which meant sorting out the usable parts from a crashed aeroplane." [13]

 

Matilda WRENS repair shop WSHC

Postcard of men and women in the Repair Workshop at Cranwell camp, Lincolnshire, circa 1918. [14]

 

The employment possibilities for these young women were to open up even further as men left the camp and women and their work diversified: "In every case they worked under the direction of petty officers, and I was not responsible for their work but only for their behaviour." [15]

 

Matilda WRENS Transport Section WSHC

Postcard of the Transport Section at Cranwell, Lincolnshire, circa 1918. [16]

 

Matilda's first 30 ratings came from families with fathers and grandfathers in the Navy and the women had, "a strong feeling for the honour of the Service." However, as more and men were called to serve abroad, so increased the number of Wrens. Later, women from a broader spectrum of society began to sign up for service in the Wrens. She recalls how, little by little, the Wrens took up almost all the jobs the men had previously done, to the extent that, women now even served in positions of high rank. She writes: "Soon we were asked to take over the transport yard, and I was lucky in that one of my three officers was a good driver." [17]

 

Matilda WRENS car WSHC

Matilda and her Wrens officers and ratings pose for a photograph in a car at Cranwell, circa 1918. [18]

 

The very last job to be taken was that of wine steward. A trusted position in which the holder would have likely been in close proximity to the Commander. Matilda notes, "We chose a girl who was smart and good looking but had so much natural dignity that it was impossible not to respect her." [19]

 

PART III - A MIXED CAMP: MATILDA'S INTUITION.

There was obviously clear concern for the arrival of these women into, what had been almost exclusively, a men’s camp. Matilda notes that barbed wire had been put round the women's huts which she had removed, believing the mere sight of it would be enough to make people want to climb over. [20]

 

Matilda WRENS quarters WSHC

Postcard of Wrens' quarters at Cranwell, circa 1918. [21]

 

What Maltida lacked in military experience, she made up for in pragmatism and a fierce maternal instinct to protect and educate her fledglings. Deeply apprehensive that the presence of so many young women at the camp might have regrettable results, she enlisted the help of some petty officers. In her autobiography she writes of her concerns: "It seemed so unnatural to have a bunch of about a hundred and fifty girls plumped down into a camp of several thousand men." [22]

 

Matilda WRENS Wrens mess WSHC

Postcard of Wrens' Mess at Cranwell, circa 1918. [23]

 

These petty officers, more mature men, some with daughters of the same age, were to be on the look out for any misconduct. "I knew they would be very sorry if any girl got into mischief through coming to Cranwell and I asked them to help me, as I couldn't be all over the camp at once, and anyhow hadn't got eyes in the back of my head." [24]

Matilda's model for military supervision worked well and these men gave a fatherly word to any girl, if they thought they needed it. They also reported back to Matilda on concerns for any of the Wrens.

 

PART IV - NAVY BLUES.

Despite Matilda's outward steadfastness and her commitment to her ratings, she was not immune to the pressures of those first weeks. When the numbers increased she wondered, "whether it was humanely possible to keep order", and admits losing courage. Of those lowest moments she concedes that her will to continue had become very feeble: "I knew it would be wrong to make an end of myself, but at moments, when rather inexperienced pilots were flying very low over the camp, I used to wish they would drop something heavy on me, so as to make an end of the position without my being responsible." [25]

Despite these testing times when her job seemed impossible and there still seemed to be a great number of things still to learn, her dogged determination did not go unnoticed. Indeed, the presence of female Naval officers and their ratings rapidly brought about a shift in sentiment towards women in the Navy. About a week after her arrival at Cranwell she received a supportive word from a most unlikely source: "I was crossing the camp when the Commander came by. He stopped and said: 'If you are in a difficulty about anything, come to me; that's what I'm here for.' I was very grateful, and thought how different he seemed from the man who had received me the day after my arrival. He did, in fact, become a very helpful friend." [26]

 

PART V - KEEPING UP MORALE.

Matilda tried to let the Wrens have as many interests as possible, wise to the fact that the more diversions and recreation they had, the less chance they had of falling into mischief. They played tennis and hockey, every week they practiced shooting on the rifle range, and they used the large swimming pool. There was also music and dancing in their own recreation room every evening. On top of that there was even an amateur dramatics club and a Pierrot troupe (a group of dancers and singers in costume). [27] This clever allocation of free time to physical and creative pursuits kept morale high and maintained good order and discipline in the camp. Matilda notes that with all the activities going on, "it seemed as though they would hardly have time to get into much mischief. They were first-rate good girls, and I shall always feel grateful to them." [28]

 

Matilda Wrens Rec room WSHC

Postcard of Wrens' in the Recreation Room at Cranwell, circa 1918. [29]

 

About a year after Matilda's arrival at Cranwell, she had a special request from the Wrens asking if they might give a dance and invite the men. Enthusiastic about their endeavour, she that she would try obtain the permission of the Commander, on the condition that it was done well: "They must have a proper committee, and see that the floor was good, the music and the refreshments right, the room decorated with flowers and so forth, so the dance should really be a credit to us. I told them I should not be on their committee, but would leave it entirely to them. Also that they should invite their own guests and see that the numbers balanced." [30] The Commander, taken aback by the suggestion, accepted their proposal on the condition that unless the dance was not "perfectly orderly", then it would not be allowed again. The Wrens returned their gratitude with a personal invitation to the Commander, which he queried with Matilda, declaring: "These women of yours have sent me an invitation to their dance; did you know they had, and am I supposed to go?" [31]

The Commander did honour the invitation, dropping by with Maltida about half an hour after the party had begun, with dancing in full swing. Those in attendance had been handpicked by the Wrens (Matilda notes that: "The invitations had been sent out with excellent discrimination"), [32] and their behaviour immediately impressed the Commander and Matilda. Pleased with the exemplary behaviour of her girls and the male guests, Matilda couldn't resist a friendly quip. When the Commander's inspection was duly complete, she asked him: "Wouldn't you be glad if your present officers could give as respectable a dance as this one?" [33] Her remark provoked a hearty laugh from the Commander and the blessing that the Wrens give a dance every month if they so desire.

 

PART VI - WELFARE: MATILDA'S MATERNAL SIDE.

The safety and protection of her girls was paramount for Matilda and ensuring that their behaviour was appropriate to that of Service personnel kept her constantly vigilant. On one occasion, the arrival of a new young female trainee at Cranwell with a wayward past gave rise to concern. In her autobiography Matilda writes a small passage about, "a certain Mary, [who] had evidently been a girl of loose life", [34] and who would speak candidly about her experiences to the other Wrens. The risk of having one trainee stir up passions in a camp where Matilda and just four women officers managing 200 Wrens, was potentially explosive. Although Matilda did not want Mary to leave the Service, mindful that a little yeast leavens the whole lump, she could not see how she could stay in a mixed camp. Matilda's decision to ask her leave was borne out of her motherly instinct to protect her girls from a potentially harmful and disruptive influence. A better solution to the problem however, presented itself when an older girl took Mary under her wing and had a positive influence. When Matilda left Cranwell she recalls that Mary was still in the Service working hard and steadily.

Reflecting on Matilda's dedication to the girls in terms of welfare, one cannot help but think of Ela, the first Abbess of Lacock Abbey. She too was a women of rank, once holding the title, High Sheriff of Wiltshire. Matilda imagined Ela as, a "woman of great public spirit" adding that, "it cannot be doubted that in addition to the training of women for the religious life, the Abbey was responsible for much good work." [35] Perhaps Matilda had this at the back of her mind while at Cranwell. Her concern for her girls often led her to go above and beyond the call of duty to help them out. In one case Matilda showed a gentleness and compassion when many at the camp were convalescing after a bout of Spanish flu. She managed to procure real bed sheets so that the ratings had a least some repose from the scratchy woolly of their military issue blankets. Matilda writes: "They deserved all the comfort they could have […] when I looked back to those early days when I had felt so anxious about the whole situation in camp, I could only marvel and feel deeply grateful for their loyalty and steadiness." [36] Matilda's and other Service women's devotion to the welfare of the Wrens mirrors what may have been the Abbess's and the canons' preoccupations hundreds of years previous at Lacock.

Matilda was still at Cranwell on Armistice Day (11th November 1918) and remembers it as both a time of celebration, but also a time when discipline was increasingly hard to enforce. In her words: "There was a feeling of tension being relaxed in every direction, and a certain risk of insubordination." [37] There was however, a realisation that not everybody would be released at once and as Christmas 1918 came and went, there was still work to be done at Cranwell.

 

PART VII - MATILDA’S ACCIDENT.

In February 1919, during particularly severe weather, Matilda was involved in a car crash when travelling to Grantham (Lincolnshire). She records the accident in her autobiography in which she and the other occupants were lucky to escape with their lives: "Our small car skidded on the ice, swung round, and might have gone over the side of the road on to the frozen fen below, if my chauffeur had not sensibly driven it straight into a pile of road metal." [38] A few days later, unable to get out of bed, she was sent down to the sick bay. What she had first thought to be rheumatism turned out to be a much more serious condition resulting from the jolt of the accident. She was diagnosed as suffering from extensive phlebitis (inflammation of the vein) in both legs. Forbidden to move out of bed, she spent over six long weeks in the sick bay. Despite her disability, she did return to work at Cranwell describing it "a joy to get back to our hut, and to live once more with my officers." [39] Despite her enthusiasm to return to her job, she found that physical handicap meant that she worked more slowly and so chose to stand down so that an officer she trusted could carry on her work.

 

Matilda WRENS wheelchair WSHC

Photograph of Matilda in an improvised wheelchair at Cranwell in 1919. [40]

 

PART VIII - RETURN TO CIVILIAN LIFE.

Attitudes to women working in the Services had certainly moved on since the frosty reception of Cranwell's Commander, who had received her with "cold civility". The W.R.N.S. was disbanded in 1919 and in total Matilda had spent just under a year at Cranwell. A letter to her from the Air Commodore illustrates just how highly appreciated the Wrens were. In it he explains that he was sorry to lose the Wrens because of their conscientious work and positive influence in the camp. He also remarked that they made the men think of their homes.

 

 Matilda WRENS 1919 WSHC

 Photograph of Matilda with some of her officers and ratings. Matilda appears to be in her improvised wheelchair dating the photo to 1919, the year of her car accident. [41]

 

Returning to Lacock in 1919, her life must have seemed a little flat after the highs and lows of her wartime role. Adjusting back to civilian life, in a house ill-adapted to someone wheelchair bound, would have caused her much frustration. There was also the return to all the responsibilities of being a landlady for the tenants of the village. On top of that, there was the cost and co-ordination of the upkeep of the Abbey, with limited financial means. The Abbey and village was eventually given to the National Trust in 1944 because it would have been impossible to continue to keep the Abbey and the village in proper repair. [42]

 

Matilda Wrens post accident WSHC

Two photographs in which Matilda appears post-accident in the back of military vehicle. In the photograph on the left, one of her officers looks on and silhouette of Matilda's improvised wheelchair may be just visible. The man in the photograph on the right has not been identified. Circa 1919. [43]

 

Although Matilda was struggling make ends meet at Lacock, this would not stand in the way of celebrating the return to peacetime. Generous in heart, Matilda decided that the village should have a party for all the tenants since neither her reclusive uncle, Charles Henry Talbot, nor her grandfather, William Henry Fox Talbot had held such a gathering. "We had a lovely day in late spring, and about two hundred guests sat down to tea at long tables in the cloisters." [44]

As the summer went on Matilda was able to shake off all the side-effects of her car accident and her adjustment to life at Lacock was complete. She writes: "As time went on, living at Lacock grew easier and easier, and I seemed to be finding out, what the house was meant to do." [45]

 

Author: William Goossens. M.A., B.A.(Hons), Volunteer researcher at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre.

 

FOOTNOTES

 

1 Matilda Talbot enrolled with the Wrens Service on 25 February 1918. ‘Service record of TALBOT, Matilda Theresa.’
2 WSA 2664/3/1F/15.
3 From a letter to be, 'Considered by each W.R.N.S Member as confidential and to be kept in her Pocket Book,' signed, 'Katherine Furse, Director, W.R.N.S. 1918'. Page 3 of 'The Wrens in WW1', a PDF available at Fleet Air Arm Museum.
4 Talbot, M. (1956) My Life and Lacock Abbey, page 197.
5 Idem, page 203.
6 WSA 2664/3/1F/15.
7 Talbot, M., page 199.
8 Idem.
9 Idem, page 200.
10 WSA 2664/3/1F/15.
11 Talbot, M., page 200.
12 Idem.
13 Idem, page 200 - 201.
14 WSA 2664/3/1F/15.
15 Talbot, M., page 201
16 WSA 2664/3/1F/15.
17 Talbot, M., page 203.
18 WSA 2664/3/1F/15.
19 Talbot, M., page 203 - 2014.
20 Idem, page 201.
21 WSA 2664/3/1F/15.
22 Talbot, M., page 202.
23 WSA 2664/3/1F/15.
24 Talbot, M., page 201.
25 Idem, page 202.
26 Idem.
27 Idem, page 203.
28 Idem.
29 WSA 2664/3/1F/15.
30 Talbot, M., page 203 - 204.
31 Idem, page 204.
32 Idem.
33 Idem, page 205.
34 Idem.
35 Idem, page 183.
36 Idem, page 207.
37 Idem.
38 Idem.
39 Idem, page 208.
40 WSA 2664/3/1F/15.
41 Idem.
42 Talbot, M., page 255.
43 WSA 2664/3/1F/15.
44 Idem, page 211.
45 Idem, page 214.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Service record of TALBOT, Matilda Theresa.’ http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C595289#imageViewerLink. Accessed 17th June 2016.

Material from Wiltshire and Swindon History Archive: WSA 2664/3/1F/15.

'The Wrens in WW1', a PDF available at Fleet Air Arm Museum. http://www.fleetairarm.com/womens-royal-navy-service-wrens-tpyf.aspx accessed 17th June 2016. Talbot, M. (1956) My Life and Lacock Abbey. London, George Allen and Unwin Ltd.

 

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