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Remembering our wartime Wrens

Gail Armstrong with Marjorie Skelsey's hat and the wreath she laid at Blyth cenotaph.
Gail Armstrong with Marjorie Skelsey's hat and the wreath she laid at Blyth cenotaph.

Blyth’s long and notable history with the Royal Navy is perhaps highlighted in the fact that one of Her Majesty’s ships bears the town’s name.

Throughout two world wars, the port played a vital part in submarine operations and earlier this month one of those submarines, HMS Narwal, missing since 1940, is believed to have been found the North Sea by Polish divers, 140 miles off the east coast of Scotland.

Marjorie Skelsey, a Petty Officer Wren from Blyth, stationed at HMS Elfin.

Marjorie Skelsey, a Petty Officer Wren from Blyth, stationed at HMS Elfin.

However, the work of the members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) who were stationed in the town hardly ever gets a mention.

But now a former Wren is hoping to change all that.

Gail Armstrong, a Lancashire lass now living in Blyth, has set herself a mission in this the year of the Royal Navy and the centenary of the Women’s Royal Naval Service, to gather as much information as she can about the forgotten girls of Blyth.

“I knew a little about the role of the WRNS in Blyth during the wars but was surprised that there was very little written down about them or many photographs of them around,” she said.

“I think that all the girls that served at Blyth will have probably passed away by now but I hope that families with memories of their loved ones that served at Blyth will come forward to help my project to get the forgotten girls of Blyth remembered.

“I have managed to contact a few relations through the WRNS association, my own personal research and social media. I have copies of some wonderful photographs but I think that there are more and more stories out there just waiting to be recorded.”

Gail’s search for information began after she was asked to lay a wreath at this year’s remembrance service at the Ridley Park cenotaph in Blyth.

Blyth’s submarine base during both wars was known as HMS Elfin and of course the town’s submarine memorial on Elfin Way, near St Mary’s Church, is symbolic of the town’s attachment to the submarine service.

Gail believes that the majority of the Wrens stationed at Blyth would have been involved in administration work or acted as stewards in the officers’ mess, but some were also involved in some engineering on the base.

None were based on submarines as in those days women were not allowed to serve in an active role.

It is known that the WRNS produced a newspaper, Elfin Echoes, which was circulated around the base and submarine crews; at least one copy is in the Imperial War Museum.

Gail said: “While people are looking for their Christmas decorations in the loft they may come across some memorabilia if one of their family was associated with the WRNS. That would be a wonderful find.”

It is known that some of the girls from Blyth who were stationed in their home town during the Second World War lived at home while serving at HMS Elfin, like sisters Marjorie and Jean Skelsey, who lived in the avenues, and Ella Henderson, from Twentieth Avenue, who was often walked home by an officer from the base.

There was also Dora Duffell, from Cowpen, and sisters Elsie and Ethel Evans and Doreen Sanderson.

Gail feels sure that there are still untold stories out there about Wrens who were stationed in Blyth during both wars and she is keen for any family members who have information they would like to share to get in contact

with her at blythwrens@yahoo.com
She said: “I think it is important that we record the important work these girls did at HMS Elfin during the two world wars and once I have collated it, I hope it will find a permanent place to be displayed in the town.”