Helen Beale - Never at Sea

Discover the inspirational story of a woman who cast aside social restrictions of gender and class to grasp the opportunities offered by the First World War.


Standard admission fees apply £12 per adult £6 per child Members get in free


During the First World War Helen Beale played a pivotal role in the creation of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (W.R.N.S.) where she was a pioneer for the advancement of women in the modern British Navy. Using family letters, diaries and photos this exhibition tells the story of both the public and the more private aspects of Helen’s journey from becoming the first female officer of the W.R.N.S. through to her role decommissioning the service after the war to make space for returning servicemen. 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 been working closely with the Association of Wrens and Women of the Royal Naval Services (W.R.N.S) 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.

Currently serving in the Royal Navy, Lieutenant Commander Jane Pitzii 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’.

House Steward Victoria Witty explains ‘pretty much unknown outside of Standen, Helen Beale has an inspiring story of her own. From working as a V.A.D. 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 commemorates a double centenary: the end of the First World War and that of women gaining the vote. 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. It forms 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.

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