Exhibition: Helen Beale - Never at Sea

WRNS Poster

Taking inspiration from the WRNS motto “Never at Sea” this exhibition will use family letters and memories to draw visitors through the house at Standen to discover Helen Beale’s pioneering story in her own words. See the exhibition from Saturday 28 April to Sunday 11 Nov 2018.

Celebrating a double centenary in 2018: the end of the First World War and the Representation of the People Act 1918 which allowed some women to vote, this exhibition will bring to the fore the struggles both professionally and socially that these committed women faced in order to gain basic rights.

Who was Helen Beale?

The youngest daughter of Mr and Mrs Beale who had Standen built, Helen knew her own mind from a young age. She was independent, asking the architect of Standen, Philip Webb, to build her very own “little room” she could play in without her older brothers and sisters getting in the way.

With her sister Maggie she joined the East Grinstead branch of the Red Cross before the war, and shortly after the outbreak of war went out to France to nurse as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse at the huge hospital camp at Etaples.

After serving 13 months in France, she returned to England due to Mrs Beale’s ill health. Feeling constrained by the VAD role in this country after the excitements of “active service” she began to look around for another opening for her talents.

Helen Beale in uniform
Standen Helen Beale in uniform
Helen Beale in uniform

“Free a man for the Front”

By 1917 the war was demanding more and more men to fight, but many remained in reserved occupations, exempting them from service at the Front. The solution, which did not please everyone, was to get women into occupations traditionally done by men. Women worked in munitions factories, and were able to join the armed forces under allied organisations – first the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) and then the Women’s Royal Naval Reserve (WRNS, which quickly became the Wrens).

Letter from 1918 showing Helen Beale's right to vote
Helen Beale right to vote letter
Letter from 1918 showing Helen Beale's right to vote

Helen was able to join the WRNS through the recommendation of a family friend, probably following the lead of Dame Katharine Furse. Furse had run the VADs but left because of constraints she found in the organisation. The Navy offered her the chance to set up the new women’s service and many of her former VADs followed her.

" I think 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."
- Lieutenant Commander Jane Pitzii

Women and war

The First World War transformed the lives of women as much as the men who fought. For the first time they served in the armed forces and worked in men’s occupations which ultimately lead to them getting the vote. 

Helen Beale was at the forefront of this change. She joined the newly formed WRNS and was instrumental in setting up the organisation that became known to most people as the Wrens.

See the exhibition from Saturday 28 April to Sunday 11 Nov 2018.