East Grinstead; Daughter Of The Weald
East Grinstead has historically adapted and changed resulting in a town still prosperous and vibrant today. Ruth Lawrence outlines its rich history and all about one if its pioneering residents, Helen Beale
To walk through East Grinstead High Street is to sense a thousand years of history layered in its ancient buildings; the town was laid out by a descendent of a French nobleman who came over in 1066 with William, Duke of Normandy. East Grinstead’s wealth was built on livestock, the leather trade and timber from the Ashdown Forest and later, the thriving coaching business which flourished due to the town’s strategic location between town and coast. When the railway opened between London and the South coast, the town was bypassed but local businessmen and landowners brought about a branch line to Three Bridges and the town prospered once again.
After WWII the population expanded rapidly once new homes were built to replace housing stock bombed during the conflict and now around twenty- seven thousand people call the town home.East Grinstead Museum was moved to custom built premises in the historic heart of town in 2006 and houses over twenty thousand items interpreting the town’s heritage, its people, buildings, trades and institutions. Currently, a taster display of a larger exhibition at nearby Standen outlines the life of Helen Beale who became the first female officer in the WRNS during the First World War. In 1916, the Army created the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps to free up men from non combat roles and a year later the Navy followed by creating the WRNS, soon known as The Wrens. Helen, whose parents had built Standen, was working as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse in London, Sussex and France and had family connections in the Navy and a friend, Sir Alan Garrett Anderson was Admiralty Controller. Helen wrote to him, asking, “I am terribly interested in this new scheme for women to do work for the Navy… I am making bold to ask you about it!” Her initiative paid off and after mandatory officer training she was appointed as an Assistant Principal, based at Dover.
Helen quickly found that integrating women already working for the Navy into the Wrens could be challenging as many did not want to become officers because of negative public attitudes towards women in uniform. Helen wrote in a letter, “the wretched girls already working in the offices don’t want to join and yet one can’t say they must at present because there is nobody to put in their place.” At that time, uniformed women were considered a threat to conventional roles of wife and mother but Helen had little time for outdated attitudes and wrote, “things must change in the fourth year of a war like this.” She was irritated by the “horrid tiresome rules about uniforms too, which annoy us considerably,” but she soon became promoted to Deputy Principal, which prompted her humorous aside, “the really amusing part of it is being called ‘Ma’am’ in proper style.”
Roles for Wrens were initially domestic and secretarial but soon included drivers, wireless telegraphists, radar plotters, weapons analysts, range assessors, electricians and air mechanics; opportunities were opening up and Helen was again promoted to Divisional Director at Devonport, a large Naval port just outside Plymouth. She wrote apprehensively, “it is going to be rather a ticklish job to take over this other place as head of the district,” but she persevered and found herself having to dismantle the service once the war was over. Men who had returned from war were being trained to do the jobs the women had done and they received double the pay of their female counterparts. Women in the Armed Forces were the targets of hostility as they were perceived to be occupying jobs that should be for men returning from the horrors of the Front and Helen herself was finally demobbed in 1919.
She wrote sadly, “I hear it is decided that we are to melt away as we are no longer wanted… then nobody can say we are taking any ‘cushy’ shore jobs from the men.” Helen’s pioneering work in the Wrens was rewarded when she collected an OBE, and she received many fond letters from Wrens she worked with. One lady wrote, “my time in the WRNS has been just one of the happiest times in my life,” and another said, “you really are the best ‘Wren’ Officer in the world.” One of Helen’s legacies was that the work women did in WWI was used as justification for giving the vote to some women via the Representation of the People Act 1918, although full equality was not achieved until 1928. Helen was aware of the revolutionary nature of her Naval work and she donated her uniform and her work-related archive to the National Museum of the Royal Navy while her personal war archive was donated to Standen by a family member three years ago.
The Wrens were disbanded in 1993 when women were integrated into the Navy and next year the Royal Marines are opening up their doors to women as well. Those early pioneers demonstrated the wide ranging capabilities of women and were part of a step toward work equality. The battles women still face regarding equal pay were noted a century ago in a letter Helen wrote where she noted of her Director, “she pointed out that… there was still a great deal of work to be done in straightening up the world.” Helen later became vice chairwoman of East Grinstead’s Queen Victoria Hospital and she passed away in 1972, having played a vital role in putting women on the road to equality. The display at East Grinstead Museum is on until 29th November.