The 73rd Annual General Meeting of the WRNS Benevolent Trust was held at Trinity House, London on the 15th May 2015. Minutes will be available in July.
The Chairman, Cdr Andrea Crook RN, opened the meeting by welcoming Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal, Vice Presidents and Trust Officials, Guests and Members. She said that it was a real privilege to hold the meeting, for the first time, in The Library at Trinity House. She then invited HRH The Princess Royal to address the meeting.
Her Royal Highness expressed her pleasure at being present at the AGM once again, and to see so many members in attendance. She said that she was also delighted that she had been able to become Patron of WRNS100, looking forward to 2017 when the 100th anniversary of the formation of the WRNS would take place. The Benevolent Trust, the Association of Wrens, the Dauntless Association and serving Naval personnel were represented on the Project Group, which was coordinating a range of activities to celebrate the Centenary. There would be a number of national events, including a service at Portsmouth Cathedral, but local focus groups were also working hard, planning regional events so that as many former Wrens as possible would be able to take part in the celebrations.
The Centenary would give opportunity to both celebrate and commemorate the work of the WRNS, and would also highlight the continuing work of women in the Royal Navy today. It was estimated that there still some 45,000 women in the community who had served in the WRNS. The Centenary would also allow opportunity to publicise the work of the Benevolent Trust and the Association of Wrens. Again, communication remained the key, whether by direct word of mouth, or through websites and social media. It was everyone’s responsibility to ensure that former Wrens who were in need, and their friends and family, knew who to approach for help.
Her Royal Highness had been amazed to find that she had been associated with the Trust for over 40 years, initially as President and latterly as Patron. It was clear that in today’s financial climate the work of the Trust remained as important as ever. 2014 had been another busy year, with much valued advice and financial assistance provided to some 400 former Wrens in need. Although a significant number of the Trust’s beneficiaries were now in their 80s and 90s, quite a number of those helped were in their 40s and 50s, and it was expected that some of these would need assistance for many years still to come.
It had been some 5 years since the Trust undertook an Actuarial Review to provide a more accurate basis for planning its future. Whilst it was clear that there would be continued need for charitable support to former members of the WRNS for many years, with the benefit of a further 5 years’ worth of statistical data now available, the Trustees had decided that the time was right to refresh the Review. The results of this update were expected to be available later in the summer.
In conclusion, Her Royal Highness said that many individuals gave their time and expertise in support of the activities of the Trust, including the setting up of Facebook Groups or Twitter account, manning stands at events around the country, creating items for fundraising, or simply writing letters and making endless phone calls. Without this support the Trust would not be as successful as it was in meeting its objectives.
Cdr Crook said that the Trust was particularly delighted that holding the meeting in London had enabled a number of the Trust’s Vice Presidents, and also ladies who served in the Second World War (some at Bletchley Park), to attend; these latter included Mrs Jonni Berfeld, Mrs Patricia Davies, Miss Patricia Jean Mathie, Mrs Pamela Torrens and Dr Geraldine Kew. Vice President Dame Marion Kettlewell DBE, although now 101 years of age, had been planning to attend but had sent a message saying that she was very sorry that she was unable to attend “this splendid meeting”, but that she would be with us in her thoughts, and conveyed her best wishes.
Cdr Crook presented the 73rd Annual Report of the WRNS BT on behalf of the Central Committee. She went on to highlight the most significant points.
2014 had been another busy year for the Grants Committee, who had continued to meet fortnightly to ensure that beneficiaries received prompt assistance. A total of 286 members had received financial assistance, including 14 residing overseas. This represented a small increase from 275 in 2013, and there had been a commensurate rise in the total value of regular and one-off grants, from £305,448 in 2013, to £318,304 in 2014.
Turning to actual expenditure, Cdr Crook said that there had been a small increase in the overall value of the General Amenity Grants and Weekly Grants disbursed, to £215,001, in response to the increase in the number of beneficiaries, and also the effects of inflation. With the exception of regular grants, the next highest spend was £24,777 on Household Repairs, a marked increase on 2013. This was thought to reflect the withdrawal of the Government’s Warm Front Scheme and the Trust’s ability to react more quickly to urgent requests for assistance than some other charities. The next highest spend was £19,710 on Medical Aids, followed by £12,145 on Rent and Deposits, £11,758 on Funeral Expenses and £11,234 on Priority Debts and Arrears.
The number of applicants approaching the Trust for the first time had again reduced, down from 78 in 2013 to 74. However, there had been a small increase in the number of one-off grant applications received to 139, up from 121 in 2013, with 135 of these provided with assistance.
In January 2014, the General Amenity Grant was increased from a maximum of £500 per annum to £600, and while every case continued to be considered on its merits, this had provided the Grants Committee with additional flexibility in providing assistance. The maximum value of the one-off grant had remained at £3,000 since 2006, and there was no evidence to suggest that it would be appropriate to amend this figure.
The graph on Page 8 of the Annual Report depicted the age breakdown of those the Trust had helped over the past 3 years. The Trust’s youngest eligible member was now 40 years of age, and the graph indicated that a significant number of ladies in their 40s and 50s had sought assistance, as well as those in later life.
The Chairman drew attention to one lady who had been helped last year, a former Wren aged 61, suffering from extreme pain and limited mobility due to a severe neurological condition which had caused her to take early retirement in 1998. In receipt of the State’s Disability Living Allowance since that time, her condition was eased by medication but would only deteriorate further; she had also recently been informed that she was at a greater risk of stroke than is normal. She had been advised that physiotherapy might enhance her mobility and flexibility, but this was not readily available from the National Health Service. In March 2014 the Trust awarded £2,195 towards domestic relocation costs, and in August agreed to provide (subject to annual review) a Weekly Support Supplement, a regular grant of £27pw to assist her with the cost of physiotherapy sessions until she reached State Pension age.
Cdr Crook said that the Trust continued to work closely alongside the other Naval Charities, including the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity and the Royal Naval Benevolent Trust, sharing outreach opportunities. She said that it was good to see today so many representatives from organisations which offered support, and helped make the work of the Trust possible. The Trust was most grateful for the support of all those individuals and organisations mentioned on pages 14 to 18 of the report.
The Chairman also gave an example of the wonderful help that the Trust received. In July 2014 the Trust had received unsolicited contact from the daughter of a 96 year old former Wren (both of whom were living in Canada). She had been so moved by the way that the Trust assisted its ladies that she asked if she could sponsor a recipient of one of our regular grants for one year – someone of around her mother’s age – a World War II veteran. The Trust identified a single lady, almost 90 years of age who had served in the WRNS from 1943 to 1947. Living in an isolated area, she had steadfastly refused to give in during the latter years of a very tough life. Her SSAFA caseworker had said that “moving into one of the local centres of population would be the death of her”. Following the Trust’s usual policy of anonymity, the sponsor was provided with a word-picture of our lady’s circumstances. The sponsor provided £400 in August, £275 in November (to purchase a supply of domestic oil), and £60 for a food hamper at Christmas. Sadly, the sponsor’s mother passed away early in 2015, but communication was maintained, while we continued to provide the daughter with updates on the life of the beneficiary. The sponsor provided a further donation in February 2015. As may be imagined, our lady had been very touched by this unexpected and inspiring gesture from someone she has never met.
The Trust was also extremely grateful to the members of the Association of Wrens for all that they did on its behalf, including fundraising and putting people in touch. Details of the totals raised for the Trust by the Association’s Branches and Informal Groups were at page 18 of the report.
Cdr Crook gave huge thanks to the WRNS BT Trustees, the members of the Central, Grants and Finance Committees, Ambassadors, the General and Assistant Secretaries, and all the members of the Trust who freely gave of their time to help out at events throughout the year. She then called upon Cdr Liz Walmsley, the Honorary Treasurer, to present the Balance Sheet and Statement of Accounts.
Cdr Walmsley started by saying that 2014 had developed as expected for the Trust. Overall, the year had ended with an operating deficit of £159,455 against a planned budget deficit of £254,225.
She explained that the Trust had 4 main sources of income: legacies, interest from investments, grants from other charities, and donations. Legacy income would clearly be expected to fluctuate from year to year and could not be anticipated; in 2014 it had totalled £90,400 – £110,000 less than 2013. However, there remained an expected £260,500 in the pipeline, the majority of which the Trust anticipated receiving during 2015. The Trust continued to be extremely grateful to all those who left money for the continued work of the charity.
2014 had been a mixed year for investments. The Trust had set an income target of £144,000 – this was exceeded, with investment income rising by nearly £900 against 2013. However, the value of the investment portfolio had fallen due to the drop in the market around the year end, to £3,559,000, resulting in an unrealised loss of £24,900 (2.5%).
Due to a particularly healthy financial position in 2013, the Trust had informed the RNRMC, Trinity House and Queen Mary’s Roehampton Trust that grants for the 2014/15 year would not be sought; thus grant income was zero against nearly £126,000 in 2013. Other sources of voluntary income amounted to nearly £29,000, slightly below 2013. Individual donations were up, while fundraising dropped marginally – although still within budget.
Grants made to beneficiaries had risen by 4.2% in the year – a reversal in recent trends, and partially due to a small increase in some of the regular grant rates.
On the surface, investment management costs had increased significantly, from £2,300 in 2013 to over £19,000 in 2014. Cdr Walmsley gave reassurance that this was primarily due to the fact that Brewin Dolphin, along with many other Investment managers, had changed the way that they charged fees. These were now charged quarterly, based on the value of the portfolio, whereas commission was previously charged and absorbed within portfolio movement.
Governance expenditure (made up of legal, audit and accounting fees, meeting expenses and 20% of the General Secretary’s employment costs), represented the expense of ensuring that the Trust complied with various regulations.
Overall, taking into account all assets and liabilities, the Trust had closed the year with a balance sheet figure of £3,830,000 – representing an increase of £174,000, or 4.34%, on 2013.
The Chairman asked those eligible to vote to approve the list of those nominated for office in 2015/16. She said that Lt Cdr Sally MacLennan would complete her tenure as a Trustee this year, and therefore the list of nominations included a nomination for a new Trustee (Mrs Ollie Butler) whose biography was on the reverse of the Election sheet. This showed that Mrs Butler had a great deal of experience to offer the Trust. All nominations were currently unanimously supported by the Central Committee. The motion was carried.
Cdr Crook introduced Lt Cdr Bob Horner, who in addition to his day job in the banking industry, had served in the Royal Naval Reserve from 1968 to 1999. Following his retirement he now lectured on cruise ships, and in such illustrious locations as the National Maritime Museum and the Churchill War Rooms – specialising in World War 2 naval and military history, including codebreaking. He had joined the Bletchley Park Trust as a volunteer guide in 2001.
Lt Cdr Horner opened by saying that it was an enormous privilege to be invited to speak at the AGM – and daunting because he was about to describe events at which some of the audience had been present.
After the First World War, cryptography lay in the hands of the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), which supported all 3 armed services, as well as the Foreign Office. The GC&CS relocated from London to Bletchley Park in 1939, and remained there until 1946. Complement grew from some 200 people (only 50 of whom were cryptographers) in September 1939, to around 9,000 by VE Day (8 May 1945) – a total increased further by an additional 1,700 employed at outstations.
The principal target was the Enigma machine, and Alan Turing’s Bombe machines would prove key in the codebreaking process. While female personnel from the other services were involved from the very early days, the first Wrens were not employed at Bletchley Park until March 1941 – the first 8 (all Writers) were drafted in to see if unskilled staff could successfully operate the machines. They provided the proof, and with their employment a success, they started to replace men in growing numbers. These Bombe operators were eventually re-categorised from their source service branches to Special Duties (X) – SD(X).
From February 1942, WRNS recruits at New Entry Training Depots were interviewed by an officer from Bletchley Park to ensure that they had the correct skill set before being accepted for SD(X). Once categorised, for security reasons it became very difficult for these personnel to transfer to other branches. By December 1942, there were 573 Wrens at Bletchley Park or its outstations, officers and ratings; 2 years later, overall numbers had increased threefold, to 1,699. In addition to the Bombe operators, these would also comprise other specialisations, including general administration and support services, alongside specialised areas such as radio fingerprinting, technical intelligence, WT intercept coordination and language translation.
In February 1943, the first party of SD(X) Wrens were drafted overseas, initially to Mombasa, in support of The Far East Combined Bureau codebreakers who were eventually relocated there after evacuations from firstly Singapore and then Ceylon. In September of that year, the party, now including the Wrens, moved back to Ceylon (HMS ANDERSON). Bletchley Park and its outstations continued to train SD(X) Wrens for the Far East Combined Bureau, the final total being around 290.
In May 1943, a further opportunity arose at Bletchley Park to train Wrens in the breaking of German Army High Command messages sent by teleprinter. A new department, known as The Newmanry (after its founder, Professor Max Newman), was set up, to concentrate on using machines to find the wheel and pin settings of the German Lorenz on-line cipher machine. The number of Wrens employed on these duties under civilian technicians grew from 16, in 1943, to 272 towards the end of the war. They had the privilege of operating what was to prove an iconic device, the Colossus. Until September 1945, the most senior WRNS officer at Bletchley Park was a Chief Officer; the incumbent Chief Officer, Edith Blagrove, was promoted to Superintendent in February 1945.
The number of Bombes in operation eventually grew from a small number to around 210, and the need for both personnel and accommodation for these machines grew. Further outstations were developed, bringing the total to 5. Of the 2,976 Wrens employed in the vicinity on VE Day, 1,676 (56%) were manning the Bombes. As only the German forces used Enigma, so the Bombes rapidly fell silent, as did the Colossus. With the war in the Far East continuing, some 200 Wrens were transferred to the Hollerith Punch Card Index, and in June 1945, 200 joined Bletchley’s Japanese Naval Section. Other Wrens were employed dismantling the Bombes until only 50 of the machines remained in case of future need. They became concentrated at Eastcote, one of the outstations, which became the first post war location of the new GCHQ.
While the Wrens of Bletchley Park were by no means in the majority, they were certainly (just) the largest single group of women. Their top total of 2,963 compared with Foreign Office employees (2,500), WAAF (1,060) and ATS (400) – a total of 7,023 women altogether. The rundown of Bletchley Park post VE Day in May was fast; by VJ Day in August, 3,500 service and civilian personnel had been moved away and all quarters closed down. A large number of SD(X) Wrens were re-mustered into other branches, and the SD(X) category was declared obsolete in the December.
Summing up, Lt Cdr Horner said that the following words of Superintendent Blagrove rang true, from their origin in the first year at Bletchley Park, through to the time of her end of war report.
“There were many difficulties in the early days in the struggle to live. Ration cards failed to appear, the bath and laundry situation caused many headaches, medical and dental arrangements had to be organised, and the problem of billets was always cropping up.
There was magnificent spirit amongst these pioneers, and wherever they turned they found great cooperation and many helping hands. The stimulation was the knowledge of the essential work on which they were employed. Their keenness to do well, and their enthusiasm, was the inspiration for all who came later. These ratings were destined to be the future Officers and Chief Wrens of their Section.”
Lt Cdr Horner concluded by saying that there were of course nearly 3,000 individual stories, many of which had been published in a variety of books – but many remained untold because of secrecy. While there were many similarities in those stories, what always came across was the indefatigable spirit of those young women; they worked and played hard, and were an immense credit both to themselves and the Women’s Royal Naval Service.
The Chairman called upon Lt Cdr Sally MacLennan to propose a vote of thanks to Lt Cdr Horner for his inspiring address.
Lt Cdr MacLennan said that Sir Winston Churchill had described the incredible individuals who worked at Bletchley Park as “the geese who laid the golden eggs without cackling.” She suggested that in modern parlance this could be reinterpreted to apply to those Wrens who served there, as “those wonderful Wrens who did so much without Tweeting!” She said it was her honour and privilege to thank Lt Cdr Horner for his fascinating insight into the life and work of the WRNS at Bletchley Park and its outstations, and also added thanks on behalf of all those present, to those Wrens who had served during the war and were here today. She also wished the Bletchley Trust all the very best for the future, in continuing to tell the story of those individuals who overcame amazing odds to achieve such great success.