Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Looking for Gladys - by H.M. Castor

Section of a pom-pom gun being reassembled by Ordnance Wrens at Liverpool (World War II)
by Royal Navy official photographer, Lt H.W. Tomlin.
 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In three days’ time a new exhibition will open at The Queen’s House (a 17th-century former royal residence which is now part of the 'Royal Museums Greenwich' in London). Entitled War Artists at Sea, the exhibition is going to be made up of a rolling programme of displays, over the next twelve months, of paintings and drawings from both the First and Second World Wars. The displays will include, in the words of the Royal Museums website, “visually arresting and moving portraits, battle scenes, and depictions of everyday life during conflict” created by a number of different artists. Of those artists listed on the website so far, only one is a woman: Gladys E. Reed.

Gladys Reed’s contribution to the exhibition consists of 14 pencil drawings of her fellow Wrens (members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service), made while she was a wireless telegraph operator during World War II. Unfortunately, for copyright reasons, I cannot include examples in this blog, but if you click here, you will get a sense of how fantastic – and fascinating – the drawings are. Executed in pencil on cheap paper during Reed’s break times, these are wonderfully intimate and detailed portraits of women at work, captured when the Wrens were in the middle of maintenance and engineering tasks, operating the wireless messaging service, or staying up on night watch.

The drawings were acquired by the National Maritime Museum in 1947, and this is the first time they have been exhibited. The museum is hoping that the exhibition will shed light on the life of Reed, who is something of a mystery to the curators.

They do have a few letters from her correspondence with Frank Carr, who was the Director of the National Maritime Museum at the time of the acquisition. In them Reed apologises for the grubby state of the drawings, saying she carried them about with her, and sketched whenever the opportunity arose, “under all sorts of conditions”.

I console myself,” Reed goes on, “with the thought that they may still reflect a little of that busy, happy atmosphere that did exist in the WRNS – especially in the “open air” categories.”
[excerpt from letter quoted on Royal Museums website here]

Wrens riveting anti-submarine nets at Greenock, Scotland (World War II)
by Royal Navy official photographer Lt S.J. Beadell
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Well, the drawings I've seen so far have certainly captured my attention – as has the fact that the Museum knows so little about Reed and is eager to find out more. Aside from the information in the letters, the curators know a few details of her wartime service, but they are not allowed to access her service records, and do not even know whether (perhaps?) she is still alive. Moreover, the 14 drawings Reed gave to the National Maritime Museum were not her entire collection – she had kept a total of around 30 drawings from her time as a Wren. Perhaps she gave some to friends – perhaps they are still treasured as part of someone’s family collection?

So I thought I would do my small bit to spread the net perhaps a little wider… Does anyone reading this blog have any more information about Gladys E. Reed? Here are the details of her life that are known, as stated on the Royal Museums Greenwich website:

We know that Reed joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) in 1943. From February to July 1943 she was in the Woolwich class and trained at the coding school HMS Cabbala, a shore base near Warrington for wireless telegraph operators. Between 1943 and 1944 she worked as a wireless telegraph operator in the Liverpool and Birkenhead area, and was stationed at the shore base HMS Eaglet, Liverpool, the flagship of the Commander-in-Chief of the Western Approaches. This shore base coordinated the British side of the Atlantic Convoy system, and monitored German U-boat activity with the aim of suppressing it.”

If you have any further information, the Museum would be delighted to hear from you! There are links to follow at the bottom of this page on their website, telling you how to get in touch.

Gladys Reed’s drawings will go on display on March 15th 2014, as part of the rolling programme for War Artists at Sea.

WRNS craftswomen dismantling a large marine engine 
in the workshop at HMS Tormentor, Southampton (World War II)
by Royal Navy official photographer Lt L. Pelman
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Leslie Wilson said...

How interesting! I must go, and see them if I can. Another example of how women's work gets forgotten. I find the photographs fascinating too, partly because they confound my own all-too-stubborn stereotypes of what women do. I enjoy having them confounded. Thanks, Harriet!

Clare Mulley said...

Wouldn't it be wonderful to reunite all her fascinating drawings. Thank you for this.

Mark Burgess said...

Fascinating Harriet, thank you. The exhibition sounds well worth a visit. I do hope somebody comes forward with more information about Gladys Reed. Her drawings are really excellent and should be on permanent display alongside the official war artists.

Lara said...

More on Gladys Reed and images at

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