Ena Collymore-Woodstock is an extraordinary woman who, at the impressive age of 103, is the oldest surviving female veteran of the British Army.
“There was an overall enthusiasm to be part of the war effort. I wanted to do my part.
“When I got to England, the powers that be had us typing, but I told them that I hadn’t joined up just to type.”
Born in Jamaica, in 1917, the Second World War veteran, who went on to have an incredibly successful career in law, has inspired many generations of women to do what those around them considered at the time to be ‘men’s jobs’ such as a soldier or lawyer. Three of her four grandchildren took inspiration from their Grandmother and are lawyers.
Life Before The Second World War
As a young woman, Ena was part of a group of local Jamaican women determined to prove they were capable and be an inspiration to others “despite there being no female role models at the senior level of society in Jamaica”.
Making her way to Britain during the Second World War to join the British Army and play her part in defeating Hitler, had a powerful impact on her peers. She said:
“There weren’t that many women in the Army at that time. Very few women of colour either.
“My group was the first group of women to leave the West Indies to volunteer to go to war. I felt special.”
The centenarian is proud to have encouraged others to aim high and achieve goals, whatever prejudices stand in their way. She said:
“Once, on a trip to the USA, I handed my passport to an officer who told me that she’d done a project about me when she was at school – she was from Negril, Westmoreland.
“That was a lovely moment.”
When Ena arrived in Britain and began her military career, she decided she wanted a more challenging role than clerical work. Her inquisitive spirit made her keen to see what the world could offer her. She said:
“I was very adventurous and wanted more responsibility and more action.”
Eventually, Ena wrote a letter to the War Office saying, "I didn’t come here to do what I was doing at home". She had been a typist in the courts in Jamaica before heading to Britain. The War Office sent her to an evaluation unit where they decided where people were placed. She said:
“I was tested, and they said I could go into any unit, so I selected anti-aircraft and I became a radar operator.
“I also served in Belgium.”
Ena’s daughter Marguerite Woodstock-Riley says she and her siblings only understood the enormity of what it meant to join-up and sail to Britain in 1943 when they became adults. She said:
“As a black female, entering Britain to join the A.T.S. must have been a real culture shock.
“Not surprisingly, her determination, strength and pioneering attitude enabled her to succeed whilst serving in the British Army, and then in the legal profession.
“We’re incredibly proud of her, and hope she’ll continue to inspire generations of women to come.”
Life After The Armed Forces
While in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) Ena made several firm friends with whom she and her family stayed in contact with for many decades. They even travelled to Scotland and France from Jamaica to maintain these important bonds.
Ena explains how she and her fellow ATS friends enjoyed their time with the British Army, saying:
“You had a good feeling – but you had to learn step by step.
“No, I wasn’t ever afraid. We didn’t think much about what could go wrong.
“We didn’t have any nasty surprises.”
Ena’s War Bath
During the Second World War, a rather remarkable series of events happened to create a memorable Christmas for Ena and her friends. An article happened to be published in a newspaper which featured Ena’s full name.
A lady, who shared the same surname, got in contact with the War Office to connect with Ena. That Christmas, the lady surprised Ena with a very generous offer when the camp where she and her friends were living was closed during a time of water shortages. She said:
“This lady invited me to stay and said I could also bring some friends as well. Real kindness.
“The lack of water we dealt with meant that, to this day, I can ‘bathe’ in just a cupful of water.
"My family call it my ‘war bath’ and we all laugh about it.”
After the end of the Second World War, Ena shared an apartment in London with four friends – one of whom, Norma Marsh, is pictured with Ena below wearing her ATS uniform.
Ena fondly recalls many happy and carefree memories spent with the friends she made during her time with the armed forces. She said:
“I remember that when we got our weekly rations in, we’d invite people over and then have fun eating them up all in one go.”
Ena’s Law Career
After Ena’s military career ended in 1946, she became the first black woman to train at Gray’s Inn in the UK to become a barrister and was the only woman that year to join its debating society. The lady in the centre of the image below was the wife of an official.
Two years later Ena was called to the bar in England after which she returned to Jamaica at the criminal courts before being promoted to Deputy Court Clerk for St Mary Parish.
To add another first to her varied and impressive career, Ena served as Clerk of Courts for St. James Parish – the first time a woman held the post.
In 1953 she was the first woman to be appointed as Assistant Crown Solicitor.
Six years later, Ena became Jamaica’s first woman to hold judicial office when she was appointed a Resident Magistrate.
In 1951, Ena married Victor Woodstock, a civil servant, with whom she had three children. While some mothers she knew were taking maternity leave, the young mother was determined to keep working. Her daughter Careth and son Robert are close in age so Ena did not want to take maternity leave so soon after returning to work. This meant she had to be creative, saying:
"I used to put my baby son in his bassinet and drive around Jamaica to Court
"When they were older, the children would sit under my feet in Court whilst I acted as Judge, and they’d listen."
Sixteen years later, Ena was bestowed an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for her work with the Girl Guides. She joined as a young girl and went on to become a District Commissioner for the organisation.
Ena broke many barriers for women in Jamaica. She said:
"I became known as someone who was the first to do things – albeit with training and assistance from others.”
Looking back on her incredibly successful career, the veteran has some sage advice for young women looking for inspiration when it comes to choosing their careers. She said:
"You need to enjoy what you do. Don’t do things for money – do things you have a passion for.
“Women can do the same as men. Don’t limit yourself because you’re a woman.”
Ena was discovered as being the oldest female veteran of the Army after the death of 108-year-old Anne Robson, who had served as a physical training instructor in the ATS.
This prompted the Women’s Royal Army Corps Association (WRAC) to start a campaign called ‘Find Our OATs’, to find Britain’s oldest surviving female veteran.
Colonel (Retired) Alison Brown, Vice President of WRAC, said:
“We wanted to thank her, tell her story and reflect on her achievements, plus, those of other pioneering women of WW2, who pushed aside gender bias and spearheaded roles for women in society as a whole.
“Ena is an inspiration to us all.”
The ATS was the first all-female British Army regiment, which Her Majesty The Queen joined in 1945 and trained to drive and maintain a range of vehicles. Ena had a brush with royalty in 1943 when she met The Princess Royal at the Colonial Office, created to deal with the colonies of the British Empire.