Naval History

New Exhibition Reveals Untold Stories Of Female Chatham Dockyard Workers

Hidden Heroines is a new temporary exhibition open until 31 October 2021 at The Historic Dockyard Chatham, Kent.

A new exhibition has opened at The Historic Dockyard Chatham in Kent which explores the valuable roles women have played there.

The temporary exhibition, in No 1 Smithery at the dockyard, also challenges the misconceptions and superstitions surrounding women at sea and examines the part women have played in war.

It shares inspiring stories of pioneering women who campaigned for change and fought against the odds, including Jane Austen's sister-in-law, Fanny, and Zandra Bradley, the first female apprentice.

Phyllis Graham, who served in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) at Chatham dockyard during the Second World War, came into the forces in quite an unusual way.

"I had been to a dance, although I'd signed a form, I didn't realise I'd signed to join the Army. It was a bit of a surprise," the 100-year-old said.

Her accidental sign-up led to her working for a number of years at Chatham.

Phyllis Graham ATS Hidden Heroines women of the Chatham dockyard exhibition 30052021 CREDIT BFBS.jpg
Phyllis Graham served in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) at the dockyard in Chatham during the Second World War.

She remembers serving meals to German prisoners of war.

"We'd grown up to absolutely hate the Germans, because of the First World War. When you got to talk to them, you realise they didn't want war any more than we did," she said.

Ms Graham is just one of many women who feature in the new exhibition – 'Hidden Heroines... the untold stories of the women of the Dockyard'.

Exhibition curator Alexandra Curson said: "This exhibition aims to tell the truly incredible stories of the women that worked at the dockyard.

"To challenge the misconceptions, and the gender stereotypes and tell 200 years of uncovered history and really highlight those personal stories that really inspire and empower today."

The first women were recruited to Chatham dockyard in 1803 when they were needed to repair the flags of ships returning with the war-torn fleet of the French Revolution, and flagmaking continued there for many years after.

In 1864, women started working in the ropery. Only eight people currently maintain the tradition in the Royal Navy's sole surviving rope yard.

Chatham dockyard closed in 1984, ending more than 400 years of shipbuilding and naval tradition.

'Hidden Heroines' will be open at The Historic Dockyard Chatham until Sunday, 31 October.