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Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service

The Wallis House was purchased by the Navy in 1942. The building was designated a navy facility and was part of HMCS Bytown (a stone frigate, the name given to navy facilities not at sea).  From 1942 to 1946, the Wallis House was home to the first women naval service, the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) also known as “WRENs”, its British equivalent. The British Admiralty sent Commander Dorothy Isherwood to help set up the Canadian WRENs, and to train her Canadian successor Commander Adelaide Sinclair (1900-1982). On September 18, 1943, Commander Isherwood’s farewell party was held at Wallis House. After the war, Sinclair went on to become one of the highest-ranking women at the United Nations in New York until her retirement in 1967.

Capt. Isherwood Farewell Party at Wallis House on September 18, 1943, Library & Archives (Left: Dorothy Isherwood; Right: Adelaide Sinclair)

Recruiting young women to join the WRENs was relatively easy after the widespread emotional response to the heavy Canadian casualties at Dieppe in August 1942. It was an opportunity for many young women of the time to leave their homes and gain some workplace experience. To join the WRENs, women had to be healthy, educated to at least Grade 8, and “Caucasian British subjects”. There was an age restriction from 18 and 45, with no dependent children under 16. In 1943, the upper age limit was raised to 56, and in 1944 the racial restriction was lifted.  Each WREN was allowed one stuffed animal on her bunk bed. Despite renovations in the summer of 1943, the building was infested with pests; cockroaches, rats, bats and spiders were often sighted in the building. In May 1944, exterminators came into the Wallis House for three weeks to eliminate the rat problem, while the personnel slept in the corridors.

Bunk beds at the Wallis House; the “Fishbowl” not dated, provided by a former WREN
Visit by Princess Alice at the Wallis House, either Jan. or Feb. 1943; photo provided by a former WREN

In January of 1943 and again in February of that year, Wallis House hosted visits by Princess Alice (1883-1981), the honorary commander of the WRENs. Princess Alice was the last surviving grand-child of Queen Victoria and the wife Alexander, Earl of Athlone, who served as Governor General of Canada from1940 to 1946 and was the brother of Queen Mary, the grandmother to Elizabeth II.

Wedding of WREN Gelina & PO Plummer at the Wallis House, March 1943, Library & Archives

 

In March 1943, the first wedding of a WREN was held at the Wallis House. WREN Gelinas married PO Plummer, with PO Cook as Matron of Honour. Another wedding was held at the Wallis House in May 1944. Wallis House also hosted corn roasts and Halloween parties when the WRENs used it as a barracks. The Minister of Defense, James Layton Ralston (1881-1948), visited during an Open House on June 17, 1944.

Christmas party at the Wallis House for St.Patrick Orphans December 17, 1944; photos provided by a former WREN

 

The winter of 1944 was so cold, with one full week at minus 55 degrees Fahrenheit, that many WRENS suffered frost bites, and Ottawa street cars froze in their tracks. Huge icicles had to be cut from the Wallis House. One icicle weighing over one ton fell at the back entrance, damaging the porch and railing. A special Christmas party was held by the WRENs on December 17, 1944, for Ottawa orphans from the St. Patricks’ Orphans Home. The Christmas party was followed by a “WRENs Dance” on December 18 and a “Ships Concert” on December 19.

The WRENs where disbanded in August 1946. The Navy accepted women again in the early 1950s in limited roles. After the war, Wallis House was commissioned to serve as temporary housing for veterans returning from the front.

Years later, the WRENs who lived at Wallis House would fondly recall their time spent there. Overall, the WRENs who lived and worked at HMCS Bytown had an unforgettable experience, and filled the place with a new spirit.