Wren Lily Winter

Lily Winter was a New Zealand woman from Wellington who joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service in England.  With the rank of Assistant Principal she trained as a decoder, being discharged after the cessation of hostilities in December 1918.

Lily Kathleen Winter was born to the well-known Wellington Lawyer Earnest and his wife Rosa, in 1891.  She was educated at Newton High School and Berhampore before attending a private ladies finishing school.  Lily left school at 16 and in 1913 travelled overseas, living in France and then England, where she was when war broke out in August 1914.  From 1916 she was living in London and when the Women’s branches of the services were established in late 1917, the idea developed of joining one of these.  In early 1918 Lily applied to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Corps (WAAC) and shortly afterwards the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), commonly called the Wrens.  With the likelihood of becoming an officer in the WRNS Lily withdrew her application to join the WAAC.

The act of applying and being accepted into the WRNS was a drawn-out process.  Lily first made application in January, after which there was a formal interview, Appointment Board review and because of the nature of the work, security and reference checks to be made.  Thus it was not until 1 April 1918 that Lily received notification of her appointment to the naval headquarters for the Humber, at Immingham, which commenced the following day.

In the rank of Assistant Principal, the lowest officer of the non-executive branch of the WRNS, Lily was trained, on the job, in the work of decoding.  There was no formal training of any sort given.  She quickly learned the work and was described as being very quick and intelligent.  Over the next few months Lily’s New Zealand background became apparent.  Despite being from a prominent family and attending a private finishing school, she was not accepted by the other “ladies” with whom she worked and not being seen to be their social equal led to friction.  On the other hand, she was reported to associate with the ratings and to treat them as equals.

Lily was trained, on the job, in the work of decoding.  There was no formal training of any sort given.  She quickly learned the work and was described as being very quick and intelligent

The solution to this situation as perceived by her WRNS superior was for her to be moved to another headquarters at nearby Hull, where she would be in charge of four wren decoding clerks.  The move took place in mid-June.  Lily quickly settled in but again her ability became a negative, when she found herself under-employed.  She was restless and applied for another position where she would have more work and also to be deployed overseas.  The matter was discussed at the Director of Personnel, WRNS level where it was agreed that she should be moved, but that with her “lack of breeding” there could be no question of sending her overseas.  Probably unfortunately for Lily two alternative postings, one to Holy Head in Wales and another to Tyneside Headquarters did not eventuate and she was instead appointed to the War Registry Department of the Admiralty.

Lily arrived in London on 20 August but within three weeks became unwell and spent all but 21 days of the next three months on sick leave.  Needless to say this situation required her to be replaced.  Being unwell also resulted in her not being able to perform her duties to a satisfactory standard.  With the armistice there was a need to reduce the size of the WRNS, with little possibility of the Service being retained post-war and so it is not surprising that on her return from the last period of sick leave in December, her appointment was terminated on 28 December 1918.

In January 1919 Lily applied, unsuccessfully for a position in the Foreign Office in connection with the peace talks in Paris and instead took up a position with the Marconi International Code Company as a code compiler.  Unfortunately her health problems were not over and after an operation to remove her appendix her doctor recommended she return to New Zealand for the climate, which she did mid-year. In 1924 Lily married Clare Moncrieff Nicholson.