This article was written for the Rewriting Women into Maritime inititative by Lily Tidbury, Visitor and Sales Assistant Manager at Royal Museums Greenwich.
Lack of female representation in memorial/statue landscape
As of 2018, less than 3% of statues in the UK were of real, non-royal, women. Representations of women in memorials tend to be allegorical, nude, or nameless, with mourning wife and anthropomorphised Biblical virtues being popular tropes. Community memorialisation accelerated from the late 18th century in Anglophone and Protestant areas of the British Isles, alongside construction of follies and writing of histories, reflecting a novel colonial impetus to project identity. Although commemorating the dead is a timeless human process, the memorial landscapes of Western Europe and the US reflect dominant power structures and value-systems, nascent when widespread memorial construction emerged and persisting today. These landscapes of memory and ritual privilege powerful groups, particularly wealthy white men.
Statues in town squares, plaques on harbour walls – almost every UK coastal settlement has stories of loss at sea, and related memorials. Royal Museums Greenwich’s Maritime Memorials database is a crowdsourced encyclopaedia-style digital repository listing these commemorative sites for those lost at sea or in maritime endeavour. Although most entries are within the UK, the inseparable entwinement of British maritime history, colonisation and ever-expanding global trade routes from the late 16th century means such memorials are found worldwide. From Antarctica to Zanzibar, there are always new entries to be found, and ongoing conversations around what makes a memorial. Some memorials represent family wealth or community attachment poured into elaborate tombs or statues. Others, no less significant, are vernacular structures like wooden crosses on mountain paths or names spelt with stones on hillsides. These explorations are part of an ongoing project to expand and improve the database, including highlighting memorials to marginalised groups.
This trend is exacerbated in the UK maritime memorial landscape due to organisational and cultural constraints on participation of women in seafaring until the late 20th century. The Merchant Navy accepted its first female navigation cadet in the 1970s; women were able to serve as full members of the Royal Navy following the 1993 incorporation of the W.R.N.S., and on Royal Navy submarines from 2013. From 1919-’70, far less than 1% of the maritime labour force were women, and they were almost exclusively on passenger liners; over 95% of this figure were stewardesses, who make occasional appearances in the memorial record.
In a database including every conceivable form of commemoration, those represented are overwhelmingly men. The Maritime Memorials project contains over 6000 entries. Around 25 of these - roughly 0.4% of all entries – memorialise women alone, not alongside male relatives. A further 0.1% of the entries commemorate women who perished directly because of relationships with male seafarers – wives of captains and surgeons, or family members travelling to men working in colonial administration. Memorials to women in the database are almost exclusively to passengers lost at sea – outliers including one yachtswoman and one W.R.N.S. member have been recorded, but thus far none to women in non-passenger commercial shipping have been found. Regardless, the Maritime Memorials database shines a light on the lives and deeds of women working in maritime industries at a time when both their work, and appearance in the memorial landscape, was unusual.
Mary Ann Rogers was stewardess on the Stella, wrecked off the Channel Islands’ Casquets in 1899. A courageous and selfless crewmember, memorials in three different counties were erected to her, including a stained-glass window in Liverpool and a fountain in Southampton. Rogers reportedly urged all the women under her care to evacuate, giving her lifejacket to a woman without one, ultimately staying behind to go down with the Stella. The women under her charge were mostly passengers but also included Ada Preston, working her first day as under-stewardess. After Rogers’ death, the influential Frances Power Cobbe and Annie Bryans lobbied for a memorial and fund to support her elderly father, apprentice son and daughter – all her dependents. Annie Bryans, four times a passenger on the Stella, was fond of Rogers, who had confided in her about the unpleasant aspects of her job. Bryans wrote to the Times and Evening Standard to raise awareness of Rogers’ 16 years of stewarding and her final sacrifice, culminating in a memorial fountain on Southampton’s promenade.
Although stewardessing required mainly feminine-coded domestic and emotional labour, confinement and masculine-coded life aboard ship lent complexity to the profession. Both Rogers and Preston were granted employment with LSWR following the death and paralysis of their male relatives with the company. Nonetheless, they joined a profession seen as adventurous, able to inspire women and girls to pursue careers in maritime. One such girl, Ilona Diamond from Southampton, was inspired to work aboard ship in adulthood after admiring stewardesses on 1910s childhood voyages.
Whilst the Maritime Memorials database spotlights women who come into our knowledge through their deaths, it is important to remember many more women in maritime do not appear in the memorial record.