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Royal Naval Writers Association

Formed in 1887 - The Oldest Military Association

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“The History of the RNWA”

A Summary of the RNWA’s history by a former RNWA Secretary, Les Heyhoe (October 2014).

On the 21st October 1805, onboard HMS VICTORY, the Captain’s Clerk, Thomas Whipple was killed and so it was only some sixty two years later that the Writer Branch was introduced into the Royal Navy in 1867.

Writers were originally entered into the RN for the purpose of using them as copyists; however they proved themselves capable of performing far more responsible work. This capability was soon made use of by the appointment of Writers to ships not carrying an Accountant Officer.

It was clear then that only twenty years later, conditions of employment, pay and advancement had fallen sufficiently short of expectation for the branch, as a whole, to feel concern. Therefore a meeting was held on the 5th December 1887 at Portsmouth and nine officials were appointed and the ‘Club’ was formed with W.C. Gunn as its first President. A strong feeling existed to improve in many respects the position of Writers within the Service and also to create a Fund from which relief might be granted to members of their relatives in necessitous circumstances. With the birth of the Association there was born a spirit of unity among all Writers to combine the common good of the Branch and from that day onwards every opportunity has been taken to enhance the prospects and raise their prestige.

From 1887, it was known as The Naval Writers’ Club and Benevolent Association with the following aims:-

  1. To promote friendly and social contact amongst Writers.
  2. Encourage members to unite their energies for the welfare of the Branch generally.
  3. To afford opportunities for discussion of interesting topics.
  4. Provide relief to widows and dependent relatives of members and to assist members, who through no fault of their own, are placed in necessitous circumstances.
  5. To encourage exemplary conduct amongst Writers and infuse a zealous application to their duties, that the Writer Branch shall thereby merit the approbation and respect of all with whom its members are brought into contact.
  6. To circulate to members a directory and newsletter containing information of general interest.

These original aims are still the objectives of the RNWA today, with the exception of iv. which is deemed to be represented by the registered charity the Royal Naval Benevolent Trust.

On the 1st January 1898 as well as establishing branches in the home ports of Portsmouth, Chatham and Devonport, Branch Secretaries were in the North Americas, West Indies, China, Australia, Malta, East Indies and Gibraltar stations.

During the early years The Death Benefit was a tremendous relief to widows and dependents of paid up members. The original benefit paid was £15 which was raised with increasing membership to £45 until it was terminated in 1969.

The progression of the Association in those years was borne out of the fact that in 1903, 432 out of 578 Writers in the Service were members i.e. 75%, where as in 2006 out of approximately 700 Serving Writers there are 32 Serving members i.e. 5%. Why? Perhaps due to the way the Writer is now recruited, lack of awareness of the RNWA and its existence. It’s not until 20 to 30 years later after joining up that ‘Scribes’ (the nickname given to the Writer) is wondering what has happened or where one of his past ‘oppos’ (friend & colleague) is and then decides he or she wants to find them to reminisce about those good old days and runs ashore (that’s another story and section of RNWA history)

Originally the newsletters produced were deemed to be “Confidential” and had to be destroyed after being read as the efforts made by the Association to improve the ‘lot’ of the Writer were seen as controversial, perhaps for their day even bordering on what might seem to the authorities as ‘written mutiny’.

In 1905 the strength of the Association was such that a brand new Branch was opened in Sheerness.

The 21st anniversary of the Association in 1908 was celebrated by Devonport holding a concert at their local Liberal Club, Chatham held a ‘Smoker’ evening at The Napier Arms Hotel and Portsmouth celebrated with a dinner at the Fratton Hotel.

In 1909, membership of the Association exceeded 500, thus giving further proof of solidarity.

Warrant Rank Writers were introduced in 1909 and in July 1910 the name of the Association was changed to “The Warrant Writers and Writers Club and Benevolent Association RN”.

During 1911 there were rumours of a merger when a proposal was put forward that Writers’ and Ship Stewards’ Clubs co-operate with their respective representations to the Admiralty, but after a joint conference of all branches of the Association this was turned down. Social functions held by all Writer Branches proved to be very successful and well supported.

From July 1911 the “Confidential” marking was abolished. Meetings lasted two to three hours during the 1900’s and from July 1913 all the home port branches held meetings on the last Tuesday of every month. 1913 was the golden year of the Association when 90% of Writers were in the Association and these numbered over 800.

On the outbreak of World War One the directory was suspended. It was about this time that the white stripe on the cuff of the Warrant and Commissioned Writers appeared. Promotion to Paymaster Assistants was inaugurated in May 1917. Writers served with distinction during WW1 and indeed many were decorated for their bravery. Tragically, there were also many Writers killed or wounded in action.

In January 1919, a Grand Conference was held at The Connaught Rooms, Kingsway, London and representation was made by the Writer Branch to the Admiralty for better pay and conditions were discussed and the Directory was re-instated.

In April 1921 the name was changed to “The Royal Naval Writers Benevolent Association”. A new concept in education was reached in January 1922 when the Admiralty ordered that evening classes for Higher Educational Examinations be specially instituted for Writers. On the lighter side the Association in the 1920’s had a concert party name “The Golden Stars” which raised lots of money for charity (something the current RNWA Membership Secretary, Les Heyhoe, knows something about having been named “Great Britain’s Best Volunteer 2006” having started fundraising as a young Writer).

October 1925 saw the promulgation of the minutes of all home port branches distributed to their respective port ships and in 1929 advertisements could be placed in the newsletters at a nominal fee of 1/- (one shilling = 5 pence). In October 1931 it was recorded that the Writer’s work load was vastly increased because of Wage and Pension cuts.

Membership rose to a healthy 900 members in October 1934.

Between the 1930’s to 1950’s the Association continued to blossom and again members distinguished themselves during World War Two, Korea, Suez, Aden, Borneo and Malaya.

The Chatham branch of the Association was disbanded in 1962.

March 1965 brought about the fact that the Contributory Levy payment had been reduced from £45 to £35 and that the Death Benefit membership was obsolete. The Invaliding Benefit was also abolished and the word ‘Benevolent’ and deleted from the Association title.

In February 1967 the membership was 893. It was announced in September 1967 that the Navy had ordered a computer for Pay & Records etc. and it was emphasised that the Writer would still be required and still have his or her professional knowledge and expertise for a computer to work.

The June 1969 newsletter stated that amongst other changes the following would apply:-

  1. Effective 1st March 1969 there would be only one type of membership fee of the Association with election to Life Membership after 50 years contributions.
  2. Subscriptions for all members except Life Members would be 2/- (two shillings = 10p) per month or £1 per year if paid a full year in advance.
  3. That the entrance fee for all new or re-elected members would be 5/- (five shillings = 25p).

The entrance fee to join the RNWA has now been abolished and it wasn’t until 2000 that membership of the Association (31 years later) was increased to £2 per annum and then due to ever increasing costs of expenditure on production of newsletters, postage and bi-annual printing of a Directory, was increased to £5 per annum effective 2002 and remains that amount as at 2014.

In 1971 the Portsmouth meetings of the Association were first held in the Senior Rates Mess HMS CENTURION with the first annual dinner being held at Thorngate Hall. The annual dinner was then held the second Friday of October at the Royal Sailors Home Club, Portsmouth and continued until 2004. It was then held in The Victory Club, HMS NELSON, Portsmouth before returning to the newly named and refurbished Royal Maritime Club in 2008 which continued until the 125th Anniversary Reunion Dinner held in 2012. For 2013 – 2015 the Reunion Dinner has and will be held at The Royal Beach Hotel, Southsea. A new venue and location for 2016 is currently being discussed.

During the late Seventies the Devonport Branch ceased to exist and the Portsmouth Branch then took over all the business of the Association. The 1970’s & 1980’s saw the decline in membership of the Association by some 50%. There are many reasons for this, the main one being the cut backs and the gradual shrinking of the Fleet. This is a trend that has regrettably continued into the 21st Century with a 353 membership as at 2006 and now in 2012 reducing to 220 with an average membership age of 63. New members are finding difficult to recruit, perhaps as mentioned previously due to awareness of the Association which is not so predominant as it was pre-1960’s.

In the late 1990’s, meetings were held the first Tuesday of the month in the conference room of the Warrant Officer’s & Senior Rates Mess HMS SULTAN until 2006. Now meetings are held bi-monthly on the third Thursday at the RNA Gosport Branch at 7pm i.e. January, March, May, July, September, November.

Even with Benevolent being deleted, the comradeship engendered by the professional philosophy of helping anyone, be they serving or retired, is still very much in evidence to this day and was particularly recognised in 1982 during the Falklands Islands War.

In 1982 Fleet Chief Writers were the only ratings used to augment the Special Welfare Unit activated during the War. They were seconded as Business Visits Officers and required the sympathetic and understanding guidance for the newly created war widows to enable them to cope with all the family problems that had suddenly been thrust upon them. These widows had not had a ‘phoney war’ during which they and their late husbands could have prepared for the unfortunate eventuality. A prime example of this situation of unpreparedness was the sinking of HMS SHEFFIELD with its subsequent loss of life. When only 48 hours away from a happy family reunion in Portsmouth after completing 6 months deployment, she was ordered to turn South at Gibraltar and head for the Falkland Islands.

The Falklands War once again drew the Armed Forces to the forefront and the Royal Navy with its Serving Members of the Association were in action as part of the Task Force. Thankfully all Writers came through with the notable exception of past RNWA Secretary Edward ‘Ted’ Flanagan who was killed in action on the Atlantic Conveyor. Since then of course Writers have been involved directly or indirectly in the World theatre of conflict including the Gulf 1990 – 1991 & 2003, Bosnia & Herzegovina 1992 – 1995 and Sierra Leone 1991 – 2002 and of course Afghanistan 2001 to present, but to name just a few.