Marrying the Gunners Daughter


wren caned2I unearthed a slightly new take on the spanking and caning of wrens prior to them being incorporated into the Royal navy proper. I also came across a new expression, ‘marrying the gunner’s daughter,’ as opposed to kissing it, which means getting a caning. There was also some light shed on the official position.

The last big debate on corporal punishment in the Royal Navy took place in the House of Commons in 1949. It was reported that up to 1/7th of boys were caned at training establishments but other sanctions were preferred.

However, many such sanctions were not available for the discipline of female personnel. Therefore “it is likely” (although not proved) that caning “was more often applied to females” (both officers and other ranks) than “would be otherwise be supposed.”

It was reported in committee that no direct figures were available as women are not considered part of the “official establishment” and that most evidence was anecdotal. During recent hostilities it did not “seem prudent to interfere with naval traditions in this regard and in any case why shouldn’t an errant female continue to ‘Marry the gunner’s daughter,’ to borrow a naval expression,” said one committee member.

No investigation was deemed necessary as no complaints had been received in verified cases where corporal punishment had been used. However as a side note, “it has been supposed that future guidelines will provide that wrens should no longer be caned on the exposed backsides, especially by male officers.” However, as at that time women remained “outside any official military establishment” it was considered “beyond the jurisdiction of this current discussion.”

This report was referring to the fact that the WRNS were established in 1939 under the Civil Establishments Branch at the Admiralty. They were therefore considered civilian workers rather than naval personnel. However, wrens could be punished in various ways, including discharge from WRNS, disrating, suspension, stoppage of leave and deductions from pay. They could also be charged in a civilian court, but they couldn’t be “court martialled”, even if absent from duty or AWOL. As a consequence often officers using irregular methods of discipline could not be court martialled either in matters concerning their dealings with these women. In fact wrens remained free of the Naval Discipline Act until 1977.

Nevertheless the ATS and WAAF, because the army and air force became worried about wastage in their women’s service, were given full military status in April 1941. Interestingly, despite being regarded as “civilians”, only 37 wrens out of 11,000 deserted between Dec 1940 and March 1941.

wren canedHere is an example of some anecdotal evidence of the type that was referred to, some of which may have been published here before.

“I once heard about a wren of 23 who sent out a letter to the wrong person causing a bit of an incident for the war office. She was summoned to the Sgt’s office and made to undress, right down to her stockings, suspenders and bra, she was bent over his knee and had her bare bottom spanked. This wasn’t normal but it happened occasionally because men were well and truly in control and they could get away with it.”

“I asked my mother-in-law about this topic. She’s an old lady, but quite open about worldly subjects. When she was in the Wrens in WW2, was there corporate punishment for minor offences?

“The procedure was always the same. After ensuring they had understood the offence, he would to tell them to ‘take down your drawers,’ a quaint old-fashioned expression. The woman was expected to pull down her service knickers to her ankles. Then, ‘bend over.’ At this point he would lift her skirt over her back and clear any other clothing to completely bare her bottom. A two foot wooden ruler was used.”

“Surprisingly, my mother-in-law, who says she was punished in this way twice, also reminded us that in the UK in the 1940s you couldn’t vote until you were 21 and indeed this was often thought of as the age of ‘growing up’. Too many older people, young service women aged 18-20 were still children and to be treated as children then were.”

Gina K wrote:

“Gran joined the Wrens when she was just turned 18 and after a few months training in England was posted to Malta where she worked as a clerk/typist at a large base near Valetta. She said that once overseas the discipline was a lot stricter than in England. And that Wren ratings were subject to corporal punishment in the form of caning if they misbehaved.”

“My Gran’s first experience of such naval discipline was soon after her arrival in Malta. She and three of her pals were not back to base before the time were supposed to be after being out one night. They were caught trying to sneak back on to the base through the fence. Appearing before the commandant the following morning she ordered all four of them to be given six strokes of the cane on the seat of the knickers. The punishment was carried out nearly straight away. Gran and her three co-offenders who were all a similar age to her were taken to an adjacent gymnasium and had to change into their PT kit. Each in turn then had to bend over a vaulting horse and were given six strokes of the cane on the seat of their gym-knickers. The canings were administered by a

Chief Wren (equivalent to Chief Petty Officer). Gran described her as being a very stout woman, quite masculine looking with a very sour face. She tanned their arses using a slim and whippy crook handled cane of the type normally used on the backsides of juvenile boys in the navy.”

“Gran and her four mates had to get back to work soon after their punishments. Gran said she couldn’t sit down afterwards her bum was so sore. She had to stand at her desk for the rest of the day. This brought a few wry comments from the people she worked with and visitors to her office. It soon became common knowledge that she had recently been caned. She couldn’t sit comfortably for days and it was a few weeks before marks faded altogether.”

“Gran also told me of another caning she witnessed some time later. This was of three young Wrens who had been found guilty of stealing stuff from the stores where they worked and selling it on the black market. The commandant thought in this case an example needed to be made. The three were sentenced to a period of detention. But the commandant also ordered that they would be caned in front of the whole Ships Company.”

“All the Wren ratings on the base were assembled in the same gymnasium where Gran had been caned to witness the punishments of the three miscreants. There were two younger girls who were about 18/19 who were to get 10 strokes of the cane each and an older girl aged about 20 who were considered the ringleader was going to get 12 strokes. Gran said punishments were carried out by the same Wren Chief Petty Officer who had caned her and her gang. She was also using a similar cane to one that she had felt on her own backside.”

“The three were marched into the gym under escort dressed in their PT kit. Each girl was then in turn was held bent over a gym horse. But unlike gran and her mates once over the horse these three had their navy gym-knickers pulled down! Their bottoms bared for all to see. Each girl raised as they got their arses tanned good and proper, naval fashion.”

“Gran said by the end of their punishments the trio were bawling as though they would never stop. All three were lined up handcuffed with their arms stretched up on gym’s wall-bars with their caned backsides on display for all to see as the rest of the Wrens filed out of the gym. Witnessing the canings and the sight of the three red-raw striped backsides they produced certainly had the intended deterrent effect on the rest of the young women.”

Alice J K wrote:

“The cane was very much in my day during the 1950s and into the 1960s even. I got it several times and it was an easy way to escape worse punishments like confinement or being put on a charge, which could result in docked pay.”

“During the war my eldest sister got far worse and far more often than I. At least I was caned on my pants; she was caned several times on the bare bottom and on one occasion couldn’t sit down for several days. At least she only had a female CO, mine were all male.”

“I think it did us no harm and things might be better if they still caned today.”

(Mrs) Jean S, Gloucester wrote:

“During the war I served in the WRNS, which is where I met my husband, and in all the years since various people have joked to me about ‘rum the other thing and the lash’ an old Nelson quote I think. I have always blushed, but for years only my husband knew why.

When I was at Dartmouth in 1940s I had an experience with both rum and the lash, so to speak. I noted after all these years with some amusement the recent debate in the national press about the subject of caning women in the navy, because that is what happened to me.

A friend and I drew the short straw one night and had to stay behind when the others had leave. My friend thought it would be a good wheeze for us to share a bottle of rum while we were on duty, but of course we were caught. We were lucky and avoided 30 from the CO but both took 24 on the bare from our own officer. I could not help think that she enjoyed it, even though we did not, but it was better than seeing the CO and we both deserved it.”

Here are those now famous Daily Telegraph letters:

May I recommend that the Army instructors who cannot enforce discipline because they fear being accused of bullying (News, January 15) adopt the system used at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, when I served there in the 1920s?

Cadet captains administered a “tick” for any breach of discipline, such as being late on parade or a fault in our uniform. Acquire three ticks in a term, and you received six of the best on a bare behind. It worked.

I wonder what they do at Dartmouth today – now that there are female recruits too.

Douglas D, London, Daily Telegraph Jan 29th


If Douglas D is interested, I attended a Wrens’ Naval Cadets training school in London, in the early 1950s. We were subjected to similar discipline, which did sometimes include being caned on the behind, though it wasn’t bare but over our knickers. I don’t think it did me any harm, but I don’t think it did me any good either. What I do know is, bullying still went on, but we did tend to show more respect to authority and we were certainly not as rude as our modern-day counterparts, male and female.

(Mrs) Gwen L, Kent, Sunday Telegraph Feb 5th


Your correspondent who as a Wren was caned over her knickers had it easy. In the 1940s, it was a daily routine for cadets at the Royal Naval School in Portsmouth to be beaten on their bare buttocks.

Once, for carelessly discharging a clip of live ammunition, the commanding officer gave me 30 of the very best and I could not sit down for five days.

Mavis P, Leicestershire


Like Mavis P, I did my Wren training at the Royal Naval School in Portsmouth and made numerous visits to the staff sergeant’s office to have my bare backside welted with the “knotty” – a big bamboo cane.

I was a wilful cheeky girl and usually deserved my regulation 12 strokes, often with six extras for “lip”. I did manage to avoid the dreaded CO’s 30 strokes given to Mavis P, but in one week received 12 strokes on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday for smoking in the lavatories.

Doris B, Bristol

4 Responses to “Marrying the Gunners Daughter”

  1. oh, my. I don’t think I would have made a very good wren.

  2. 2 jimisim

    Absolutely fascinating. The punishment of Wrens has interested me ever I read the almost incredible series of letters to The Sunday Telegraph.
    Thanks for your research.
    Of course all the recipients would be at least eighty now, probably much older, but it would be amazing to read a really detailed true story.

  3. 3 DJ

    Well it seems not to have ruffled their feathers too much considering – I also wonder if the old duffer on the committee just got his quote wrong. And invented marrying as opposed to kissing 😉

  4. 4 O.H.M.

    Love the true accounts.

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