Some fifty stewardesses were killed during WWI and are commemorated on Women’s Screen Eleven at York Minister.
Women had been working as stewards with the Merchant Navy since the late 19th century*. After war was declared in 1914, many more enrolled to free up men for military service. Women on merchant ships – mostly stewards, matrons, and nurses – were vulnerable to the same dangers as men: mines, bombing, and attack by enemy vessels.
The Five Sisters Window in the North Transept of York Minster was restored and dedicated in 1925 to women of the British Empire who lost their lives during the First World War. The names of 1,400 women are recorded on wooden screens nearby.
After the Second World War, the window was re-dedicated to include women killed in that conflict, although no further names were inscribed.
During WWII, fewer women served with the Merchant Navy, and those who did so were again mostly stewardesses. However, some broke out of the traditional roles and Victoria Drummond (1894 – 1978) is well known as the first woman engineer. She was awarded the Lloyd’s Medal for bravery and mentioned in the London Gazette.
On 25 August 1941 the SS Bonita was attacked by enemy aircraft 400 miles from land. Drummond went below and took charge when the alarm sounded. She was nearly knocked out when the first bombs exploded. Once everything had been done to increase speed, she gave orders for the engine-room crew to leave. Victoria kept the engine going and saved the ship from more serious damage.
(* Officially – stories like that of Mary Lacy hint at the lives of secret women sailors in the past.)