The Royal Navy’s inclusion in the list coincides with the opening of all careers and branches to women – including the opportunity, for the first time in 350 years, to train as commandos in the Royal Marines.
Some of the benefits women can experience when working for the Royal Navy are industry-led conferences on career development, parenting and information sessions during pregnancy and maternity, bespoken support when coming back to work from maternity leave.
The Women’s Royal Naval Service, WRNS, but more commonly knowns as the WRENS, was first formed in 1917 during the First World War. It was the women branch of the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy. It was initially disbanded in 1919, but it was revived again in 1939 during the Second World War. In 1944, WRNS had 75,000 servicewomen that have been recruited with the slogan “Join the Wrens — free a man for the fleet”. WRNS has been active since then, and in 1993 it was integrated with the Royal Navy.
Sister Susan Thompson joined the WRNS in 1982, at the age of 17. Feeling unsuited for the office life, she always wanted to be a policewoman, but her dreams were dashed when the minimum height requirements for the profession were changed. During a holiday in Portsmouth, Susan came across WRNS for the first time, and she decided to visit their recruitment office. Today she shares her career change stories with The Career Changers. From the six week training period during her 18th birthday to the excitement of working for the National Intelligence department and the thrill of receiving TOP SECRET messages, until the time in the Falklands when she first experienced the stirrings of a vocation to religious life.
We talked to her to listen to her incredible career change story.
Which job did you want to do when you were a child?
For as long as I can remember, I had always wanted to be a policewoman. Sitting in an office all day held no appeal. I wanted to be out in the fresh air, on the beat. It wasn’t until I was about 14 that they changed the height requirement to 5 ft 6. Previously it had been 5 ft 4, which I had a chance of making. Unfortunately, that dashed all my hopes.
How and when did you decide to join WRNS, The Women Royal Naval Service?
Sometime afterwards I was on holiday in Portsmouth, and it was there that I first came across the WRNS and decided I would do that instead. After visiting the recruiting office, I was put on the waiting list.
What is your educational background?
Because I already knew what I wanted to do, I saw no reason to stay on at school, so I left after my O levels. I am not an academic by nature, so this suited me fine. I didn’t learn any foreign languages and even dropped French, which was obligatory, as soon as I could. I had no gift for languages and quite frankly didn’t have any interest either.
What did you do after leaving school?
After an interview with a career adviser, I agreed to look for an office job. It was only to be while I waited to hear from the WRNS. I was also told that refusing office work, would effectively cut out 80% of the jobs in my area. Surprisingly, I soon afterwards received an invitation for an interview at a wholesale stationer as an office junior. I got the job and worked there for about a year before the WRNS recruiting office got in touch and asked me to go in for an interview, that was including a test and medical assessment.
After the dreaded office job, you managed to join the WRNS at the age of 17. How was that experience?
After passing the interview, test and medical, I got my call up papers for the following September. I was 17, in fact I had my 18th birthday during my basic training at Torpoint, Plymouth. Everyone does the same basic training for six weeks before moving on to specialise, depending on which branch you had been accepted for. It didn’t really matter to me which branch I went into, so when they said that the highest number of vacancies they had was for radio operators, I accepted to be put forward for that. I would say that communications better describes the branch I went into, as we didn’t really use radios very much. I had three months training and then received my first draft to Northwood, Middlesex. This was in National Intelligence, so I had to be positively vetted to ensure I was no risk to national security. This side of the work made it more interesting for me. Seeing TOP SECRET on the top of messages made is seem rather exciting! I stayed there for about two and a half years before moving to Faslane, Scotland. The work was very similar, but the big difference for me was, because of the distance we worked continuously for three weeks and then had two weeks off. It was shift work, and we did a week of mornings, a week of afternoons and a week of nights. Having two weeks off meant it was worthwhile going home, so I saw more of my family at this time than I usually did. The other difference was that because some weeks we only worked part of the day, we often did sports activities together, swimming, deck hockey etc. We worked with the same shift, so got to know each other very well, so there was a sense of community. While I was there, a memo came out asking for volunteers to go to the Falkland Islands. I jumped at the chance thinking it would be something of a good experience and spent four months down there before returning to Scotland.
When and why did you start to feel that life in the WRNS was not your calling?
It was while I was in the Falklands that I first experienced the stirrings of a vocation to religious life. I had only been in the WRNS for a couple of years before realising that it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but as I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do, I decided to stay where I was until it became clearer. I still had a couple of years of soul searching to do, before I eventually discovered where I felt God was calling me.
Once you had a clear idea of what your calling was, was it easy to change or did you have to do a lot of soul searching?
There are many different Religious orders in the Catholic Church, so it is not just a case of feeling that God is asking me to give my life to him, but where. It was a challenging time, hoping to find the right place only to discover on visiting, that somehow it didn’t feel right. It is a hard thing to describe, but there was just a sense that it was not the right place for me. I guess it is a bit like relationships. People somehow know when they have found the right one for them. Yes, my love was to be given solely to Jesus, but I had to find the place where I knew that love could flourish and grow.
When and how did you know you find the right place?
Eventually, I visited my current monastery and was delighted to find that on my first visit, I somehow knew that this was the place I was meant to be. It was a simple as that—a sense of coming home. I have now lived here for 31 years.
What did you learn from your experience in the WRNS?
My time in the WRNS was a good experience in preparation to the religious life. Working with the same people gave me a sense of community, and there was also much regularity in the workday. It gave me a sense of life outside of the cloister, and so my choice was guided by greater knowledge. For me, work wasn’t just about having a job. I wanted something which would give me a sense of fulfilment. Personally, this was something that I didn’t experience in my time with the WRNS, which is why I kept searching.
Why do you think changing a career is a good thing?
Our life is very short, and we spend much of it earning our living, so I feel it is vital that we find what is right for us. If it means that we change careers because this is what we are searching for, then yes, it is a good thing. I think the word career is something more than a job. People often hop from one job to another, but if it is thought of in terms of career then, to me, this means something deeper, something that one can put one’s whole heart into.
What are the challenges of living the spiritual life as a nun?
Life in the convent embraces the whole of my life, not just my work and although natural gifts are taken into account, we do the work we have been asked to do, rather than what we would choose to do. This can be challenging because there are times when it may be something I don’t feel very attracted to, but my vow of obedience obliges me to at least do my best. Great achievements are not the important thing, love is, so whatever I do, if I do it with love that is all that matters. In many ways, it is very liberating.
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