When five girls walked through the gates of Portsmouth Dockyard in 1969, they made history.
The pioneering five – Mary Bromley, Mary Malloy, Susan Wright, Vivien Hurage and Barbara Arnold – became the first girls to start a dockyard apprenticeship.
But 200 years earlier a certain Mary Lacy trod the same path to begin her apprenticeship as a shipwright, albeit an apprenticeship with a difference.
To escape the drudgery and boredom of village life in Kent, Mary decided to disguise herself as a man and seek a new life. She hid in a passing wagon and ended up in Chatham where she was asked if she wanted to go to sea.
Mary jumped at the chance and joined HMS Sandwich as the ship’s carpenter’s servant.
But after three years at sea Mary was crippled with rheumatism and taken to Haslar Hospital, Gosport. From there she was passed to another carpenter who fixed her up with a seven-year shipwright’s apprenticeship in Portsmouth Dockyard in 1763. The only person to know her true identity was her foreman, who took a vow of secrecy.
It was not until 1771, when her rheumatism forced Mary to retire, that her secret was revealed so she could receive a shipwright’s pension of £20 a year.
The next woman to qualify as a shipwright was Sheila Branscombe in 1984. She’s the blonde woman, second from the right, in the picture showing dockyard apprentices in the early 1980s sitting on a spar.
Those pioneering first five (seen here in the main photograph) were not only the first female apprentices to enter Portsmouth Dockyard, but also the first in any royal dockyard.
When they reported for work at the Apprentice Training Centre, Mile End, in September 1969, The News was commented that they were all wearing jeans. They joined 159 boys in the new entry.