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Vonla McBride (1921 - 2003):
Naval officer

Vonla McBride

Vonla McBride was a senior officer in the Royal Navy notable chiefly for the high rank she attained, especially as a woman and a relatively late recruit; and for her principal role in the total integration of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) into the Navy. 

Sara Vonla Adair McBride was born at Ballygarvey, County Antrim, the elder daughter of Andrew Stewart McBride, a farmer and miller, and his wife, Agnes Martin. She was educated at Ballymena Academy, followed by the University of Dublin, Trinity College where she graduated in English and French in 1942. She returned to Ballymena Academy as a schoolteacher (she had a noted pupil who later became First Minister of Northern Ireland). Up until this point her career direction had been guided or determined by her father, and she moved, still a teacher, to Gardenhurst School, Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset, where she was a housemistress. 

In 1949 she read a newspaper advertisement for the WRNS, applied, and was accepted. She spent four probationary month’s in the ranks followed by officer training at HMS Dauntless, the WRNS training establishment. Her first rôle was a new one in the WRNS, as personnel selection officer, and she soon established herself as an efficient and perceptive assessor, and promoted accordingly. Two anecdotes exist which show contemporary attitudes to gender differences in the workplace, and which McBride found entertaining as opposed to to-be-expunged: in the first, McBride asked a rating if he resented being interviewed by her and was received the reply, “not a bit of it, it's just like talking to your mum”. In the second, a frank interviewee responded that he wanted to join the Navy because he was attracted to Wrens “and, if ye’re no married in three years, Ma’am, let me know!” McBride then transferred to the Admiralty in London as assistant to the Senior Psychiatrist, helping to select other Wren personnel selection officers. Hers was an admirable career ladder progression, including three tours of duty on HMS Dauntless (one as Superintendant). In 1975 she became command WRNS officer for the whole of the naval home command, and in 1976, as commandant, was appointed Director of WRNS, the highest WRNS post in the entire naval service. 

Her term of office as Director was marked by a steady expansion of the scope of duties, but also opportunities for members of the WRNS. One significant development was that members of the service came under the Naval Discipline Act. This subjected them the same terms of service as regular Navy personnel, notably that the conditions under which they could leave the service became more restrictive. On the other hand, while not pressing them, McBride worked for wider opportunities for women within the naval service. Full integration of the WRNS into the Navy was anyway even without hindsight inevitable, in the context for example of the Equal Pay Act 1970, and the jurisprudentially groundbreaking Sex Discrimination Act 1975, which explicitly prohibited any less favourable treatment on grounds of sex in explicitly simple terms though strangely, some of the first cases of sex discrimination were taken by men; one very eminent judge declared in one that the new Act was not at all designed to “do away with the chivalry and courtesy which we expect mankind to give to womankind.” Eventually in 1993 the WRNS formally ceased to exist and there was full gender equality throughout the Royal Navy (though only men were allowed to serve on submarines). Vonla McBride lived to see two female lieutenants take command of naval patrol vessels for the first time in 1998. 

McBride had retired in 1979 when she was appointed CB (Companion of The Most Honourable Order of the Bath) but hers was an active retirement, taking a leading role in charitable naval work. She was the first woman to be elected a liveryman of the city's Company of Shipwrights Board, and served on the Board of Lloyds Bank, apparently the first woman to do so, and was no passive member, especially interest in promoting women’s interests (though it was said on one occasion that her naïveté in banking matters was demonstrated when she failed to realise that when sums of money for loans were under discussion, “500” meant “500 million”). She was also honorary ADC to the Queen and the first serving female officer to receive the freedom of the City of London. She was the first woman to take the salute at the passing out parade of the King's Squad, Royal Marines and the first serving female officer to receive the freedom of the City of London. She was welcomed in Ethiopia, where she advised the Emperor Haile Selassie on the creation of a women's service. She also achieved recognition for the contribution that women had made to winning the Second World War by the dedication of a memorial window in Guildford Cathedral, attended by Admiral of the Fleet Earl Mountbatten. Earlier in her career she had published a book on life as a naval officer, Never At Sea, as part of series of career-choice books for young people. 

She retained pride in her Ballymena roots. When asked to appear on a television quiz show she firmly declined, despite her obvious aptitudes – entertaining speaker, lively personality, keen amateur actress – until the producer identified himself as her former teacher and taunted her that no Ballymena girl would turn down a challenge. She changed her mind, appeared on the show in uniform, and outscored her (male) opponents. 

Born: 20 January 1921
Died: 2 August 2003
Richard Froggatt

Wesley McCann


Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; obituaries (The Guardian; The Independent; The Daily Telegraph); Peake v. Automotive Products Ltd. [1977] Q.B. 780