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Helen Gwynne-Jones portrait ;

Blue Plaque for women in the military Pioneer

Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan GBE (1879-1967), one of the first women students to attend King’s College London, has been honoured with an English Heritage Blue Plaque, commemorating her record of excellence in military service and academic achievement.

Helen study Botany at King’s, graduating in 1904. She continued her research in mycology, the study of fungi, and was appointed head of the Botany department at Birkbeck College in 1909. She also continued her activity in the women’s rights movement, co-founding the University of London Suffrage Society with Louisa Garrett Anderson.

Military Service

Alongside her successful academic career, Dame Gwyne-Vaughan pioneered women’s involvement in armed conflict, laying the foundations for future generations. In 1917, during the entrenched conflict of the First World War, the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was formed, a uniformed service of women deployd alongside British Army troops in France, providing cookery, mechanical, clerical and miscellaneous services. Gwynne-Vaughan was the WAAC’s Chief Controller Overseas, stationed in France to monitor frontline work.

In mid-1918, the Women’s Royal Air Force was formed alongside the newly created Royal Air Force, providing vital specialised support as mechanics, drivers and other roles for the early stages of aerial warfare. In recognition of her achievements in the field, Helen Gwynne-Vaughan was transferred to the WRAF in September 2018, transforming the organisation in a short space of time.

The Adjutant-General said he had an interesting proposal for me: would I like to be head of the Women's Royal Air Force? Since I could imagine no work more worth doing than the post I held, I said, "No thank you". He urged the advantages, till at last I asked whether this was by any chance an order. I learnt that it was.”– Dame Helen Gwynne-Jones, from 'Junior Leader'

Her leadership was vital to transforming male attitudes towards women in the air service, and in recognition of her military achievements she was made Dame of the British Empire in June 1919.

Peacetime Advancements

In the interwar period, Helen returned to her research at Birkbeck, and was appointed as a Professor of Botany in 1921. She oversaw the expansion of the department, and published a variety of papers and books, appointed as president of the Mycological Society in 1928.

In 1929, recognising her public service and her contribution to scientific knowledge, she was appointed a Dame Grand Cross (GBE).

Her research into the field of mycology has resulted in several fungal species being named in her honour, including Palaeoendogone gwynne-vaughaniae and Pleurage gwynne-vaughaniae.

A painting of women working machinery

Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps Mechanics in the Engine Repair Shop, Rouen Area - worker Weston in foreground by Beatrice Ethel Lithiby

A Return to Service

As the Second World War loomed, in September 1938 Gwynne-Vaughan was appointed as Director of the newly formed Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the women’s branch of the British Army, a position she held until her retirement from military service in 1941.

At the outbreak of war around 300 ATS members were billeted to France, and at the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940 some ATS telephonists were among the last British personnel to leave the country. By September 1941 Gwynne-Jones oversaw an organisation of 65,000 women aged between 17-43, performing duties ranging from post workers and drivers to ammunition inspectors.

After 1941, Gwynne-Jones returned to Birkbeck, where she taught until her retirement in 1944. She passed away in 1967 at the age of 88, recognised as a leading light in the realms of academia and military service.

Her blue plaque, part of a scheme celebrating notable figures from history through the architecture linked to their lives, is placed on the building on Bedford Avenue in Bloomsbury in which she lived for nearly 50 years. In that home, she was appointed to her high-standing military posts, as well as being awarded her professorial chair at Birkbeck College.

In order to increase the representation of women in blue plaques, English Heritage are looking for further nominations. You can find more information here.

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