Mary Wilkins (Courtesy of the ATA Museum)

From Mary Watkins, the youngest pilot in the county, to the RAF’s first female chaplain, roles in MI5 and MI6, and the secret lives of WW2’s female SEO spies, it’s all on display at new exhibition Women & War: From the Fringes to the Front Line.

Opening on Saturday (June 3) at Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock, the exciting show features historical artefacts and the first hand accounts, stories and experiences of those involved, right up to the present day.

“The objects and stories on display give a voice to women who are often not centre stage when we think of war”

Demonstrating the diverse experiences of women involved in military life, from world wars to the armed forces today, many objects are on display at the Woodstock’s SOFO Museum for the first time.

These include Mary Watkins from Leafield’s Air Transport Auxiliary jacket who learned to fly in Witney. She was the youngest pilot in the county in 1937 and thanks to this exhibition her story will finally be told.

WAAF Women with Barage Balloon

You can also find letters and officer’s gloves belonging to Rev. Elsie Chamberlain, the first female Chaplain in the RAF, whose appointment sparked protest from both the RAF and the Church of England in 1946. Her name was originally excluded from RAF lists and her service concealed. 

Equipment used by the 60 women in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) recruited by Churchill “to set Europe ablaze” will also be on display at the museum, including a radio receiver concealed inside a biscuit tin.

Biscuit Tin Radio receiver as used by women serving in the SOE during the Second World War

These included members of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), founded in 1907, who remain active today and have seen service in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as providing vital support during disasters, terrorist attacks and crises at home in the UK. 

“We turn up to help, whenever needed,” says Jessica Lakin, who joined FANY in 2002and assisted after the Westminster Bridge attack, Borough Market attack, Manchester Arena bomb and then the Grenfell fire.

the appointment of ELSIE CHAMBERLAIN, the first female Chaplain in the RAF, sparked protest from the RAF and the Church of England in 1946

The exhibition also remembers all the women called up for war work from 1941 as mechanics, engineers, munitions workers, air raid wardens, bus and fire engine drivers.

More than 80,000 women joined the Women’s Land Army, ‘Land Girls’ enduring tough conditions and long hours in isolated rural outposts in order to prevent Britain from being ‘starved out’. Others would join women’s auxiliary units of the Armed Forces, such as the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, Women’s Royal Naval Service and Auxiliary Territorial Service.

Image courtesy of Jessica Lakin, FANY

Women continue to play a vital role and since 2018, all Army roles have been open to them. This includes combat roles in the infantry and special forces units and broken down barriers in once male-dominated roles in MI5 and MI6; the UK’s Security Service and Secret Service.

Museum Director, Ursula Corcoran, explains: “The objects and stories on display give a voice to women who are often not centre stage when we think of war. There are stories not only of suffering and loss, but also of duty, innovation, friendship and love.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to mark and commemorate those women who have lived through and served in conflict.”

Women and War: From the Fringes to the Front Line opens on June 3 and runs to September 10 at Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock. For more information go to