Lieutenant-Commander Isabel Macneill was a trailblazer all her life.
The first woman to command a ship in the British Commonwealth, she was captain of His Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Conestoga in Galt, Ont., during the Second World War.
She was also the only woman outside the British Royal Family to rate being piped aboard a warship, an honour usually reserved for flag officers or special guests.
But although Macneill commanded a ship, she was a long way from the sea.
Conestoga was a “stone frigate”, which in naval terms refers to a commissioned shore establishment of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) with the HMCS designation.
It was established in the fall of 1942 to train members of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS), commonly known as Wrens. Intended to provide an introduction to military life, courses included physical training and drills, as well as instruction in naval customs and traditions.
Born in Halifax in 1908, Macneill was educated at the Halifax Ladies’ College, Mount Saint Vincent Academy, the Nova Scotia College of Art and the Heatherley School of Art, London, England. From the beginning of the Second World War, she was associated with volunteer work, and when the naval service in Canada was opened to women in August 1942, she immediately joined up.
One of the first class of Wrens, she trained initially in Ottawa, was commissioned as an officer, graduated from the first course at Conestoga, and was appointed commanding officer the following year.
By all accounts Macneill was a popular commanding officer, well respected for her vision and leadership.
From an article written in the Wren’s newspaper, The Tiddley Times, in the summer of 1944:
“When she is speaking to a group of probationary Wrens of the tradition behind the navy in which they are serving, or when she deals with captain’s defaulters on the quarterdeck, she can be as stern and majestic as any ‘old man’ on board a flagship of the fleet!”
But according to the article, she also possessed a sensitive side, “an unceasing feeling of gentleness”, that was best illustrated by her dog Trilby, the Dachshund that tagged along at her heels to divisions, lectures and rounds.
“Every Wren is familiar with the sight of the CO striding into the lecture hall, up to the platform, then standing for a moment, waiting. There is a silence. Then the ticking of nails on hardwood floors as Trilby comes hurrying up the aisle and scrambles up the steps. Then, and only then, does the lecture begin.”
Macneill was a fervent supporter of the Wrens and their ability to perform an infinite variety of jobs, fulfilling many of the wartime needs of the RCN.
When she travelled on war business to Britain in February of 1944, her trainees in Conestoga were bereft.
“Goodness but we hated to see LCdr Macneill go! It was a bit like losing a precious part of Canada.”
Upon returning from Britain, she wrote an editorial in The Tiddley Times, proclaiming the proud spirit, integrity and valuable contribution of the Wrens.
“In Canada, thousands of miles from the scene of action, it is difficult to assess our contribution. We must use our imaginations and appreciate that by working diligently we are helping the fighting efficiency of the navy and bringing closer that day when ships of all nations may sail the seas upon their lawful occasions.”
In June 1944, Macneill was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE).
Her citation read:
“Lieutenant-Commander Macneill has served with the WRCNS since its inception. She is the first and only woman in the Canadian Navy to be in command of a ship. As commanding officer of HMCS Conestoga, she has been responsible for the basic training of almost every member of her service. Her wide knowledge, her profound sympathy and her unfailing and inspiring devotion to duty have made her contribution one without parallel in the service.”
When Conestoga was closed at the end of the war, Macneill said, “Most of us came here as strangers. We leave with many happy associations which we shall remember all our lives.”
Following her wartime service, Macneill continued to blaze trails.
She served as superintendent of the Ontario Training School for Girls in Cobourg, Ont., and in 1960 became the first female warden in Canada at the Federal Prison for Women in Kingston, Ont.
Along with the OBE, her awards included the Coronation Medal in 1953, the Order of Canada in 1971, and an honorary LLD, Queens University, 1977. She died on August 18,1990.