Commander Blair Thisbe Bowden

First Officer Blair T. Bowden.

Blair Thisbe Bowden (1916-1981), was born on 7 June 1916 at Dunedin, New Zealand. She was the eldest of four children born to George Albert Kendall Williams and Emily Elizabeth East.

Blair Williams was educated at Christchurch Girls High School and Canterbury University College, New Zealand. A keen singer, she graduated with a degree in the Arts.

After migrating to Australia, Blair enlisted in the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS) on 9 January 1943.

At this time the Navy was facing problems associated with administering the rapidly expanding WRANS and it was decided to hold a course at Flinders Naval Depot, HMAS Cerberus, for potential WRAN officers. The inaugural course comprised 16 positions, nine of which were allocated to serving members from within the ranks, while the remaining seven positions were open to civilians. A selection board was held in each state and from the hundreds of civilian applications received, Blair was one of the successful candidates.

Members of the first WRANS officer training class January 1943. Back row: Chief Petty Officer Wells (instructor), Marion Egan, Jean Thompson, Mary Butler, Margaret Curtis-Otter, Sheila McClemans, Blair Williams (Bowden), Joan Furley, Nancy Spier, Chief Petty Officer Harding. Front row: Lorna Bradford, Betty Bradford, Joyce Medcalfe, Joan Cowie, Commander Baldwin, Commander Phelp, Frances Provan, Edna Goulston, Alice Gould, Thelma Fenton.
Members of the first WRANS officer training class January 1943. Back row: Chief Petty Officer Wells (instructor), Marion Egan, Jean Thompson, Mary Butler, Margaret Curtis-Otter, Sheila McClemans, Blair Williams (Bowden), Joan Furley, Nancy Spier, Chief Petty Officer Harding. Front row: Lorna Bradford, Betty Bradford, Joyce Medcalfe, Joan Cowie, Commander Baldwin, Commander Phelp, Frances Provan, Edna Goulston, Alice Gould, Thelma Fenton.

The course was exacting but the standard of applicants was high and all sixteen members successfully passed. Blair was appointed Third Officer (the equivalent of an RAN Sub-Lieutenant) on 15 February 1943 and posted to Sydney where she served variously at the shore establishments HMAS Kuttabul and HMAS Rushcutter.

First Officer Bowden, Sydney, April 1945.
First Officer Bowden, Sydney, April 1945.

The work of WRAN officers fell into two broad groupings. The executive who were responsible for discipline, administration and welfare of the ranks, and the specialists who were attached to Naval staff officers in the various Australian ports. The latter eventually assumed responsibility for much of the cipher and confidential book work at the bases and by the war’s end they were involved in almost every aspect of RAN shore establishment activity.

On 21 April 1943 Blair married Peter William Bowden; however, this union was quickly annulled.

Promoted Acting Second Officer (RAN, Lieutenant) on 20 September 1943 she was later confirmed in that rank on 30 March 1944. On 1 February 1945 Bowden attained the rank of First Officer (RAN, Lieutenant Commander) and became the senior serving WRAN officer in the New South Wales command.

The first post-war Director of WRANS, Chief Officer Bowden.
The first post-war Director of WRANS, Chief Officer Bowden.

Following the cessation of hostilities naval authorities decided to disband the WRANS and by February 1947 when the organisation ceased to exist, some 2504 WRANS had returned to civilian life. Bowden’s appointment was terminated on 8 May 1946 at which time she left Australia to live in England.

On 18 July 1950 the Minister for the Navy announced the Government’s decision to re-establish the WRANS, reconstituting it as a permanent and integral arm of the RAN.

The work of setting up the preliminary organisation was entrusted to Mrs M.C. Curtis-Otter, one of the original sixteen officers appointed in the WRANS in February 1943. A decision to confine eligibility in the Post-War WRANS to unmarried women created a bar to her own appointment as Director and it was in her capacity as a civilian that she approached the task of resurrecting the WRANS.

The need for a suitable post war director was considered crucial to the success of this initiative and consequently Blair Bowden was offered the position. She accepted, and on 23 December 1950 was appointed the first Director of the permanent WRANS with the rank of First Officer.

Returning from England to Australia, Bowden assumed the duties of Director WRANS in March 1951 and was soon promoted Chief Officer (RAN, Commander) on 14 May 1951. Throughout her appointment as the head of the post-war WRANS Bowden constantly sought to have the women’s service expanded, paving the way for subsequent Directors to achieve this aim.

War medal 1939-45.
War medal 1939-45
ASM 1939-45.
ASM 1939-45
Coronation Medal.
Coronation Medal

On 14 January 1954 she relinquished control to First Officer Joan Cole of the Women’s Royal Naval Service, (WRNS) and returned to England where her appointment was terminated on 23 January 1955. During her career in the WRANS Blair was awarded the following service medals:

Geoffrey Cook and worked at the Australian High Commission in London promoting Australian exports to England. In 1970 her work was recognised through the award of the British Empire Medal.

Blair Cook died in London, England on 30 September 1981.