NRW celebrates maritime pioneers on International Women’s Day

On this International Women’s Day, Kirsty Lindenbaum, senior specialist advisor for Natural Resources Wales’ marine team, highlights two of Wales’ maritime pioneers.

Working with our partners to reconnect people with our seas is something our teams at Natural Resources Wales have been doing for some time. With more than 60% of people in Wales living near the coast, the sea has formed a large part of Wales’ identity and heritage, and through NRW’s work in marine we hope this will continue for generations to come.

But let’s not forget the work of people from generations of the past who helped connect people to the sea, and on this International Women’s Day, it feels timely to celebrate some of the leading female pioneers in Wales’ maritime history.  

The Misses

Nearly 200 years ago in the 1830s, Ellen Edwards became a trailblazing teacher of navigation in Caernarfon, North Wales, breaking barriers and inspiring generations of mariners after she set up a school to teach navigation and seamanship to hundreds of local men.

Ellen had learned the skill of navigation from her father Captain William Francis of Amlwch, Anglesey, who had also been a teacher of navigation.

Despite some efforts by Anglican educators to belittle her teaching, Ellen, who was a staunch non-Conformist, successfully tutored hundreds of sailors - many of whom went on to have remarkable careers as master mariners.

Known affectionately as ‘the Misses’ Ellen Edwards died on November 24, 1889, at the age of 79. Her daughter, also called Ellen, took over the business. The Caernarfon and Denbigh Herald reported: "The funeral was a remarkable one, the cortége consisting of a large number of master-mariners, mates, seamen, and nearly all the naval reserve now on duty in the town.”


While Ellen Edwards was teaching navigation skills in north Wales, Sarah Jane Rees, known as Cranogwen, was born in 1839 near Llangrannog in west Wales.

Her father was a master mariner, captaining ships and it was he who inspired a young Sarah Jane to follow the seafaring lifestyle. 

As a teenager, she joined her father onboard his ship travelling around Wales and to Liverpool, France and Ireland.

When she returned, she took up a place at mariner school to learn more about navigation and other aspects of seafaring. 

She completed her training in London, earning her qualification as a Master Mariner before returning home at the age of 21 to become headteacher at her village school in 1860 where she taught seafaring, training a new generation of sailors and sea captains. 

She continued to navigate her own path by becoming a renowned public speaker, travelling as far as America often preaching on the issue of Temperance (abstention from alcohol) and the effect that alcohol could have on family lives, for women in particular.

She was highly accomplished at producing poetry, winning prizes at the National Eisteddfod.

She also became the editor of a Welsh-language magazine for women and played a pivotal role in the temperance movement where she was a founding member of the 'Undeb Dirwestol Merched De Cymru' (The South Wales Women's Temperance Union) in 1901.

Following her death, Lletty Cranogwen, a refuge for homeless women and girls was established in 1922 in Tonypandy, Rhondda in her memory.

Both remarkable women illustrate the very many historical links women have with the sea and coast in Wales. They continue to inspire so many in our marine teams and beyond, and on this International Women’s Day we remember the contribution they made to Wales’ maritime story.

Explore more

Newsletter sign up

Sign up to receive monthly updates from Natural Resources Wales