This cap from the HMAS Sydney was made for, and presented to, Nancy Bentley (1914–1999) in 1920. It stands as evidence to a curious moment in Australia’s naval history, when six-year-old Nancy became the first female to be enlisted in the Royal Australian Navy. And all because Nancy was bitten by a snake at Port Arthur.
Nancy’s father rowed her out to the HMAS Sydney, anchored in Carnarvon Bay, and requested urgent medical assistance. The vessel’s commanding officer, Captain Henry Cayley, RAN, agreed to help the little girl. When confronted with the prospect of having a female on board, and needing to avoid the legal complications that could arise from treating a civilian, Cayley decided to sign Nancy up as an honorary member of the navy. She was enlisted for a period of eight days, issued with a Service Certificate, a Conduct Record Sheet, an official number and a uniform. Nancy’s papers recorded that her period of enlistment was “until fed up” and that her injury occurred “while skirmishing in the bush at Port Arthur, Tasmania”.
The Sydney conveyed Nancy to Hobart, where she received medical treatment after which she enjoyed a trip to the cinema with the crew. She was returned to Port Arthur and discharged from duty, as she “was required by her parents”, and her conduct record reported that she was of good character and was “exceptional” in her seaman’s duties. In later years, Nancy remembered being treated like a VIP and being plied with chocolates and flowers while on board.
It was to be a further 21 years before the next female was enlisted in the navy. In 1986, Nancy was invited to become the first female member of the HMAS Sydney Association – an invitation that is only extended to those who have served on one of the four vessels so named.