When six-year-old Nancy Bentley was bitten by a snake in Port Arthur in 1920, an extraordinary chain of events unfolded that would alter Australian naval history. At that time, Port Arthur was an isolated and rugged area, chosen for its inaccessibility and known for its history as a convict settlement. Amidst this remote wilderness, Nancy’s life was in grave danger, and immediate medical intervention was crucial.

Nancy’s desperate situation led to an unprecedented act of rule-bending aboard the nearby warship HMAS Sydney (I). The ship’s commanding officer, Captain Henry Cayley, faced a strict regulatory framework that prohibited women from being on naval vessels. Despite these rigid rules, Captain Cayley, understanding the severity of Nancy’s condition, chose to prioritize her life over protocol. He made the bold decision to enlist her as an honorary member of the Royal Australian Navy, effectively making her the youngest person ever to be enlisted in the Australian forces and the first female to enter the Royal Australian Navy.

This quick-thinking and compassionate act not only saved Nancy Bentley’s life but also marked a significant moment in naval history. Her enlistment broke the gender barrier in a male-dominated institution, setting a precedent for future generations. Nancy Bentley’s unique and courageous story remains a remarkable testament to the power of compassion and the importance of flexible thinking in times of crisis. Her record still stands as a symbol of bravery and progressive change in the Australian military.

Pioneering Female Enlistment

It took another 21 years before women were formally allowed to join the Australian Navy as telegraphists, marking the first official entry of women into naval service roles. This milestone, achieved in the early 1940s, began to slowly break down the gender barriers within the Navy. Despite this progress, it would take an additional four decades before women were permitted to serve aboard naval ships, a significant leap forward that didn’t occur until the early 1980s. 

Nancy Bentley’s honorary enlistment in 1920 was a groundbreaking event that occurred well before these institutional changes. Faced with the immediate and dire need to save her life after a venomous snake bite, Commanding Officer Henry Cayley made a swift and unprecedented decision. At the time, the Royal Australian Navy was governed by strict regulations that strictly prohibited women from being aboard naval vessels. These regulations were part of the broader military norms of the era, which maintained rigid gender roles and strictly controlled the participation of women in military affairs.

In a courageous and compassionate move, Captain Cayley enlisted Nancy Bentley as an honorary member of the Royal Australian Navy, designating her as the ship’s mascot. This ingenious solution allowed Nancy to receive the urgent medical treatment she needed without directly violating the naval protocols of the time. 

However, Captain Cayley’s quick-thinking action not only saved the young Tasmanian girl’s life but also paved the way for future reconsiderations of gender roles within the Navy. Nancy Bentley’s enlistment stands as a poignant reminder of how human compassion can drive progress and change, even within the most rigid of systems.

Remote Port Arthur

On that fateful day in 1920, in a location so remote it was chosen as an all-but-escape-proof convict settlement, an Australian warship represented the best chance of survival for a young girl bitten by a snake. But rules would have to be bent to save her life. Ms Bentley and her siblings had been sitting on a headland at Port Arthur, watching Navy band members perform aboard HMAS Sydney (I).

The ship had just spent time in the Pacific Ocean and was anchored in Port Arthur’s Carnarvon Bay for a brief spell. Author Tracey Hawkins researched the story of Ms Bentley for her children’s book *Nancy Bentley: The First Female Australian Sailor*. Ms Hawkins said the ship and its musical performance would have made for a unique event for the local Bentley family, given their isolated location. For Nancy Bentley, it would become unforgettable.

During the performance, the six-year-old was called home by her mother. As she ran down the headland, she slipped and fell on the grass. “[She] happened to land on a whip snake and was bitten,” Ms Hawkins told ABC Hobart afternoon presenter Joel Rheinberger. Her father leaped into action and jumped into a rowboat with the young girl. He rowed her to the military vessel, hoping there was a doctor onboard.

Aboard HMAS Sydney

Captain Henry Cayley welcomed the young girl aboard to be seen by the ship’s surgeon but faced a regulatory hurdle. King’s regulations and Admiralty instructions did not allow for women on naval vessels, which meant Ms Bentley’s presence on the ship was a breach of protocol. To get around the strict protocol, the captain enlisted Ms Bentley as an honorary member of the Navy, as a mascot.

Ms. Bentley was given an “unusual” official registration number with an extra digit, Ms. Hawkins said, to alert authorities to something “amiss”, but for good reason. “There were no repercussions because it was a child and they saved a life and gave her medical assistance,” Ms Hawkins said. “I don’t think anyone was going to be so shallow as to pursue repercussions [for not following regulations]. He was a nice man. He wasn’t going to send a 6-year-old back to [possibly] let her die.”

She spent eight days at HMAS Sydney (I). During her stay, the ship traveled to Hobart, where she got to attend the cinemas with HMAS Sydney (I)’s company. She eventually disembarked to return home in a custom navy blue outfit created for her during her stay. Her certificate of service stated she was to be engaged in service “until fed up”.

A Memorable Farewell

While onboard, young Nancy was visited nightly by her parents who brought deliveries of fresh cow’s milk. In a newspaper article from 1989, Ms Bentley recalls being “loaded up with boxes and boxes of chocolates” upon departing and is said to have kept in touch with the crew afterward. On the 75th anniversary of the Royal Australian Navy in 1986, she was made a life member of the HMAS Sydney Association.

Her Navy cap and other items were donated to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, but unfortunately, her Navy uniform was lost sometime before the 1990s. Ms Bentley’s enlistment has had a lasting impact, with her image on a trophy called the First Lady of the Fleet. While Ms Bentley’s injury is described in her enlistment papers as having been caused by a scorpion, reptile expert Simon Fearn said this was most likely incorrect and changed terminology meant a whip snake could have been one of several species of snake.

The Whip Snake Confusion

“Any small snake back then was called a whip snake,” Mr Fearn said. “It’s probably far more likely to be a juvenile tiger snake or a white-lipped snake.” Treatments for snakebite varied in the 1920s, with some people chopping off bitten fingers as a last resort. “If the snake only got her with one fang, one glancing blow, she might have just got a tiny injection of venom, enough to make her sick,” he said.

Antivenom was not available in Tasmania until 1931, but with a little luck — and in Ms Bentley’s case, Naval intervention — it was possible to make a full recovery without it. Nancy Bentley’s story is a remarkable example of how quick thinking, rule-bending, and a bit of luck can change the course of history. Her unique enlistment not only saved her life but also paved the way for future generations of women in the Australian Navy.


get daily update to join our Magazine