Page 1: Biography
Corbin, Lorelle Henderson
Clerk, naval officer
This biography, written by Shirley Tunnicliff, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Lorelle Henderson Corbin was born in Adelaide, South Australia, on 3 June 1916, the daughter of Horace Hugh Corbin, a lecturer in forestry at the University of Adelaide, and his wife, Kathleen Mary Henderson. The family came to New Zealand in 1925 when her father was appointed professor of forestry at Auckland University College. Lorelle was educated at the Diocesan High School for Girls, Auckland, where she passed the matriculation examination. Later, between 1936 and 1938, she was employed in the office of the New Zealand Tung Oil Corporation in Auckland as a clerk and typist, where she was described as working reliably, energetically and efficiently.
When the Second World War began in 1939, the Women’s Royal Naval Service (New Zealand), whose members were commonly known as Wrens, was formed. In 1942 this became the Women’s Royal New Zealand Naval Service (WRNZNS), and Lorelle joined its first Auckland intake as a clerk–typist. Promotion was rapid. In September 1943, as fourth officer, she assisted in the control of 200 women then serving in the Auckland area. She was a strict disciplinarian who demanded her own high standards from all those who served under her, most of whom, however, endured spartan conditions in the barracks at Devonport while Fourth Officer Corbin continued to live in the comfort of her parents’ Remuera home.
In July 1945 she was one of two Wrens appointed to train for service overseas with the British Pacific fleet, but to their great disappointment they were no longer required after Japan’s surrender in August. Instead, she was transferred to Wellington as secretary to the chief of naval staff. Shortly afterwards, she was promoted to third officer, with the ranking backdated to March. The Wrens were retained for another year to assist in processing the discharge of naval personnel, during which time Lorelle was chosen with 11 other New Zealand Wrens to take part in the Victory Parade in London. She was demobilised on her return to New Zealand in September 1946, and the WRNZNS was disbanded in December.
Peter Phipps, commander of the navy training establishment, Philomel, paid tribute to the work the Wrens had done, and referred to the suggestion that perhaps they should be kept on to be available for emergencies. Only seven months elapsed before an emergency did arise. Faced with appalling conditions after their years of service overseas, the returning naval crews, frustrated at the official refusal to have their grievances heard, marched out of the naval base at Devonport at Easter 1947. The mutiny resulted in Lorelle Corbin being asked to return to the navy to re-establish the WRNZNS.
Believing the shortage of male recruits to be temporary, the navy was reluctant to offer the Wrens anything but a six-month contract. Extensions continued until legislation in 1950 made the WRNZNS a permanent part of the Royal New Zealand Navy. When Lorelle Corbin had been promoted to second officer in October 1948, the naval secretary wrote in a memorandum: ‘The smooth efficiency with which the Womens Royal New Zealand Naval Service was re-established is largely due to the hard work and foresight of this officer whilst the high standard of discipline and general bearing of the Wrens is directly attributable to her tact and firmness’. It was not, however, until after she had returned from the coronation parade in London that she was finally promoted to the rank of first officer, in March 1954 (backdated to January). She was now director of the WRNZNS at the Navy Office in Wellington.
It was not easy to make the transition to a permanent peacetime force. As they were not permitted to train at HMNZS Tāmaki at Motuihe Island the Wrens were confined to only two locations: Philomel, at Devonport, and the Navy Office in Wellington, known as HMNZS Wakefield. In addition, they were excluded from work such as day- and night-watch-keeping duties as merchant shipping officers and (one source of great pride) crewing the commodore’s barge. Only the more humdrum tasks, such as working as officers’ stewards, stores assistants and transport drivers, remained.
In the prosperous days of full employment in the 1950s and 1960s recruitment was always difficult, especially as Corbin refused to lower her high standards. Much of her time was spent travelling on recruiting campaigns addressing schoolgirls, but she had the satisfaction of overseeing the first New Zealander to attend the Royal Australian Navy Wren officers’ training course. Corbin was made an MBE in 1956, and when she retired in 1963 she could look back on having made the WRNZNS an accepted part of the navy, and on maintaining the same high standards of recruitment throughout.
After her retirement she married John Needham Lord, a manager, at Auckland on 12 October 1963, and lived quietly in Wellington until her death on 13 March 1995; John had died in 1994. In her spare time Lorelle had enjoyed horse-racing, tennis and mah-jong. She had retained a lively interest in the New Zealand Ex-Wrens Association and was present in 1977 at their last parade before the WRNZNS became fully integrated into the navy.