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Heaney, Sheila Anne Elizabethfree

  • Mary Corsar

Heaney, Sheila Anne Elizabeth (1917–1991), army officer, was born on 11 June 1917 at 5 Canning Street, Liverpool, the second of the four children of Francis James Strong Heaney (1874–1950), a consultant general surgeon who specialized in the use of radium, and his wife, Anne Summers, née McBurney (1886–1974), an American citizen. Sheila's childhood holidays were often spent in Cornwall, the Lake District, and the counties of Wexford and Kerry. Riding was a favourite pastime, and before the war she enjoyed following hounds. She was educated at Huyton College, Liverpool, and then, in 1935, went to Liverpool University, from where she graduated in 1938. She did a short course at Loughborough College of Technology before joining the personnel department of Marks and Spencer in Liverpool. Her interest in sociology was generated by visiting the less salubrious areas of Liverpool in the company of her father.

Heaney joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) in January 1939 and persuaded many of her staff to enlist also. She was posted to 1st west Lancashire platoon as D-company assistant. She was called up for service on 2 September 1939 and promoted junior commander in November 1940. In May 1941 she was given an emergency commission in the ATS as second lieutenant. Thereafter she spent a year at the ATS training centre before becoming second-in-command, Salisbury Plain district group. The first four months of 1944 saw her at the United States Army Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, USA. On her return she was posted to ATS clerical group in east Africa and in 1946 to Palestine group. Following this service she was awarded the territorial efficiency medal, the war medal (1939–45) and the general service medal with Palestine clasp. In February 1947 she was promoted captain. She returned to the UK in July 1948 where, following three months at Donnington headquarters, she was posted to the War Office as a deputy assistant adjutant-general.

Heaney decided to make her career with the army and in 1949 was granted a regular army commission with the rank of substantive captain in the Women's Royal Army Corps (WRAC), formed on 1 February that year. In 1951 she was awarded the territorial decoration. She continued at the War Office until 1952 when she went to headquarters 79 anti-aircraft brigade, Royal Artillery, with the rank of major. In 1955, after two years at western command, where her potential as a trainer was recognized, she was appointed MBE. She then went on to 1 independent company, WRAC, followed by another two years at 140 provost company. September 1959 saw her back at the War Office, following which in July 1961 she was posted to the depot and training centre of the WRAC school of instruction. In April 1962 she joined the medical services and WRAC records office, and in February 1963 she was promoted lieutenant-colonel. In October 1965 Heaney was sent to headquarters northern command as assistant director, WRAC, and in June 1967 she was promoted colonel. A month later she became assistant adjutant-general at the Ministry of Defence.

Heaney's promotion to brigadier came in June 1970, and later in the year she was appointed director, WRAC. This was also the year in which she was appointed an honorary aide-de-camp to the queen. In 1972 she visited the USA, where she studied the move towards the integration of servicewomen in the regular army and the campaign for equality in the armed forces. She believed strongly that women should be given more opportunities to achieve their ambitions in the army and prepared the groundwork for women's promotion outside the WRAC. However, she urged caution, and called for evolution rather than revolution. It was largely as a result of her efforts that women were given the chance to fulfil their potential in their chosen arm or service of the army and so achieve greater career opportunities. In February 1973 she was made CB. Her retirement from the WRAC in June 1973 did not lessen her interest in young officers. She served on the military education committee of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt universities' Officers' Training Corps for some years.

After being widowed Heaney's mother had moved to Edinburgh, and during her years at the War Office, Heaney travelled by train nearly every weekend to care for her. On her retirement she made her home with her mother. But idleness never appealed, so she joined the Women's Royal Voluntary Service (WRVS) and became district organizer for Edinburgh, steering the group through a difficult period of local government re-organization. In 1977 she agreed to become chairman of the WRVS in Scotland. Her genuine interest in people, coupled with her wise judgement and compassion, made her a loved and respected leader. While serving in Kenya she had nearly died as a result of eating tropical mushrooms. Her substantial lameness in later life may have been attributable to this illness; 1981 was the year of the disabled and, with personal knowledge, she was able to set up new projects to help this group.

During her busy life Sheila Heaney managed to find time to give individual help to those who needed it, delivering meals-on-wheels, shopping, and driving the elderly. When she retired from the WRVS in 1981 she became involved in the work of St Columba's Hospice, Edinburgh, serving on its executive committee and providing much of the essential impetus for its development. Having been a heavy smoker during all her adult life, she eventually developed lung cancer, and she spent her last few days in the care of the hospice. She died there on 1 February 1991. She never married. Her funeral and memorial service took place at St James's Episcopal Church in Goldenacre, Edinburgh, on 6 February 1991, and there her ashes were later interred.


  • ministry of defence archives
  • Women's Royal Voluntary Service archives
  • The Leopard [journal of WRAC]
  • archives, St Columba's Hospice, Edinburgh
  • private information (2004)
  • personal knowledge (2004)
  • The Times (8 Feb 1991)
  • The Independent (9 Feb 1991)


  • photograph, repro. in The Times
  • photograph, repro. in The Independent

Wealth at Death

£179,764.33: confirmation, 18 March 1991, NA Scot., SC/CO 225/210