This weekend’s commemorations of the Battle of Passchendaele have inspired me to write something slightly different for Speedqueens.
Women served in and alongside the military in many ways during the First World War. Ladies who had been part of the motoring scene were well-represented among them.
Muriel Thompson was probably the most famous of the military Speedqueens. Muriel, who had raced at Brooklands, served in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry from 1915. She was stationed in Belgium. Her motoring experience made her an ideal choice for driving ambulances; transporting casualties and performing battlefield first aid were among the duties of the FANY.
Her first diary entry of 1916 reads:
Jan 1st We have started the first woman’s M.A.C. (Motor Ambulance Convoy) ever to work for the British Army. Our camp is on a little hill near the sea, behind the Casino. Most of us live in tents and bathing machines. I share a small chalet with three others. The weather is fiendish, gales and torrents of rain. The cars are old and in a bad state, and we are short of drivers. We mess in a big tent, all together. Lots of work but are all so very pleased to be here.
“Thompers”, as she was known, received the Order of Leopold II from the King of the Belgians, in recognition of her courage under fire. This was in addition to the French Croix de Guerre and the British Military Medal. The British award was for “conspicuous devotion to duty during an hostile air raid”, during which the FANY drivers continued to work under aerial bombardment.
She rose up the FANY ranks and was commanding convoys before the end of the war. Aside from occasional testing, she did not return to motorsport after the Armistice.
Muriel’s greatest rival in the Brooklands Ladies’ Bracelet Handicap of 1908 was Christabel Ellis. Christabel also served in the military and used her motoring skills. She was one of the original leaders of the Women’s Legion and served as a Commandant in the Motor Transport section. The Legion was formed in 1915. Christabel is said to have driven ambulances in France and Serbia prior to this, as a Red Cross volunteer. Her main job post-1916 was handling recruitment to the Legion. She was also involved in managing teams of despatch riders. She was made an OBE in 1918 and a CBE the year after.
Christabel Ellis sometimes hillclimbed a sidecar combination with her cousin, Mary Ellis. Mary was much younger than Christabel, but the pair were good friends. The younger Miss Ellis was an ambulance driver too and served with the Red Cross in 1917. At about this time, she became one of the first qualified female medical doctors in the UK.
Ethel Locke King was one of the founders of Brooklands, the first woman to drive on the circuit and runner-up to Muriel Thompson in the 1908 Ladies’ Bracelet Handicap. She did not venture to the front herself but she did found fifteen auxiliary hospitals in Surrey for injured soldiers. One of them was set up in her own house at Brooklands itself. Ethel was the Assistant County Director for the Voluntary Aid Detachment, a female nursing corps. She was in charge of 19 companies of VAD nurses, over 700 individuals. For this, she was made a Dame in 1918.
Some Speedqueens began their racing careers after the War, perhaps having developed their driving skills in military service. Gwenda Hawkes, the Montlhéry and Brooklands record-breaker, drove a Red Cross ambulance on the Eastern Front. She may have been a colleague of Christabel Ellis. She was Gwenda Glubb then, and began racing motorcycles with her first husband, Sam Janson, whom she met during the war.
Morna Vaughan and Lady Iris Capell would become senior figures in the Women’s Automobile and Sports Association in the late 1920s. They both competed in rallies, including the Monte Carlo Rally.
Like Mary Ellis, Morna Vaughan (then Morna Rawlins) was a medical doctor, one of the UK’s first female surgeons. She is believed to have served in a military hospital. Her specialism was gynaecology and genito-urinary medicine, so it is unclear what sort of medicine she was practising at the front.
Iris Capell joined up as a nurse with the Red Cross, aged nineteen. She worked in military hospitals in the south of England. Iris was a lifelong committee woman and a senior figure in the Women’s Voluntary Service during the Second World War.
This is not an exhaustive list and it is very Anglocentric. Please feel free to comment with your own suggestions, or email me.
(Image copyright Mary Evans Picture Library)