Orford Museum, Suffolk

Constance with her taxiWorking on a vehicle

(Left) Constance with her taxi and (Right) working on a vehicle in Orford with Frederic Harper (her future husband) and a colleague looking on. (Ref: OrfMus: 2010.48)

The arrival of the Women’s Royal Air Force in Orford to support the men working on the Experimental Station was a revelation, the fact is that until the 1914-18 war, women in uniform (apart from nurses) were a rarity. All that changed once the shortage of labour caused by men enlisting, and later being conscripted, into the forces meant that women entered the workforce in large numbers to take the place of the men.

Only men served on Orford Ness until 1918 when a section of the newly-formed Women's Royal Air Force were posted to Orford to take on driving, vehicle maintenance and office duties to free men for other tasks. The motor transport depot where they worked was in Front Street, premises which later became Friends Garage.

One of the pilots, Frank Holder, explains that among the lady mechanics were family members of the airmen. 'Under Miss Gedge and Miss Robson, two experienced drivers, they were about twelve strong and included Barrett's sister Ivy, one of my sisters and Grace Bruce, the daughter of the estate agent at Sudbourne.'

Miss Robson was Constance Maulever Robson (1894-1986), a doctor's daughter from Alnwick in Northumberland. She learned to drive when she was about 16 and drove her father on his rounds visiting patients until his death in 1915. She then became a taxi driver in Newcastle because so many of the men had gone to fight. After she joined the RFC as a driver/mechanic she was posted to Orford Ness. She drove all types of vehicle, including ambulances and heavy lorries and because of her skill was known as 'the girl who would drive to Hell backwards'!

 

 

(Reference: p. 58 Experimental Station – Royal Flying Corps Orfordness 1916-19 by Sqn Ldr F D Holder OBE, MC, JP, DL. (Vol.8 No.2 1977))

The 'lady mechanics'

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