About two weeks ago I had a message through the site from a lady called Helene who’s mother, Elise, served in the American Ambulance in Glasgow. Helene very kindly shared what her mother had kept and also wrote a piece about her mother for me. Below is what Helene wrote, under that I’ll include some more of Elise’s photos and what they show.
My mother, Elise Russell-Fergusson (nee Mainwaring), was a driver with the AAGB during WW2, based in Glasgow. I’m uncertain when she joined or when she left, but her reminiscences, shared or overheard throughout my childhood, were testament to the important and lasting impact on her of that experience.
Born in Brixton in 1907, she had worked during the 1920s and early 1930s as a successful photographic model, including being the first ‘Kodak girl’ – the life sized cardboard cut-out figure that stood outside chemist shops across the UK, advertising Kodak products. But on marrying my father and moving to Scotland in 1932, she gave up work for domestic responsibility. Although she adored the rural setting where we lived beside Loch Lomond, I think she sometimes missed the bustle and challenge of city life.
That might be partly why she so relished being a member of the Glasgow AAGB. When she talked about the shared billet at 69 Oakfield Avenue and the Otago Street garage where the ambulances were kept, her sense of community, of shared purpose and of fun was palpable. Compared to her previous environment of fashion and frivolity, the AAGB valued her practical capacities, her determination, sense of responsibility and courage. As for many women, wartime brought her a chance to develop and perhaps reclaim and enjoy her independence. Joan Goddard was in charge of the group and mum’s memorabilia includes mention of Joan as well as two very droll poems penned by a Kay Pickford.
The AAGB women serviced and maintained their own ambulances. There were several oily stories. Much to her embarrassment, mum was summoned one afternoon from under her vehicle, filthy from changing the oil, to drive a rather good looking visiting officer to an important appointment. Sandra, a short, fiery Canadian with the wickedest laugh you ever heard, who became a life-long friend of my mother and whom I called ‘Auntie Sandra’, would retell the story of rushing onto the parade ground to salute a dignitary and ‘going arse over tit’ in a pool of oil at his feet. Yes, their language was ripe at times, and the laughter fulsome. Sandra would come from Sussex to stay for a few days and they would sit together, smoking and laughing. I should have listened more attentively.
I never heard of the exhaustion, the distress and the pain of working with so many injured servicemen and women which must have been as much part of their lives as funny anecdotes and the intermittent boredom of waiting to be called out. I never heard Mum speak of specific callouts although, often, she was allocated the run to London to collect wounded patients bound for Scotland. Mostly, I heard these reminiscences during the 1950s when, bundled with a pillow in the back seat, she drove me down the A1 to visit my grandparents.
She never spoke of the patients themselves but would regularly point out the myriad side roads leading to wartime hospitals and convalescent homes which she had visited, hernostalgic memories still fresh. She had mixed feelings about those AAGB journeys, driving cautiously south through the blackout looking forward to seeing her parents yet fearing what she might find. Was she in London during the Blitz? Or called to Clydebank during the Blitz? I don’t know.
Researching a library archive relating to an aunt recently, I admitted my shame to the librarian that I had never thought to ask pertinent questions when the aunt or her siblings were alive. That’s how it goes, the librarian replied, so many people kick themselves for not taking an interest earlier. While I might be forgiven for not pursuing such questions as a child, why didn’t I talk with mum about the AAGB when I was in my 30s, 40s, 50s?
However scant our memories, it seems important that we share them when we can. The young registrar, when I was registering my mother’s death in 2004, asked me what had been her occupation. I hesitated. Since the war, mum had never ‘worked’, not paid work, anyway. The registrar didn’t hurry me. Then my daughter piped up, ‘Nan was a model, wasn’t she,mum? And she drove an ambulance during the war.’ ‘Shall I put that down?’ asked the registrar. ‘Yes please’. ‘And what about her mother?’ asked the registrar, ‘so often, people don’t record women’s occupations yet it’s important.’ And so we pondered my grandmother’s life as well.
Afterwards, despite it having been such a sad occasion, I felt a little cheered. It seems that modern registrars are ensuring that women’s contributions to life, to community, to society, are being recorded more thoughtfully than before.
Below are a few other bits Helene sent over to me.
A poem written by one of the drivers, Kay Pickford.
A photo with a newspaper clipping that shows the Duchess of Gloucester inspecting members of Glasgow Station, here the drivers are stood in front of “First Aid Posts”.
There’s another photo is an inspection showing mainly “Ford CLARA” ambulances with a two “Ford R.O.I.T” ambulances in the far end of the photo. I can’t make out anymore registration numbers however can tell that the nearest ambulance in this photo, GGP 414, was donated to Grantham Hospital at the end of operations.
A letter, attached to Captain Joan Goddard at the Oakfield Avenue billet, commending the work of two drivers of Glasgow Station.
Finally we have a two year service certificate, also to Captain Joan Goddard, this design differs slightly from the ones that were issued from around 1943. Helen isn’t sure why her mother had Joan’s certificate, maybe she gave it to Elise to keep safe with her collection of AAGB paperwork.