The Richardson sisters and the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps

After almost 100 years, the Chertsey Town War Memorial in Windsor Street is firmly embedded in its surroundings and easy to walk by without noticing the name panels. These display lists of surnames followed by initials but there are no further clues as to who these people were. Except for one, ‘Richardson, M. Maud.’.

Maud is the only first name, and Maud Richardson is the only woman, recorded on the Chertsey Town War Memorial. Both Maud and her sister Lilian enrolled as members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps which later became Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps.

Queen Mary inspects the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in Aldershot. Image credit: Bridgeman Art Library / Universal Images Group. Rights managed / For education use only.

Before moving to Surrey, the family lived near Epping in Essex where Edward Richardson was in service as a coachman. Edward and his wife Sarah Ann had three children, Albert (born in 1876), Lilian (in 1886), and Maud Mary (in 1888). At some point between 1901 and 1911, Mr and Mrs Richardson and their two daughters settled in Chertsey where Mr Richardson was a tobacconist and confectioner at 2 Windsor Street. The family lived above the shop adjacent to St Peter’s Church.

2 Windsor Street in the shadow of St Peter’s Church, Chertsey. Image by Ian Lacey.

In the early part of the Great War, women’s participation in the military was limited to nursing. The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), established in 1907, offered their support but this was rejected due to the prejudices of the British military authorities about women wearing uniforms and serving on battlefields. Undeterred, the first FANYs crossed to Calais in October 1914 to drive ambulances for the Belgians and the French. Through their work in hospitals and soup kitchens, and visiting the trenches to deliver supplies, these pioneering women were soon exposed to the realities of the Western Front.

In January 1916, the British authorities finally permitted women to drive motor vehicles for the Army. The following year the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was founded to free up men who were engaged in non-combat roles. This development caused some resentment amongst the mothers and wives of those men who, as a result, were transferred to fighting units.

WAAC Recruitment Poster. Image credit: Imperial War Museum reproduction right. Made available for education use by vads.ac.uk.

Although a uniformed service, there were no military ranks in the WAAC. The women were either ‘officials’ or ‘members’. Officials were divided into ‘controllers’ and ‘administrators’, and members were ‘subordinate officials’, ‘forewomen’ or ‘workers’. 

Initially, WAAC recruits were based only in Britain and restricted to roles considered as ‘feminine’ such as administration and catering. Within a few months and following the appointment of Helen Gwynne-Vaughan as Chief Controller Overseas, women were sent to France. In recognition of their contribution, Queen Mary became patron in 1918 and the corps was renamed Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC).

Worker Lilian Richardson was serving in France by the end of 1917. On 21 December, the Surrey Herald published this letter from Lilian to a Mrs Lawson which was intended to support the recruitment of local women for the corps: 

“I am sending you my photograph, as I was the first Chertsey girl to join the WAAC. I wish all the Chertsey girls a Happy Christmas, and wish they were out here with us. We are giving the men up the line a party on Christmas Day and one on Boxing Day.

They make us very comfortable out here, under the circumstances, but we like to think we are on active service. All the girls are very jolly, and we are all happy together. We have our sports, etc., when we have finished work. I have met out here girls from Girton and girls with their BA, etc., and extremely nice girls they are to work with. The work out here broadens a girl’s mind wonderfully, I find.

When I come home on leave I shall have to do some recruiting in Chertsey.” 

Surrey Herald 28 December 1917. Image by Jim Knight.

The tone of the letter was upbeat and suited the purpose for which it was intended but, almost certainly, Lilian’s message did not truly reflect what she and the other ‘girls’ had experienced during 1917. After more than three years of war, Lilian’s cheery words were likely to have been met with a degree of scepticism by readers of the Surrey Herald. On the day that Lilian wrote the letter, 98 of those later named on the Chertsey Town War Memorial had already lost their lives. Many others from Chertsey had been wounded.

Lilian is likely to have mixed with women from social classes other than her own working-class background. In the letter Lilian specifically mentioned Girton College, Cambridge, founded in 1869 and Britain’s first residential institution to offer university-level education for women. Thanks to personal benefactors and scholarships, women from backgrounds like Lilian’s were able to study at Girton.

In contrast to having Lilian’s own words, little is known about the experiences of her younger sister Maud in QMAAC. Maud was a Forewoman, the equivalent of a non-commissioned officer, and worked at Sydenham Camp. She died of influenzal pneumonia at the Endell Street Military Hospital, Covent Garden on 4 March 1919, aged 30. Her funeral was held at St Bartholomew’s Church in Sydenham just over a week later.

Surrey Herald report 21 March 1919 on Maud Richardson’s funeral. Image by Jim Knight.

On 21 March 1919, the Surrey Herald reported on Maud’s funeral but only referred to her as the ‘youngest daughter’ of Mr and Mrs Richardson. Maud’s coffin was covered in the Union Jack, a full choir of QMAAC’s sang her favourite hymns, and there were numerous floral tributes. One of the floral tributes was from the Sunday School teachers in Chertsey which suggests that Maud might have been one of their number before enlisting.

As Maud Richardson was serving when she died, she was entitled to a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone. She is one of 188 QMAAC women recorded in the Commission’s register of war dead. Nine of these women lost their lives, and another seven were wounded, when German aircraft attacked the QMAAC camp at Abbeville in France in May 1918. Maud is buried in a secluded, wooded section of Beckenham Cemetery.

Maud Richardson’s grave at Beckenham Cemetery.
Image by Ian Lacey.

In death, Maud appears to have been treated differently to her male counterparts. The Surrey Herald did not mention Maud by name when reporting her funeral. Her untended grave is over 100 metres away from the formal grassed area where most of the Great War dead are buried closely together. Although Maud Mary Richardson is the only woman named on the Chertsey Town War memorial, her first name and middle initial were transposed so the memorial incorrectly records ‘Richardson, M. Maud.’.

The contrasting setting for other Great War graves at Beckenham Cemetery.
Image by Ian Lacey.

The Richardson family experienced a second loss within six months when Lilian and Maud’s mother Sarah Ann died in September 1919. Edward Richardson passed away in May 1925 leaving his effects to his son Albert. Lilian’s life immediately after the Great War is unclear but she emigrated to the United States in 1938, settling in Los Angeles, California.

Many women continued to serve abroad in QMAAC after the Armistice when their duties were expanded to include tending the new cemetery gardens. The corps was disbanded in September 1921 by which time five QMAAC women had been awarded the Military Medal.

Female gardeners attached to QMAAC tending graves of British soldiers in France. Image credit: Private Collection / The Stapleton Collection / Bridgeman Art Library / Universal Images Group. Rights managed / For education use only.

Acknowledgements and call for further information

Thank you to Jim Knight for sharing his existing research on the Richardson sisters and for sourcing documents confirming Maud’s cause of death and Lilian’s emigration.

Gaps in the story still need to be filled so please contact us with any information or images relating to the Richardson family.

Suggested listening

In this Western Front Association podcast, Dr Samantha Philo-Gill discusses the formation, role and legacy of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.

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