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Determined to Serve: Ambulance Driver Gladys Sandford

By Sophie Coombe
Collection Technician, Research Support

During the war, most women could be found at the home front, concentrating on managing a number of domestic as well as intellectual responsibilities. However, a number of women served on the front lines as ambulance drivers. Ambulances were considered to be a form of modern technology in the First World War, and it was seen as a privilege to drive one.

A remarkable woman who dreamed of cars and flying

Gladys Sandford is considered to be both a pioneering driver and aviator. She was the first female in New Zealand to receive a pilot's licence, and was formally recognized for her work as an ambulance driver in the war. A determined and strong woman, she broke through social norms and barriers at a time when "women weren't supposed to do anything much" (Harper, 2016).

Early Years

Gladys Sandford was born in Sydney, Australia in 1891. Her family moved to Auckland, New Zealand, before finally settling in Hawke's Bay.

Sandford's interest in cars started early on. She was drawn away from more traditional activities at a young age - she was not musically talented or interested in sewing like her sisters. Instead, she preferred to help her brothers work on car engines. This was despite her mothers disapproval to participate in an activity that was seen as inappropriate for women at the time.

Portrait of Gladys Sandford. Gladys Sandford papers, ca. 1891-1925. State Library of New South Wales collection of World War I papers.

Portrait of Gladys Sandford. Gladys Sandford papers, ca. 1891-1925. State Library of New South Wales collection of World War I papers.

Image is from the collections of the State Library of NSW. Image has no known copyright restrictions.

An unconventional married life

In 1912, Sandford married William Henning, who also shared her enthusiasm for driving and engines. Henning admired Sandford's determination and independence, and they opened up a business in Auckland selling cars until Sandford decided to enlist in the First World War as a motor driver. Although Sandford was turned down by the Government, she decided to find her own way to Egypt, where she joined her husband William Henning.

In 1916, she sailed to Egypt with the New Zealand Volunteer Sisterhood. Her husband, Henning, was already stationed there as a solider in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Sandford offered her services as a motor driver in Giza, driving wounded soldiers to the hospital. She faced treacherous roads and rocky conditions as an ambulance driver, but this didn't stop her helping those who needed her. When her husband's battalion moved to France to fight against the German Army, Sandford joined him in England, taking up a job as a cleaner in the Hospital. She persuaded the Sergeant Major in charge of the drivers to allow her to work as an ambulance driver, despite him stating - 

You're a cleaner...and anyway, men are much better drivers." (Harper, 2016).

Taking on more responsibility

In 1917, Sandford was employed as a motor ambulance driver with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. She picked up wounded soldiers from France and Belgium and took them to the hospital, working through the night despite the dangerous conditions. For her hard work, Sandford was awarded an M.B.E, Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

After the war ended, Sandford suffered the loss of her two brothers and her husband, as well as falling ill. Henning unfortunately died of wounds on 13 September 1918. Despite her loss and grief, Sandford continued to break through typically male oriented occupations. She became the first woman in New Zealand to work as a car sales representative and also to attain her pilot's license.

Post war

Sandford continued to embark on amazing adventures after the First World War - In March 1927, she drove across Australia with her friend, fixing the car every time it broke down, a rare feat for women of the time. By the time they returned to Sydney in July 1927, she had driven a distance of 17,600 kilometers. Sandford was the first woman to make such a journey.

Sandford was working as a President of the National Emergency Service Drivers and a censor for the Army when the Second World War began.

After the war had ended, Sandford continued to dedicate herself to service. She helped others, working as an unpaid social worker for the New Zealand sub-branch of the Returned Services' League. Sandford was a hardworking generous person, who visited many ex-New Zealand soldiers in hospitals and assisted their families. She passed away in 1971.

Further reading

Gladys's Cenotaph record can be viewed here.

Gladys was one of the many women who decided to 'play their part' away from the homefront. If you would like to know more, take a look at the Online Cenotaph profiles of other notable women ambulance drivers, such as Motor Driver Agnes Isobel Pearce (OBE).


Harper, Glyn, Illustrated by Cooper, Jenny. (2016). Gladys Goes to War. New Zealand: Penguin Random House.

Taylor, Nancy M. Women at War. The Home Front, Volume II, Chapter 20, pp.1053-1115

Help us improve Online Cenotaph

Can you tell us more about Glady Sandford's service history, or her civilian life? Go to Gladys's Online Cenotaph record to share your information.

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Cite this article

Coombe, Sophie. Determined to Serve: Ambulance Driver Gladys Sandford. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 21 February 2017. Updated: 16 September 2019.

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