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The Amazing Life of Gladys Sandford

Not all of our Anzac wartime heroes were men in khaki. A true pioneer of her time, Gladys Sandford was a woman who achieved more firsts than many could imagine. From driving ambulances in the First World War, to becoming New Zealand’s first car saleswoman, first female pilot, first woman RSA member, and first to drive the length and breadth of Australia – this woman was well ahead of her time!

The story of Gladys and many other inspiring women during and after World War One is the focus of the latest exhibition Women of Empire: The Homecoming at the National Army Museum Te Mata Toa in Waiouru.

In the words of the museum Collection and Exhibitions Manager Windsor Jones, “The First World War was a transformative experience for many women. Opportunities to take on new roles and learn new skills saw these women become ambulance drivers, doctors, farmers and fund-raisers. They travelled the world, from Cairo to the Western Front, from Samoa to Serbia; or they remained at home, ‘doing their bit’ to keep businesses, farms and households afloat while their men served King and country in far away lands.”

Many of the women of this time returned home after the war to a very different life – whether it was nursing mentally broken men from the front, finding love and starting a family, or facing a life of spinsterhood when many of the young men were lying dead in foreign fields. Gladys was a remarkable woman who defied social barriers to achieve incredible things.

Gladys achieved more than most and was recorded in an interview in 1969 saying, “When I was young, women weren’t supposed to do anything much, not even express themselves……For my own part, if I found a barrier, I just crashed through it.”

Born in 1891 in Australia, Gladys moved to New Zealand with her family when she was young. At age 19 she was working as a school teacher when she met William Henning and fell in love. They married and moved to Auckland where they worked happily together in their car dealership before the war.

During the First World War Gladys drove ambulances through the dust of Gaza and the mud of France, eventually organising the Motor Transport Division for the NZEF (New Zealand Expeditionary Force) in England. But this was only a fraction of what Gladys would go onto achieve.

She was one of the first to take a car engine apart – and drive it around Auckland. One of the first to follow her husband and brothers overseas where she drove ambulances during the war (both her husband and brothers died).

Following the war, devastated by the death of her husband and two brothers, and exhausted from the war Gladys contracted the deadly influenza virus which permanently damaged her lungs – something she had to live with for the rest of her life.

Gladys was the first and only woman awarded a New Zealand regimental number. Widowed Gladys Henning returned with an MBE to Sydney where she married air ace Frederick Sandford and headed off to England, Egypt and India. Unfortunately the marriage did not last and Gladys returned to New Zealand.

In 1924, back in Auckland – alone – she became the first woman to gain a pilot’s license. Sadly she never flew again as it was too expensive.

Gladys was the first female full member of the RSA and also became the first woman in New Zealand to work as a car sales representative, also teaching driving. A few years later Gladys embarked on an adventure with her friend – again another first for a woman – driving East to West and North to South across Australia – and back again – for fun! She had to negotiate impassable roads (and no roads at all), to fix and rebuild the engine of her Essex sedan, and ended up travelling some 17,600km in little over 3 months.

During World War Two she founded and ran the Women’s Transport Corps in Australia, became president of the Sydney branch of the New Zealand RSA and worked as its unpaid social worker. A lifetime of incredible firsts and an incredible woman!

Gladys Sandford died in 1971 aged 80. Learn more about Gladys and the other remarkable women of our empire at the Museum’s latest exhibition on until 6 February 2020.

Picture: Gladys Sandford (right) with friend Stella Christie in Perth on their round Australia trip. Image courtesy State Library of Western Australia