Suffrage Stories: Aileen Preston: Mrs Pankhurst’s first ‘lady chauffeuse’

Vera Holme, Mrs Pankhurst’s subsequent chauffeur, is behind the wheel in this photograph. But I think this is the car in which Aileen Preston drove Mrs Pankhurst in 1911

Aileen Chevallier Preston was born in 1889 in co. Armagh, one of the 6 children of John Preston, who had been a captain in 4th Royal Irish Rifles, and his wife Edith (nee Chevallier), whose family lived at Aspall Hall, Debenham, Suffolk. Of her 5 siblings, two of her brothers died in childhood and a sister in 1905.  Her father was for some years the resident magistrate in Athlone, co. Westmeath, before his death in 1907.  In 1903 Mrs Edith Preston, was the Irish Ladies Croquet Champion, in 1906 won the UK Ladies’ Croquet Championship, and as late as 1915 was the holder of the Ladies’Championship at her local club, Roehampton.

After the death of Capt. Preston his widow, Aileen and her brother and sister moved to England and by 1911 were living at 11 Kew Gardens Road, Richmond.  As head of the household Mrs Preston did complete the 1911 census form but wrote ‘Unenfranchised’ in the ‘Infirmity’ column against the entry for each female member, including the three young servants. Although we do not know whether Aileen Preston and her mother were at this time active members of any suffrage society, this amendment to the census form makes their attitude to women’s right to the vote quite evident.

As noted, Aileen’s mother was most definitely ‘sporty’, a star of the ladies’ croquet world; Aileen’s game was golf. I suspect that Mrs Preston encouraged a practical bent in her children. In 1914 Aileen’s younger brother was training as a civil engineer while, as she later explained in an interview in Votes for Women, she, too, had always taken an interest in machinery. In a delightful BBC radio interview (listen here), recorded in 1962, she explained how, to much derision, she entered a motor works in order to learn all about the workings of the internal combustion engine and the maintenance of a vehicle. It was only after she had acquired this knowledge that she took driving lessons, becoming the first woman to gain a Royal Automobile Certificate.

Now fully qualified, she placed an advertisement in the Morning Post, offering her services as a ‘Lady Chaffeuse’. The most appealing response came from’Mrs Pankhurst’s secretary (probably Mrs Mabel Tuke) and, after an interview, Aileen was hired to drive Mrs Pankhurst around the British Isles on a five-month-long campaign.

Although her mother was, as we have seen, in favour of ‘Votes for Women’, Aileen later remembered that ‘My family were livid. They thought I was going straight into the dark arms of Hell – to be going to that dreadful woman, as her chauffeur. It was an awful blow, but I thought it was the most wonderful job. At a pound a week it was wealth’ [From Raeburn, The Militant Suffragettes]. In the radio interview Aileen mentioned that the pay was ‘all found’, so presumably she had her board-and-keep while on the road, as well as the £1 a week.

Her engagement began in April 1911, probably just after the Census. The WSPU had promised to put a hold on militant action in the run-up to discussion in Parliament of the Conciliation Bill; Mrs Pankhurst was using the time to spread the suffrage message throughout the country. in the radio interview Aileen gives a wonderful description of driving Mrs Pankhurst and her associates, together vast quantities of ‘literature’, over the un-tarmacked roads of Britain during that long, very hot summer. She tells just what it was like driving that car up and over the Kirkstall Pass.

For Aileen was driving a large, heavy Wolseley, given to the WSPU by Mary Dodge, an ardent suffrage supporter and heir to the American automobile fortune.  A ‘lady chauffeuse’ was every bit as responsible as a chauffeur for the very necessary running repairs and it was nothing to experience several punctures during the course of a day. There was always the danger that the low-slung petrol tank would rupture, caught by a stone on the rustic roads and, with the brakes working directly onto the tyres, there was always the danger of a blow-out while driving down a steep hill. Garages were few and far between; the ‘lady chauffeuse’ had to be resourceful, with nerves of steel.

Sometime after her engagement ended, Aileen Preston set up her own motor school. However, she maintained her link to the WSPU, and was the subject of an article in the 26 September 1913 issue of Votes for Women in which she mentioned that when setting out on her career she had had to overcome a good many difficulties and prejudices. It was for this reason that she thought other women would benefit from learning to drive and maintain a car at a school owned by a woman.

The school was based in St Mary Abbott’s Place, Kensington and, although giving lessons to what she termed ‘amateurs’ , Aileen was particularly keen to take pupils who wanted to take up motoring as a profession. As she told Votes for Women The modern girl is admirable suited for the life, and as a chauffeur should receive a salary of 30s to £2 a week – the same, of course, as that paid to a man,’ She advertised regularly in Votes for Women and Common Cause through 1913 and 1914, until the outbreak of war. Business was so good that she took a partner, a Miss Carver.

Aileen joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment and served from 23 October 1914 until 23 April 1915. She married John Graham-Jones (1880-1946), an army doctor, in July 1915 and was again advertising her motor school around this time. However from 25 April 1916 to 19 September 1916, she rejoined the VAD, hired as a ‘Chauffeuse”. She was put in charge of the first autonomous women’s ambulance unit, based at a hospital in northern France, in charge of 13 women drivers, and was mentioned in despatches.

Aileen’s daughter was born in July 1917 and a son in 1920. By 1939 she and her husband, now retired, were living at Lower Bockhampton, Dorset, and she was a member of the Dorchester ARP. She must have maintained contact with other erstwhile suffragettes and was interviewed by Antonia Raeburn for her book, The Militant Suffragettes (1973)

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All the articles on Woman and Her Sphere and are my copyright. An article may not be reproduced in any medium without my permission and full acknowledgement. You are welcome to cite or quote from an article provided you give full acknowledgement

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