Orford: Exhibition tells of driving ace who played key war effort role

Constance Robson, the 'girl who would drive to hell backwards', working on a vehicle while her male colleagues watch Constance Robson, the 'girl who would drive to hell backwards', working on a vehicle while her male colleagues watch

Tom Potter tom.potter@archant.co.uk
Wednesday, July 30, 2014
1:15 PM

The tale of a home front heroine dubbed ‘the girl who would drive to hell backwards’ will be among the stories told as part of a village’s First World War commemorations.

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Constance Robson was a teenager when war broke out in July 1914 but would build a reputation in Orford as a skilled mechanic and gutsy driver.

She worked at a vehicle depot - now Friends Garage in Front Street - repairing vehicles and winning acclaim for her motoring skills.

According to organisers of a three-day exhibition marking 100 years since the beginning of the war, Constance had driven her father, a doctor, on his rounds when she was just 16. She went on to fill one of the vacancies left by the men who had been called up, driving a taxi in Newcastle, where she honed her skills and eventually joined the Women’s Royal Air Force as a driver.

Posted to Orford, she worked as a driver and mechanic, and may have also driven at Orford Ness, a large part of which was acquired by the War Department for airfields.

Jennifer Hall, curator at Orford Museum, said: “She drove all types of vehicle, including ambulances and heavy lorries, and because of her skills was known as ‘the girl who would drive to hell backwards’.

“When the Royal Flying Corps merged with the Royal Naval Air Service to become the Royal Air Force, the need for a separate women’s air service led to the formation of the Women’s Royal Air Force. These women became known as the most professional and disciplined of all of the women’s services.”

The exhibition at Orford Town Hall will feature accounts of people living or based in the area, including a Royal Flying Corps’ captain who signalled his return from battle by lighting a flare which accidentally set light to a shed on top of the castle.

The exhibition, from September 12-14, is part of a community project which has received financial backing from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Local schools are being encouraged to get involved by finding historical facts in primary resources and sharing the results of their own work through art, literature and drama.

Maggie Livingstone, who is leading the educational side of the project, wants local youngsters to draw comparisons between their own lives and those of children during the war.

Saxmundham Free School recently visited Suffolk Record Office, where pupils found clues about life in the village during wartime.

Merlyn Mitchell Cotts, who joined the pupils on the visit, said: “They all had a wonderful time and were fascinated to read about a zeppelin being spotted above the primary school.”

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