One unexpected outcome of the Great War was the improved rights for women which resulted in (some) women being able to vote in the General Election of 14th December 1918.
At the beginning of the war, Suffragettes, who had been campaigning for decades, realised that continuing attacks on the establishment would not assist their cause. The secretary of the Eastbourne Women’s Suffrage Society wrote an open letter to the local Mayor offering their services to the war effort in any way. Initially opportunities for women were mainly roles considered suitable for women such as clerical work or nursing. Many local women joined and assisted the Red Cross. Some even drove ambulances.
As the war progressed and more men were called-up it was logical that women would have to take the jobs that were previously considered ‘man’s work’. In London where were even ‘Lady Policemen!’
In Eastbourne women started to deliver the post and take on other roles and in 1917 one Eastbourne woman made the national press when she became a taxi-driver.
Her name was Margaret Scott who was originally from Framfield. Margaret was born in France in 1882 but in her twenties, she moved to Eastbourne to run a boarding house in Meads (another role deemed ‘suitable for a woman’)
On 31st January 1916, she obtained a licence to drive motor-cars and purchased a car. She enjoyed driving long distances and claimed that motoring was good for the health. She said “I was never very strong but motoring has improved my health. I used to suffer from colds and other ailments but since I have taken to motoring this has ceased. If I leave off motoring my health declines but now I am very fit”. She said she could cycle 80 miles in a day or walk over 20 miles. She had been hired on several occasions to drive passengers but this had been a private arrangement. Margaret wanted to be a taxi-driver.
Women had been allowed to drive taxis in Vienna as early as 1912; they were quaintly called ‘chauffeuses’. A report said that only ‘middle-aged’ women should be appointed but refreshingly reported that “if there were more women drivers many accidents would be prevented”
The lack of able-bodied men during the war saw many women drivers but few were permitted to drive taxis.
There had been female taxi drivers in Scotland as early as 1915. The following year a request had been made in Yorkshire for women to be taxi-drivers but this was refused on the basis that it would be dangerous to the women themselves. The chairman of the Watch Committee in Leeds said “what if it was a dark night and a woman tax-driver was hired by a man worse for liquor? He could refuse to pay his fare or even worse and we must guard against such things!” Other councils agreed; in Burnley it was said that “The public don’t want women drivers” and in Walsall it was said that taxi driving was too rough for women. However there were women taxi drivers in Manchester and Newcastle by September 1916.
In July 1916, it was suggested to one Sussex taxi company that they might employ women but Mr Bodle, who ran 20 tax-cabs in Eastbourne, said “Ladies object to the hours they have to put in. The hours of work extend beyond midnight and ladies will not face it. Taxi driving is not suitable for women!”
Margaret disagreed and in the early weeks of 1917 she applied to the Eastbourne Watch Committee for a licence to run a taxi-cab. The press was sceptical and said that although her driving skills were not in question she would be unable to assist her passengers with heavy luggage. She appeared before the Watch Committee and reported that she had driven nearly 9,000 miles without incident. The Committee decided that if she wanted the licence she would have to prove her driving proficiency to the satisfaction of Mr Percy Ellison, the Manager of the Eastbourne Motor-Bus Department. This was not a requirement for male drivers.
I am sure Margaret was nervous of having to have a ‘driving test’ with Mr Ellison as his views on women drivers were widely known. The previous year, when asked why women should not take the jobs of men drivers so they could be released for war service, he retorted “Sir, if this course is taken I would not like to be responsible for the safety of the public!”
Percy however was very impressed with Margaret’s driving skills and his report to the Watch Committee was so favourable that she was immediately granted a taxi-cab licence. She plied for hire in a bright yellow car which became known as the ‘Yellow-Bird’. The Eastbourne Gazette sang her praises and reported in March 1917 that she had taken fares as far away as London and Southampton (before dinner!) she had recently driven to Seaford before breakfast and returned to Eastbourne to convey passengers to Margate.
Margaret was one of the first female taxi-drivers in the south of England. London did not get its first ‘lady’ taxi driver until November 1917. She was Susan Dudley-Ryder a cousin of Lord Harrowby.
By the end of the war it was not unusual to see woman taxi drivers. Today we don’t give a second look to a woman driving a taxi – but 100 years ago it was so unusual that the first Sussex taxi driver made the national papers!