The Arrest of Miss Winifred Virtue

As sometimes happens in Local and Family History, Library Assistant Becky Bavill fell down a rabbit hole the other day, lets join her on her adventure.

While helping a customer find information about railway wagons our indexing system returned this result:

I went and found the article and sure enough, there she was, in a lovely picture, but with absolutely no additional biographical information.  There was a date so I used our microfilm readers to get the whole page:

Mercury front page 24th March 1915
Close up of photo feature on Winifred, caption reads “Miss Virtue, the first professional woman motor driver in Leeds. She is frequently seen about the city, skilfully driving a commercial motor delivery van.

I tried various other searches in our resources and came up blank, so I turned to the British Newspaper Archive.  It’s a brilliant resource that we often use as an index at the library to track down articles we hold on microfilm.  Amusingly, given the tone of the original Mercury article, the first one I found was about an accident that had involved Miss Winifred Virtue!  It turned out that she was entirely exonerated from blame, the fault lying entirely with a rogue milk float driver who had conveniently enlisted after fleeing the scene.  A subsequent interview with Miss Virtue gives a real insight into her character:

“What I feel about my job is that I’m doing work which enables a man to go and fight . . .But women who do ought to have badges or war medals or something.  I think when badges are being given out to workers on Government work, they ought to give me a badge for what I am doing.”(1)

Emphasising her abilities by mentioning that she has been driving in London for six months prior to her time in Leeds, she shrugs off the interviewer’s suggestion that she is doing a difficult job, telling him in no uncertain terms, “Motor driving is not the most severe of the experiences I have had.  You will understand that when I tell you I have had twelve months’ farming in Canada.”(2)

Armed with no more clues than these and a feeling that I would have liked Miss Winifred Virtue, I turned to Ancestry to see if I could find out more about her.

Thankfully, Winifred Virtue is not the most popular name around, and I found only 4 of them that might have been the right age.  The first would only have been 16 in 1915 so a bit young.  Another was born in Sunderland, worked as a nurse, married and died in Sunderland so I ruled her out too.  A third was the same as the second, except in Shepton Mallet.  The fourth however . . .

Born 11 September 1889 in Battersea, Winifred was the daughter of Harry and Alice.  She had a sister, Elsie.  She attended Belleville School in Wandsworth between August 1902 and July 1904, when she would have been 12-14.  The next time she popped up was on the US Index to alien arrivals at Canadian Atlantic and Pacific Seaports.  It’s sketchy, just giving an age and name, but it seems to fit with the assertion of our Winifred that she spent a year in Canada; and would explain why I can’t find her on the 1911 census.

At this point, the trail in Ancestry went a bit cold, but the British Newspaper Archive again came to my rescue.  It turns out, that whilst she was living in London, Miss Winifred Virtue was a suffragette activist.  That driving in London she was so blasé about to the YEP reporter included trying to motor along Downing Street with a car-load of suffragettes in 1914.  Prior to that, she had been arrested and had appeared in court on charges of assaulting a police officer, but escaped with a fine.  She was also mentioned as being a secretary at the Women’s Social and Political Union in several articles connected with an incident the contemporary press found uproariously amusing – the smashing of the Society’s windows by an anti-suffrage protestor.

© British Library Board (General Reference Collection Mic.A.2559-2561, 3/10/1913, p888)

Try as I might, I can’t find out why she might have been in Leeds driving trucks.  Maybe things got a bit hot in London?  She wasn’t in the city directories, and even if I had an address, in 1915, Winifred wouldn’t have been able to vote, except as a householder in the local elections; so I can’t find her there. How she came to be in Leeds, and how long she stayed is currently a mystery. 

However, Ancestry does have documents from the 1920s, suggesting that Winifred decided that she wanted to go a step further in her war efforts.  There is a Winifred Virtue listed as being entitled to receive 3 medals for her service with the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps – the Victory Medal and the British War Medal; as well as the Silver War Badge which was issued to service personnel who had been medically discharged.  You can find out more about the badges here:

Pip, Squeak and Wilfred (WWI Campaign Medals) | Great War Stories (

And here:

Silver War Badge and Kings Certificate of Discharge | Imperial War Museums (

And you can find a great write up here about the work of QMAAC.  Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps | National Army Museum (

But that isn’t the end of Winifred’s story.  The 1939 register was taken to help put the nation on a war footing.  With the 1931 census destroyed in a fire, and the 1941 census never taken, this document is a really useful resource for family historians, and also for all round nosy researchers like me.  It was used to produce identity cards and ration books, and later formed the basis of the NHS record system.  Some entries are redacted – in these cases it is because the person could still be alive.  In February 2004 the Lord Chancellor’s Advisory Council on National Records and Archives implemented a standard closure period, and that a lifetime of 100 years should be assumed.  One of the things I really like about it is that because it continued to be used by the NHS up until 1991, it was updated with name changes, as well as the fact that – unlike the census at that point – it lists the full date of birth of individuals so you can be reasonably sure that you’ve got the right person!

In this case, armed with her date of birth, it looks like our Winifred enjoyed her taste of army life during World War 1, because the 1939 register listed her as being part of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) at the Ford Aerodrome in Wiltshire.  By then Winifred would have been in her fifties, but clearly her sense of duty was as strong as ever.

Winifred’s story ended in Poole, where she died at the age of 94 in 1984.  I’m hoping that when the 1921 census is released I can fill in a little more of her story.

  • unknown, ‘Young Lady as Driver of Motor Goods Van’, YEP, 22/3/1915, p3
  • ibid.

One Comment Add yours

  1. edsalkeld2015 says:

    Fantastic post! What a lovely discovery. Please do another if you find out any more!

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