Black and white photograph featuring a female Red Cross despatch rider

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This black and white photograph is on paper, showing a female Red Cross despatch rider on her motorcycle, dated 1914-18. The photographer is not named.

It’s common to see women Red Cross workers in the role of nurse, dressed in their iconic white uniforms, and dosing the sick and suffering with medicine and sympathy. But the lady in this photograph presents an exception. Sat astride a Douglas motorcycle, in a canvas military coat and heavy boots, she is braced for the dangers that she would have very likely have encountered, carrying medical supplies and communications between Red Cross units, during the First World War.

Despite the vital and intrepid nature of this work, there is a great sense of fun in this image. The woman looks at the camera and smiles, and grips the handlebars of the bike with an air of confidence and control, as she manoeuvres across a terrain of rubble. Although the backdrop of a plain, white wall offers no indication of specific place, its blankness creates a spirit of mystery and adventure.

For me, this photograph not only documents the unseen labour of war, but also captures the changing status of women in the early twentieth century – heading into unknown territory, but eager to take on the challenges and seize the new opportunities that await.

Audio recording by Treena Warren (Volunteer) from London.
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