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Joan Margaret Richmond (1905–1999)

by N. T. McLennan

This article was published online in 2024

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Joan Richmond, Fairfax Media, 1931

Joan Richmond, Fairfax Media, 1931

National Library of Australia, 51774828

Joan Margaret Richmond (1905–1999), racing car driver and animal welfare worker, was born on 23 March 1905 at Umeralla station, near Cooma, New South Wales, younger child of Victorian-born parents John Richmond, grazier, and his wife Florence, née Staughton. John did not achieve the success of his father, James Richmond, who had established the Haddon Rig merino stud, near Warren. In 1909 he sold Umeralla and the family moved to a small holding adjacent to the Staughton family’s Exford estate at Melton, outside Melbourne. There Joan was educated at home by a governess.

In 1917 Joan’s father died after developing septic arthritis, leaving a relatively modest estate of under £2,000. She moved with her mother to a flat in suburban Melbourne and attended St Catherine’s School (1921–22), Toorak. The pair spent 1924 travelling in Europe. While visiting Richmond family relatives in Scotland, Joan was taught to drive a car. On returning to Melbourne, she dabbled in horse racing as an amateur jockey, but turned her interest to racing motor cars as, by contrast, there were no barriers to female participation.

Aided by a legacy from her paternal grandfather, Richmond purchased a ‘baby’ Citroën model 5CV. In June 1926, accompanied by her mother, she drove from Melbourne to her brother’s property near Camooweal in far western Queensland. After a ten-month stay she made the return drive, a total distance of 6,000 miles (9,656 km). By 1928 she was competing in hill climbs and on the track, achieving some success in ladies’ and handicap events. Switching to Riley motor cars, she began driving ‘more fearlessly, and with greater skill’ (‘Truro’ 1929, 11).

Newspapers seized on the novelty of Richmond’s ‘hobby,’ remarking that her fresh-coloured skin and wavy brown hair were hard to picture ‘begrimed with the dirt of the track.’ They were intrigued at how this ‘jolly girl’ was interested in all aspects of cars, including ‘their “innards”’ (Table Talk 1930, 26). In March 1931 she became the first woman to compete in the Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island. Of the fourteen starters, she was one of only six to complete the course, commentators observing that she might have troubled the place-getters with a faster car.

In August that year, Richmond was part of the Riley Touring Company that set off from Melbourne on an overland journey to contest the Rallye Monte-Carlo. Pursuing what began as an idle proposition made at a party, they secured for the venture three cars from Riley (Coventry) Ltd, as well as support from local businesses including the Dunlop-Perdriau Rubber Co Ltd and the Shell Company of Australia Ltd. The tour comprised five drivers—Richmond, the record-breaking overlanders Jean Robertson and Kathleen Howell,motoring journalist Pat Morice, and Riley representative Bertie Beatson—as well as a chaperone, ‘Mrs Charles’ (Florence) Coldham. Over five months, the 20,000-mile (32,187 km) route encompassed Singapore, the Malay Peninsula, India, the Middle East, and Italy. Competing against drivers converging on Monte Carlo from various locations across Europe, they raced from Palermo in Sicily to Monte Carlo; Richmond, accompanied by Beatson, finished seventeenth in the light car class.

The party then travelled on to England where Richmond remained after the party dispersed. In June 1932 she teamed up with Elsie Wisdom to compete in the Junior Car Club 1,000-Mile Race at the Brooklands Motor Course. Dubbed the ‘coolest and calmest of modern young women speedsters’ (Murray 1932, 8), the pair triumphed after racing at an average speed of 84.41 miles per hour (135.85 kmph). Richmond enjoyed her celebrity, writing to her mother, ‘You’ll find my picture in all the Illustrated Weeklies, Sphere, Graphic etc. just too famous I am’ (NMA 2007.0034). In public, however, she was careful to maintain outward femininity, aware that her pioneering achievements troubled some in the male-dominated sport. She claimed, after her win at Brooklands, that she wanted nothing more than ‘a face massage, plucked eyebrows, a manicure, and a hair wave, and to get the rest of the grime off’ (News 1932, 6).

Despite her success on the track, Richmond struggled financially and juggled racing with work as a chauffeur, a demonstrator at motor shows, and a private tour guide. She competed in Britain and Europe, returning several times to the Rallye Monte-Carlo, and also contested the gruelling 24-hour race at Le Mans, including as a member of the M.G. Car Company’s all-female ‘Dancing Daughters’ team in 1935. Engaging and vivacious, she attracted several suitors over the years but never married; her fiancée and co-driver, Maurice ‘Bill’ Bilney, was tragically killed in a race in 1937.

With the outbreak of World War II, motor racing ceased. Based in London, Richmond was an ambulance driver and driving instructor, and a chauffeur for an armament company and the British War Office. Later she worked for the De Havilland Aircraft Company Ltd sourcing parts. Pressured by her mother, she returned to Melbourne in May 1946. Later that year she nominated to drive in the New South Wales Grand Prix at Bathurst but did not compete. Lacking funding and unable to secure sponsorship, she never raced again.

By the early 1950s Richmond combined caring for her ageing mother (d. 1965) with work for the Animal Welfare League of Victoria. As a field officer, she campaigned against cruel conditions at abattoirs and saleyards. Later, she was active in the Cat Protection Society of Victoria, financing her retirement by running a cattery in the backyard, and by renting out half of her house. While essentially frugal, she maintained a habit of weekly visits to the hairdresser and monthly lunches with friends at the Alexandra Club.

Interest in pioneer drivers revived from the late 1970s. Richmond was a guest of honour at the fiftieth and sixtieth anniversaries of the Australian Grand Prix. Taken for a lap of the track at the latter event in 1988, she remained a thrill seeker, repeatedly urging her driver to go faster. In 1992 the Vintage Sports Car Club of Victoria Inc. made her an honorary life member. Increasingly frail, she died on 11 August 1999 at Malvern and was cremated.

Decades of austere living belied the size of Richmond’s estate, which was sworn for probate at almost $1.9 million. After assigning legacies to friends and relatives, she directed that the residue be divided between nine animal welfare organisations. The National Museum of Australia acquired a collection of her racing memorabilia in 2007 and she was inducted into the Australian Motorsport Hall of Fame in 2023.

Research edited by Peter Woodley

Select Bibliography

  • Clarsen, Georgine. Eat My Dust: Early Women Motorists. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008
  • Hanrahan, Brian. ‘The Speed Queens.’ Herald (Melbourne), 10 July 1971, Weekend Magazine 24–25
  • Mills, Les. ‘Across the World in Three Riley Nines to Compete in the Monte Carlo Rally.’ In The Second James Flood Book of Early Motoring, edited by H. H. Paynting and L. W. Mills, 149–66. [West Footscray, Vic.]: James Flood Charity Trust, [c. 1971]
  • Murray, Nell. ‘The Speeding Girl of Brooklands.’ Herald (Melbourne), 7 July 1932, 8
  • National Museum of Australia. AR00084 Joan Richmond, NMA Archival Collection
  • National Museum of Australia. 2007.0034 Joan Richmond, National Historical Collection
  • News (Adelaide). ‘Likes Real Men: Woman Motorist’s Outlook.’ 6 June 1932, 6
  • Price, David. Joan Richmond: From Melbourne to Monte Carlo and Beyond. [Mooroolbark, Vic.]: J. R. Publishing, 2011
  • Table Talk (Melbourne). ‘Melbourne Girls and Their Hobbies: No. 9.—Miss Joan Richmond—Girl Motorist.’ 4 September 1930, 26
  • ‘Truro.’ ‘Many Motor Racing Thrills on Heavy Track at Aspendale.’ Sporting Globe (Melbourne), 3 April 1929, 11

Citation details

N. T. McLennan, 'Richmond, Joan Margaret (1905–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2024, accessed online 21 June 2024.

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