Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Gladys Sandford (1891–1971)

by Carol J. Baxter

This article was published:

Gladys Sandford (1891-1971), motorist, was born on 4 March 1891 at Summer Hill, Sydney, fourth child of Oswald Coates, an English-born commission agent, and his wife Valerie Albine, née Lassau, who came from South Australia. By 1896 the family had moved to Auckland, New Zealand. At the age of 21 Gladys was employed as a schoolteacher at Napier. On 20 June 1912 at St Barnabas's Anglican Church, Mount Eden, she married William Henning, a widower and a motor salesman. She learned to drive and enjoyed tinkering with engines.

When her husband enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in 1914, Gladys offered her services as a motor driver, but was turned down. She paid her own passage, sailed to Egypt with the Volunteer Sisterhood, and worked as a driver at the Ghaza hospital. Reaching England, she was engaged as a driver by the Motor Transport Section of the N.Z.E.F. on 30 May 1917. She rose to be head lady driver, but contracted influenza and was discharged on 19 January 1919. In 1920 she was appointed M.B.E. Her husband, who had won the Military Cross, had died of wounds in 1918.

Tireless and fearless, Gladys was an attractive woman with fair, curly hair and blue eyes. At St Mark's Church, Darling Point, Sydney, on 3 April 1920 she married Frederick Esk Sandford (d.1929), a squadron leader in the Royal Air Force. They lived in England, India and Egypt. In 1924 she returned to Auckland alone. For many years she had wanted to learn to fly. In December 1925, despite strong opposition, she became the first woman in New Zealand to gain a pilot's licence (no.18).

Forced to support herself, Mrs Sandford worked as a motorcar saleswoman and taught her customers to drive. She was dared to emulate F. E. Birtles' overland trip from Adelaide to Darwin. With a female companion (who could not drive), she left Sydney on 4 March 1927 in a 1926 Essex 6 coach, planning to motor to Perth, Darwin, Adelaide and along the coast to Sydney. 'Their equipment consisted of tinned foods and flour, a frying-pan, a billy and a grid-iron, blankets and a mattress, canvas waterbags, a tomahawk, fencing wire and a wire strainer, a set of bog extractors, a Red Cross outfit, a revolver, and four suitcases of personal luggage. The only spares they carried when they set out were two spark plugs, a coil, and a soldering iron'. Floods and impassable roads necessitated changes to her itinerary. Returning to Sydney on 25 July, she had driven some 10,000 miles (16,093 km) and undertaken running repairs, including re-assembling the engine. On the one occasion she needed help, she short-circuited the Transcontinental telegraph-line to gain the aid of technicians.

In 1929 Sandford settled in Sydney. During World War II she founded and presided over the Women's Transport Corps. By 1940 it had almost 400 members who had to practise military drill, and pass theoretical and practical examinations in driving and maintenance. The unit was soon brought under the umbrella of the National Emergency Services. By day she censored letters for the Department of the Army.

After the war Sandford ran a poultry farm with a female friend for a few years before obtaining a job with the Department of Repatriation. In 1956 she retired. She moved into the War Veterans' Home, Narrabeen, worked at the home's art-union office, took up painting, and enjoyed sea fishing. A vice-president of the Sydney branch of the New Zealand Returned Soldiers' (later Services) Association, she marched on Anzac Day and acted as an unpaid social worker for the association, visiting sick and distressed soldiers and their families. She died on 24 October 1971 at the Repatriation General Hospital, Concord, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • K. J. Cable and J. C. Marchant (eds), Australian Biographical and Genealogical Record, 1842-1899, vol 2 (Syd, 1987)
  • S. Lainé, Silver Wings (Wellington, NZ, 1989)
  • Australian Women's Weekly, 19 Mar 1940, 18 July 1942, 26 Feb 1969
  • Motor in Australia and Flying, 1 July 1940
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Mar 1940
  • Sunday Herald (Sydney), 6 Sept 1953
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 29 June 1967
  • Sandford papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Carol J. Baxter, 'Sandford, Gladys (1891–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 6 March 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Coates, Gladys
  • Henning, Gladys

4 March, 1891
Summer Hill, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


24 October, 1971 (aged 80)
Concord, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.