Dolly Shepherd, the Parachute Queen

Elizabeth ‘Dolly’ Shepherd (1886 – 1983)


‘Parachute Queen’ turned war-time army driver, Dolly Shepherd’s experience of the war reflects the novel new roles the army invited women to take on, as well as the negative attitudes many held towards female recruits.  


She earned the name ‘Dolly’ after her grandmother remarked after her birth at Potters Bar, Hertfordshire,  that she looked like a dolly rather than a baby. Her childhood ambition to fly was fulfilled when, at 17, she met the ‘Parachute King’ Captain Gaudeon at Alexandra Palace where she was working as a waitress.  Gaudeon offered Dolly the opportunity to take part in the visual displays he was organising and after only half an hour’s training Dolly attempted her first parachute jump. One year later she was performing regularly at shows and galas as the ‘Parachute Queen’.


Parachuting brought dangers as well as fame, though  Several parachutists Dolly knew died in accidents. She continued even after a disastrous descent left her temporarily paralysed, but retired in 1912 after hearing a voice during one assent telling her never to go up again.


‘”A woman soldier! Just imagine a woman soldier!” They’d never seen anything like it.’


Just four days after war was declared, however, Dolly once again demonstrated her daring spirit and  signed up to the the Women’s Emergency Corps (later renamed the Women’s Volunteer Reserve) out of a sense of patriotic duty.  By night she served the Corps at the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich, and worked for the War Office driving lorries carrying munitions. She and her fellow Reservists were trained in signalling, semaphore (signalling using flags), morse code, and first aid.  Discipline was rigorous. Dolly recalled her superintendant of the Royal Arsenal, Lilian Barker, sharply rebuking anyone who was not working fast enough.


In 1917 Dolly trained as a driver and mechanic with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC).  She was was posted to Queen Mary’s Camp at Calais where she worked all hours driving officers from place to place, sometimes to the front line at Ypres and Paschendale.  She and her comrades shared a small wooden hut and paid 1 franc out of their wages for a meal at the officers’ mess on the rare occasions when they were back at lunchtime.  They weren’t allowed to mix socially with the officers but sneaked in the back door of their hotel when invited for dinner.


As a woman wearing army khaki Dolly was was mocked and teased by many members of the public. When she was given her sergeants’ stripes, she bought a large coat to hide them.  Soldiers at Calais were not more respectful. Her tyres were frequently deflated by her male colleagues and one officer initially refused to be driven by her because she was a woman. She was not to be discouraged, however.  When she came upon a general and his broken down car, she defied his expectations and restarted his engine with her hair pin.


“We worked hard, but we played hard too.”


One night Dolly and a few of her fellow soldiers drank a tin cup full of Benedictine (a French herbal liqueur).  When judged unfit for duty the next day they were court martialed. At the hearing they boldly said that they would do the same tomorrow because she was so tired out.  Though she was made to report at 8pm at the camp for 7 days, the presiding corporal was so appalled to hear that Dolly and the other drivers had not had any days off that they were thereafter given half a day a week leisure time.    


Shortly after the armistice was declared, Dolly and her friend met in Boscatle, Cornwall, with the officer who had refused to be driven be driven by her.  Upon the suggestion of her friend, she married him before reporting back to her base.