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date: 18 October 2019

Ellis, Mary Baxterfree

  • Lynette Beardwood

Mary Baxter Ellis (1892–1968)

by Bassano, c. 1939

Ellis, Mary Baxter (1892–1968), commanding officer of the FANY, was born on 12 November 1892 at North Ashfield, Newcastle upon Tyne, the elder daughter in the family of four children of Joseph Baxter Ellis, grocer and miller, and his second wife, Mary Sharp Taylor. Her father, later knighted, was three times mayor of Newcastle and its first lord mayor on creation of the title by Edward VII in 1906.

Baxter Ellis, known as Dick, was educated at Newcastle Central high school and University College, London. At the outbreak of the First World War, determined to serve her country and in the face of fierce parental opposition, she enrolled on a chauffeur's course, gaining a first-class certificate at the Motor Supply Company School of Motoring. In August 1915 she joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) corps. This organization had been founded in 1907 by a sometime cavalry sergeant-major, Edward Baker, as an all-female mounted ambulance unit. By the outbreak of war the FANY had moved to mechanized transport and was the first uniformed women's organization to go to France on 27 October 1914 where, first driving for the Belgian and French, in 1916 they became the first women to drive officially for the British army. They were an entirely voluntary unit. Baxter Ellis arrived in France in December 1915, and served with the British Calais convoy and the corps de transport armée Belge. She was personally decorated by the queen of the Belgians in 1918.

At the end of the First World War official policy was to disband all the women's services. The FANYs, highly decorated for gallantry by Britain, France, and Belgium, survived because of their voluntary status and financial independence, but the 1920s saw a dramatic decline in recruitment. Disarmament and appeasement were the prevailing sentiments. That the FANY continued to grow in competence and numbers was due largely to the inspirational leadership of Mary Baxter Ellis. Convinced by her experiences in the war that women had an important contribution to make, and that the FANY, based on the two great essentials of self-discipline and spirit of service, had a particular contribution, she determined to build the corps up again. She became the officer commanding the Northumberland section in 1928 and corps commander in 1932. A historian of the FANY has written that Mary Baxter Ellis was 'in the true sense of the word a leader. She had a great capacity for enthusing others, both collectively and individually … a creative brain and a gift for public speaking … for spreading a knowledge of [the Corps'] traditions' (Ward, 96). Although these traditions were born before the First World War, they were crystallized during that war and strengthened, augmented, and established on a high ethical and regimental standard by Mary Baxter Ellis, in the period from 1932 to 1939.

In 1937 the name of the corps was changed to Women's Transport Service (FANY) to reflect their specialization. In 1938 the War Office created a new women's force, the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). Mary Baxter Ellis was asked to lead it but declined to leave the FANY to do so. Instead she negotiated that, in return for administrative independence within the new organization, the corps would provide 1500 trained driver/mechanics for the ATS transport wing. Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, subsequently appointed director, was fiercely hostile to the idea of the FANY as a self-governing entity within the ATS, and in breach of the 1938 agreement forced Baxter Ellis to accept absorption in December 1939. Baxter Ellis understood quite clearly that service entailed sacrifice and that self has no place in leadership (Ward, 314). She relinquished her command and took a substantial part of the corps into the ATS. The only condition she demanded was that the FANYs should be allowed to wear their FANY shoulder flashes. The remainder of the corps, under Marion Gamwell, became known as the Free FANYs and saw war service with the Special Operations Executive, the Polish army, and the British Red Cross Society.

Baxter Ellis was commandant of the ATS motor companies no. 1 training centre at Camberley until December 1940, then GSO1 (military training) at the War Office. She became deputy director of the ATS in 1943, and was appointed CBE (military) in 1942. At the end of the war she returned to FANY headquarters as corps commander, but beset by increasingly severe arthritis retired in 1947. Her medals were subsequently put on display at FANY (Princess Royal's Volunteer Corps) headquarters at the duke of York's headquarters in Chelsea, London.

A tall, slender woman with dark hair always swept back into a bun, Mary Baxter Ellis loved Northumberland, where she spent much of her life. She lived in a cottage on the moors near Bellingham with her fellow Northumbrian and close friend Marjorie (Tony) Kingston Walker, also a distinguished FANY and a gifted artist, and later at West Woodburn, nearby. In addition, she was a member of the Northumberland county council. Her interests were wide-ranging, from dog-breeding to local archaeology. She was also a writer of fiction, and a regular contributor to several magazines.

Mary Baxter Ellis never married. She died on 12 April 1968 in the Charlotte Straker Cottage Hospital, Corbridge, Northumberland, from pneumonia, and was cremated at All Saints, Newcastle, on 16 April.


  • FANY Gazette (1918) [available at FANY archives, Duke of York's HQ, London]
  • FANY Gazette (1932) [available at FANY archives, Duke of York's HQ, London]
  • FANY Gazette (1968) [available at FANY archives, Duke of York's HQ, London]
  • Duke of York's HQ, London, FANY archives
  • I. Ward, FANY invicta (1955)
  • H. Popham, FANY (1984)
  • private information (2004) [Dorothy Wattsford, niece]
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.


  • Women's Transport Service (FANY), London, Duke of York's Headquarters


  • Bassano, photograph, 1939, NPG [see illus.]
  • M. Kingston Walker, oils, 1948, Duke of York's HQ, London, FANY archives

Wealth at Death

£22,398: probate, 20 June 1968, CGPLA Eng. & Wales