A brave bright devotion to duty: Bertha (Betty) Gavin Stevenson, driver for YMCA
Pauline Alden has been researching the role of local women in the First World War, including the story of Betty Stevenson. Betty worked with the YMCA, an organisation playing a tremendous role in supporting soldiers overseas:
Betty Stevenson was born in York on 3 Sept. 1896. The 1891 Census shows that her father, Arthur Gavin Stephenson, was a boarder in our area at 53 Nunthorpe Road. In 1899 he became a solicitor with the North Eastern Railway and later their District Land Agent. The 1901 Census shows that the family were living at Acomb Green, in a household with several servants. By 1911 Betty was living away from home, in Watford, Hertfordshire, while her family were living in Harrogate.
Betty’s parents were YMCA activists, and she became involved at a young age. When she was 16, she travelled to London as part of a group from the local Belgian Refugees Fund, to bring back to Harrogate the refugee families who had been camping out at Alexandra Palace. In January 1916, Betty’s aunt went to France to set up a YMCA canteen in St. Denis Hut on the outskirts of Paris. Even though Betty was only 19 she was keen to join her, but was considered too young. But in March she paid her own expenses and travelled to France. They lived in a small hotel on the Boulevard Magenta in Paris, working at the St. Denis Canteen. She enjoyed the work, writing “We know how grateful the men are, and they know us now so well.”
Betty’s mother, Catherine Stevenson, joined her at the end of March 1916. At this time they found travelling to the canteen diffucult, so they raised £100 from friends and family, and with a donation of £50 from the YMCA, they were able to buy a second-hand Ford for transport.
Betty was stationed at Etaples from April 1917, and enlisted as a YMCA motor driver, responsible for transporting concert parties and relatives from England to visit the wounded in hospital. Writing to her father she contrasted the serenity and beauty of the fishing village with the military camp nearby. In May 1918 Betty assisted at a YMCA canteen and club, and also volunteered to feed French refugees.
During May 1918 Etaples was under repeated German attack. On the evening of 30th May 1918, Betty was in a party of women being moved away from the camp so that they would be in a safer area. On the way the group was caught out on the road in an air attack. The party took shelter on the side of the road, but Betty was killed by a bomb and two others were injured.
Betty was buried in the Military Cemetery with full Military Honours. She was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre avec Palme by General Petain, for courage and the devotion to duty.
The Matron of the YMCA rest house wrote to Betty’s family:
“Nothing which has happened has cast such a shadow of gloom on us all as the calling away of your dear child. She was loved and admired by everybody, and none of us will ever forget her brave, bright devotion to duty. She set an example to us all. It was very often her work to bring supplies or visitors to the Rest House…. and never once did she arrive with a long face, however bad the roads, or however many hours she had been at work. She always had a gay word….and a smile on her young face…. She laid down her young life, a sacrifice for her country, as much as anyone has ever done. She died a soldier’s death, and you must be proud of her”
The Chaplain also wrote:
“Her life in France was a very full and arduous one, but also a very happy life. She faced every duty with singular cheerfulness and courage….it mattered not what the duty was, she brought the same brave sunny spirit to the doing of it. For herself she never had any thought at all. She might have crossed the bridge that night with an earlier car and so escaped the bomb, but it was characteristic of her to wait behind to assist some French refugees. In this ministry of love she died.”
Betty was mentioned in the War Office List of 9 September 1918 for valuable services rendered, and in the French Army Order of 17 February 1919.
The person who was with Betty when she died wrote in a letter: “It seems useless for me to try and say how sad we have been made by her death; she was known and loved by everyone at Etaples on account of her happy smile, which never left her. Betty was not nervous at all. I was surprised by her calmness and steadiness. She suffered no pain when she died.”
For more stories about our local women see here.