Phyllis Doherty

(1881-1963) – Lady Commandant of Women’s Volunteer Motor Corps

A Newlyn artist’s daughter and model, Phyllis visited South Africa as a folk singer and married a mining engineer. War broke out while she was holidaying in Cornwall. After giving birth to a daughter, she set up the Women's Volunteer Motor Corps at Moretonhampstead, Devon, becoming its first Lady Commandant. (CMWH interest).

Credit: Newlyn Archive

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Phyllis was the only child of artists Tom and Caroline Gotch.  She often acted as her father’s model as depicted in this 1893 portrait entitled ‘The Heir to All the Ages’.   Gotch was drawn to the medieval period for much of his inspiration and Phyllis loved her Newlyn upbringing.  Her annual birthday parties were attended by many young students from Stanhope and Elizabeth Forbes’ art school, such as Dod Procter and Fryn Tennyson Jesse.  On one occasion, in May 1908, Phyllis persuaded Fryn to dress up as a widow and go away together under ‘assumed names’ to Carbis Bay.  Although their disguises and fake wedding rings proved unconvincing, according to Fryn’s diary, they stayed the night at a hotel and even went to church the next day as ‘two pathetic black-clad figures’.

Later, Phyllis visited South Africa as a folk singer and married Ernest Doherty, a mining engineer. Three weeks before the outbreak of the First World War, Phyllis returned home for a holiday.  Stranded in England, with Ernest in South Africa, she learned she was pregnant, giving birth to a daughter in 1915.

By 1917, with her parents taking care of their granddaughter, Phyllis was ready for war work. She trained as a driver, taking a job as chauffeur in charge of a garage at the Little White Hart Hotel in Moretonhampstead. Early in 1918 she was instrumental in setting up the Women’s Volunteer Motor Corps, becoming its first Lady Commandant. The highlight of this was the Grand Victory Ball held in Torquay on December 31, 1918. Unfortunately, the euphoria of the event was short lived because, in January 1919, Phyllis learned of the death of her husband.

Her later life was equally colourful with two further husbands; the first of these giving her the title of the Marquise de Verdières.  Later, from her Newlyn home at Wheal Betsy she orchestrated the protest against the Newlyn slum clearances with artist Geoffrey Garnier. She then became a local councillor before moving with her third husband, lawyer and high court judge, Jocelyn Bodilly, to London then the Solomon Islands and finally Hong Kong, where she died in 1963.

Key words: women

Credit: Newlyn Archive