TO hundreds of soldiers stationed in France during the Great War, she was known as “Aunt J”.

Jessie Millar Wilson was one of more than 1,000 YMCA workers sent to France from 1915 to 1920. Almost half were women and virtually all were volunteers, paying their own expenses.

Jessie’s story was told in a book called Aunt J by Joan Duncan, wife of Jessie’s nephew Colin Duncan. Now Jessie is remembered by Tricia Restorick, president of Bradford World War One Group, whose presentation, An Otley Heroine, looks at her wartime and post-war memoirs.

Born in Bradford in 1871, one of six children to a wealthy wool trader, Jessie grew up in Mount Royd, Manningham, later moving to Otley. She worked as a governess and later at a small girls’ school in Albert Road, Saltaire.

Jessie was a suffragette and before the First World War had been a volunteer social worker in London, based at a YMCA in Tottenham Court Road. In 1915, single and aged 44, she was back in Otley, on the Women’s War Register, running the laundry at Farnley Hall, which had been taken over as a military training camp.

Later that year she was posted to France where she helped to establish, just behind the front lines, a series of YMCA wooden hospitality huts for battle-weary troops needing a short break. Her base was the “Euston Hut” at Harfleur.

These huts offered refreshments and recreational activities, including a garden and library. Some of the men Jessie encountered were Bradford Pals she knew from their time at Manningham Barracks.

Tricia describes “Aunt J” as a “particularly energetic, intelligent woman”.

It was middle-class women, like Jessie, who had the financial means to volunteer at home or abroad; with Voluntary Aid Detachment, the Red Cross and, later, Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps.

Within a few months of the start of the war the YMCA set up a temporary hut at Euston Station as an experiment, providing sleeping accommodation for up to 420 troops and seamen on a single night. It was a place where they could find food, a hot drink, and ‘a touch of home.

Jessie arrived at her first hut in July 1915. Her diary records that female spies, those wanting to be near husbands and “good time girls” all had to be weeded out...

She recalls being shown how to deal with drunks - ‘”Take them into the garden and sit them in a deck chair to sleep it off’” - and meeting five Bradford men named in her diary as Jack Birkinshaw, AG Cohen, Edgar Kermode, Frank Fairbank and his young friend Sylvie.

When Frank was captured at Kemmel and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp, he received letters from Jessie. Their correspondence continued until her death.

After the Armistice Jessie was assigned to a hut set up for Australian forces in a Paris hotel.

By 1921 she was back home and lived in Ilkley with her unmarried sisters. She died on February 22, 1952 in a Harrogate nursing home, aged 80.

Emma Clayton