Doreen Ashburnham GC (AM exchanger)

b. 13/05/1905 Rye, Sussex. d. 04/10/1991 San Luis Obispo, California, USA.

DATE AND PLACE OF GC ACTION: 23/09/1916 Cowichan Lake, Vancouver Island, Canada.

Doreen Ashburnham-Ruffner (1905-1991) was born on 13th May 1905 at Ashburnham Hall, the family seat near Rye, Sussex. She was the only child of Lawrence “Tufty” Ashburnham and Rosalie Winifred Ashburnham (nee Barnard). She was the granddaughter of Sir Anchitel Ashburnham. Just before the outbreak of the Great War, and following a spell of ill-health, her parents chose to emigrate to Canada, where they settled near Cowichan Lake on Vancouver Island.

Doreen Ashburnham GC

On 23rd September 1916, aged just 11, Doreen was walking in the woods near her home with her younger cousin, Anthony Farrar, who was just 8. They had left their homes at Cowichan Lake, Vancouver Island with the purpose of catching their ponies. Suddenly, when just half a mile from home, they were suddenly attacked by a cougar. The cougar was partly blind, 8ft long, and 180 pounds in weight. Doreen described her ordeal in an interview 70 years later:

“The cougar sprang from about 35ft and landed on my back, throwing me forward on to my face. He chewed on my shoulder and bit chunks off my butt. Tony attacked him with a bridle that he was carrying. They fought for 200 yards down the trail. The cougar scratched the skin off Tony’s back and ripped the flesh off his scalp. His scalp was hanging off the back of his head by six hairs.”

Doreen began to fight back, beating the beast about the head with her tiny fists, jabbing it in the eyes with her fingers and then, in desperation, sticking her right arm in the cougar’s mouth in a bid to stop it biting her friend. The cougar’s teeth skewered her right bicep, according to a contemporary report and the animal reared on to its hind legs, towering over the girl, but was mercifully distracted and ambled off.

The pair staggered away to raise the alarm and Doreen’s mother rowed across the lake in a storm to get help from a neighbour who was an ex-British Army doctor. Anthony needed 175 stitches to his head and a long spell in hospital, while Doreen suffered blood poisoning in addition to her other wounds. The cougar was subsequently tracked, killed, and stuffed. The children’s heroism was widely reported in England.

In February 1917, King George V approved of the awarding to Tony Farrar and Doreen Ashburnham the Albert Medal Second Class. They became the youngest recipients to receive the award, and were presented with them by the Duke of Devonshire. Tony Farrar was indeed the youngest person ever to receive a British gallantry decoration, and Doreen the youngest ever female recipient. Tragically, Tony was killed on 9th July 1930 aged just 21, when he inexplicably wandered onto a rifle range at Camp Hughes in Manitoba whilst serving with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and was hit by a stray bullet. He is buried in the military cemetery at Esquimalt, British Columbia. His Albert Medal is held by the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa.

Doreen lived in Cowichan Lake until 1925, where she attended St Margaret’s School, Victoria. In that year, she returned to England as a debutante to be presented to King George V. Returning to live in California, where she and her family spent several winters, she became a member of the first women’s polo team in the USA. Subsequently, she lived in Italy, where she raised show horses and rode in international competitions both in England and mainland Europe. In 1935, she trained as a pilot and during World War II ferried military aircraft from the USA to Europe.

In 1942, Doreen married an American college professor Sydney Jackson Ruffner, and they went on to have a daughter, Djinn. Doreen then became an American citizen, and they settled in San Pedro, California. It was sometime after the 1971 change to the Royal Warrant that Doreen heard about the offer to exchange her Albert Medal for the George Cross. She agreed to exchange and donated her Albert Medal to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. In November 1974, she was presented with her George Cross by Queen Elizabeth II and the Queen Mother in Ottawa. She was also awarded the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal in 1977.

Doreen lived in retirement in California, and passed away on 4th October 1991 in San Obispo, aged 86. She was cremated, though there is a memorial to her at St Laurence’s Church, Rye, Sussex. In July 2000, Doreen’s daughter Djinn decided to sell her mother’s George Cross at an auction at Spink’s, London. It was purchased by an unknown buyer for £10,350, and was placed on loan at the Imperial War Museum where it is displayed in the Ashcroft Gallery alongside over 50 other George Crosses.