Australian Women’s Land Army Interview
Australian Women’s Land Army
Interview by Gwlad McLachlan for the radio program ‘Womyn Talk’ recorded at the Red Cross rooms in Geelong, broadcast along with 2 pre-recorded phone interviews, 5/8/95.
Available for download for personal use.Copyright
Approximately 3,500 women served in the Australian Women's Land Army (AWLA) assisting with rural production and the growing and processing of flax. Elaine Peters, Vi Malcolm, Kathleen Brown, Mary Lowe & Mary White share their experiences of working for the Land Army.
Links for photographs of AWLA workers:
GWlad McLachlan: My name’s Gwlad McLachlan, and I’ll be presenting a programme about the role of women, here, during the War.
After talking with a number of people, it became clear that there were many women who played vital roles during the War, but in a lot of respects were unrecognised, in lots of ways, for their contributions, and one such group, I believe, was the Australian Women’s Land Army.
During the War many women felt a strong desire to help their country, in this time of need, a lot of women were too young to be able to get into the Women’s Auxiliary Services, and so many of these women, as young as 16, joined up. A lot of them were straight from the city, with little knowledge or understanding of the land, many were sent to quite isolated areas, where they were engaged in tedious and arduous work, and up until this point these women have never been recognised, for their services during World War II, and that’s what, we’re going to learn about today, because we’re going to hear from women who served with the Women’s Land Army, and the women we’re going to hear from are Kit Brown, Mary White, Mary Low, Elaine Peters, and Vi Malcolm.
Elaine Peters: I’m Elaine Peters, and my maiden name was Ridgewell, and I joined the Land Army in September, 1942, my first work was at Strathkellar, on flax, and then I moved down to Port Arlington, picking peas, the next move was to Orbost, and that was a variety of jobs there, but mostly picking beans, beetroot, and a variety of work there.
Gwlad McLachlan: Tell me about the flax, I’m really interested in how that was for you?
Elaine Peters: Oh, well I had two or three flax jobs, one at Strathkellar, and then I had some time at Riddells Creek, too, yes it was yes quite good, you know, they spread the flax out on the ground and you would go along with these long poles, and turn the flax over, that was called a retting process, and then it was tied in bundles, and sent to the flax mill. But it was lovely working on the orchards, the orchards were beautiful work, the atmosphere of the trees, you know, and especially the orange orchard, and the smell of those oranges, at early morning, was beautiful, and you know you felt like you were really, you could, and doing something.
Vi Malcolm: I’m Vi Malcolm was Vi Reeves, and I joined the Land Army in October, ’42, I had a week at Werribee, and I used to have to harness Dancer, the horse, and go into the station to pick up the girls that were coming out, and then they sent me down to Bellarine with 23 other girls, team, and we got our room ready, in the house that we were all going to live in, we filled the palliasses and scrubbed the floors, then the boss came down and he said: “I want a girl to milk the cows”, and I said: “No, I’m not milking a cow” and he said: “Yes, you’re going to do it, girl”, so I had to go up and do it, and I hadn’t milked a cow since I was nine, and we used to get up at four o’clock in the morning, and get the cows in, there’d be a hundred cows to milk, no electricity, hand-turned motor, and then, when the milking was finished and loaded up onto the wagon, that were the, can, truck that came out, we used to go out in the paddock and chop hay, potatoes, or pick peas, or weed onions, or whatever, ‘til milking time again.
And spare time we either play tennis or went to the pictures, or whatever. But I had all the other girls coming and going, at the farm all the time, and they all used to come up to the house of a night, because the boys used to take the trucks to market of a night, and there’d all be, be like the young fellas, so all the young girls, most of them out of factories, would come up to see all the boys, presumably they were coming up to get the mail or to ring up, you know? (laugh)
So, that was always a lot of young fellas around, and a lot of fun going on (laugh), so that’s about what I did, and I stayed ‘til the end of the War and then, after that I’d met Jack, he’d come out of the Army, and we got married and that was it.
Kathleen Brown: My name is Kathleen Brown, shortened to Kit, Werribee was my third assignment, I was supposed to be there on a fortnightly basis, like all the other girls, a trainee.
At this stage of the game the CSIRO, which was adjacent, oh, (Windham?)’s about two and a half miles, of the Research Farm, they needed a girl, their first Land Army girl, and because I knew a little bit about cows, I was chosen to go to the CSIRO.
And I was given the option to live there, with the manager and his wife, or stay with the girls on the research farm, so I opted to stay with the girls. And there were three girls, three regular girls that milked cows on the research farm, and I at the CSIRO; so we were up at half past four, they went their way, I went mine, on my steedy bicycle, and I rode the three miles, to the CSIRO, back in time for breakfast, back again to do up the washing up, and then back again, to milk in the afternoon.
So, the Geelong road knew me pretty well, in those days, really, but they were lovely days, I made wonderful friends, amongst, especially amongst those regular girls; the people of Werribee were particularly good to us, I thought.
Like you we went to a church service, the Presbyterian Church sort of kindly took us under their wing, we had wonderful dances there, and the Comforts Fund had a dance, I think every fortnight, and the Red Cross had another one, we had, and the theatre was on once or twice a week, or something, the Air Force wasn’t very far away, there was one at Werribee and one at Laverton and we had the odd, hot shoe shuffle I suppose you’d call it, in the common room, where we got bales of hay out, and decorated the place up; on the whole we did very well, I think, you know.
But we worked hard, the girls worked hard, but the regulars at Werribee had it, a little bit easier, they knocked off at lunchtime on Saturday, and weren’t on duty again ‘til Monday morning, the cow girls didn’t, they got just the one day off, a month, one day off a month, and that consisted of, after you’ve milked the cows in the morning, you know; for two pound a, for two pound a week, and our keep.
Kathleen Brown: Mm.
Gwlad McLachlan: Most of the records relating to the Women’s Land Army have been lost, or destroyed, in 1991 Mary Low, with the help of former Land Army women, published a story, about the Land Army, in Victoria, the book was titled “Down to Earth”, and I spoke by telephone to Mary Low, several weeks ago, and I asked her about the book that she’d written.
Mary Low: We started as an association when we found out that there were no official records of Land Army left, and we decided we’d better start collecting things, and put it in some form which’d always be on record, of the work we did.
Gwlad McLachlan: Could you tell me about your involvement with the Land Army, how it came about?
Mary Low: Oh, the same as all the others, we were very patriotic in those early days, in those War days, and you could join the Land Army at 17, so quite a few of us did that, you couldn’t get into the other women’s services then, and it mainly, well I think patriotism was behind it all.
Gwlad McLachlan: So there was no conscription at all, through the Department of Labour or anything?
Mary Low: Oh no. No. No, no, oh well you were still under the Department of Manpower, and, in wartime you could, you had to work where you were told to work, you couldn’t just leave a job, and go off onto another one, you had to get Manpower’s permission to do it.
Gwlad McLachlan: So, what was the reason that the Land Army first became established, then?
Mary Low: Well, by 1942 the government had realised that one of the main things they needed, as supplies, for the Forces, was flax, because from flax was made linen thread, which was used for, in the making of tents, parachute harness, soldiers’ puttees, things like that, they just couldn’t get by without flax, and it could, of course couldn’t get here from overseas where most of it was grown, in wartime.
So the government set up the Commonwealth Flax Mills, and in July 1942 they set up the Australian Women’s Land Army, to initially provide labour for the flax fields. And what they did was they contracted the farmers in the right conditions to grow flax, and the girls worked on the harvesting of it, and in the mills.
Gwlad McLachlan: And were there a few main centres, I notice that Riddells Creek was a place that was mentioned a fair bit.
Mary Low: Riddells Creek, Lake Bolac was the biggest one.
Gwlad McLachlan: Was it?
Mary Low: Strathkellar was another one, down Drouin and Koo Wee Rup they had flax mills, and that, there’d be, well at one stage at Lake Bolac there were over a hundred girls working there, but oh, it’s a very hard job, and it only grows in places where it’s very windy, and dry, and etc, etc, and very wet in winter, too.
Gwlad McLachlan: And another aspect of working with the Land Army, which really stood out, and that was for a lot of the women were sent away to fairly isolated areas, that must have been difficult?
Mary Low: Yes, it was, because some of them would have been there for three or four years, and they, very, they never, didn’t work with another land girl, and in fact they usually became part of the farmer’s family, and they’ve kept up contact ever since.
Gwlad McLachlan: And, oh tell me about the uniform, Mary, what was the story with that?
Mary Low: Well we didn’t have a uniform when we started, when we originally went in, we were given a pair of overalls, boots, a raincoat, and a shirt, I think, anything else you had to supply yourself – oh actually in the first three months they had to supply everything themselves, even to their own boots, and that was pretty hard, oh there’s a tale of one girl on the flax work in the early days, who got so tired of wet boots, and trying to dry them out at night, and go off again next morning in dry ones, that she wrote and asked for, gumboots, and then she got a letter back saying: “Don’t you know there’s a War on?” (laugh).
Gwlad McLachlan: I notice one of the stories related to, I think they had, the girls had a supervisor, that wouldn’t allow them to do their washing, on a Sunday.
Mary Low: Yes. Well that’s right, that was another one, and in the early days, the very early days, particularly at Riddells Creek, those girls were billeted in a, oh, a large building, they had to collect firewood on the way home, and cook their own meals, when they got there.
Gwlad McLachlan: Well there were a lot of stories about the poor accommodation.
Mary Low: Mm.
Gwlad McLachlan: And even in one of the stories, I think Mary White told about, the girls were billeted, with an orchardist, and apparently the toilet was always so far away from the house…
Mary Low: Yes, (laugh) that was, common.
Glad McLachlan: Pardon?
Mary Low: Yes, (laugh) that was common.
Gwlad McLachlan: Was it?
Mary Low: Oh yes! And at the later part of my time I was sent to an orchard up in the Goulburn Valley, and the lady had, had had Land girls before, but they’d refused to send her any more because she didn’t have the, decent accommodation for them, so, she was able, and it was hard in wartime to build a, sort of couple of bedrooms, and a sort of a dining room, but what she never, needed to have, was a bathroom and a toilet, which she built, but there was no bath and no toilet in it. So we used to have to go, you know, 150 yards up the paddock, at night, and we were not allowed to use her bathroom, we’d have to swim in the channel to get clean at night.
Gwlad McLachlan: And apparently there were a few snakes, around there.
Mary Low: Oh yes! (laughter) But that was part and parcel of it?
Gwlad McLachlan: Mary, I’m fortunate enough to have the book “Down to Earth”, that was compiled by Mary Low, and on page 70 Emily Nixon’s written something about you, can I read it out?
Mary Low: Yes?
Gwlad McLachlan: It says, oh, and this is talking about the, who was in charge or the people, and it says: “When Mrs. Mellor left, Miss Mary White took her place, and she also was a wonderful friend and officer. I found her a very happy person, she always had time for our problems, and taught us how to keep ourselves busy, and make every day a fun day, we were encouraged to laugh and sing, and I really loved the life”, I thought, you…?
Mary Low: Well that’s, oh I’m thrilled, how wonderful, but it’s, up to a point I suppose, it’s fairly true, I had some very big problems on my hands, from time to time, it was my job to do my best, to care for the girls, and I had a lot of experience with camping, and with girls, and being a teacher, I’d had a lot of experience too with students, and so, although, it was difficult (laugh), but that one of the funny things that happened, one day we were working, out on the flax, at Riddells Creek, and we had a little song about it: (chanted, not sung:)
“The Land Girls we,
As busy as can be,
Out on the hills,
You can’t be lax,
When you’re spreading flax,
O’er the hills,
We spread the sheaves,
Over grass and leaves,
Far, out on the hills
Then the wild winds blow,
And our neat rows go,
Over the hills of Riddell.
And, another day, one of the girls who was a band cutter, running round the fields, she pretended she was a Herald boy, calling out: “Read all about it!”, and then she’d say: “Emily Nixon said so and so, and so and so, and so and so and so”, and then she’d talk about somebody else doing something else, and: “Read all about it, in the, Land Army News!” – there wasn’t a Land Army News, but you know, it was just fun.
Gwlad McLachlan: The Australian Women’s Land Army was one of the groups incidentally, who’ve become eligible for the Civilian Service Medal, 1939 to 1945, and that’s been recently awarded.
Vi Malcolm: We’ve sort of been the forgotten ones all along, so it’s nice to know that we have something at last.
Gwlad McLachlan: Vi, have you always had that feeling, or has that been a feeling throughout the Land Army, that you were the forgotten ones?
Vi Malcolm: Well, yes at the end, they’d said, you know we, they’d destroyed more or less all the records that they had, and that they were going to have us treated us like the other services, weren’t they, and then they decided they would scrap that, and it was just rubbed out.
Gwlad McLachlan: Yes, another important event, which was, which featured very lard in the memories of the women, related to the feeling about being included, in the ANZAC Day marches.
Elaine Peters: It was a thrill, to know that we had been accepted, and Mary and I, and a couple of other girls, mainly girls that had been at Werribee, did we have a wonderful fortnight before the march, and Mary was on the television, once or twice, and on radio, and I certainly was on television, on the Ray Martin Show, I think it was, then of course came March day, well if we weren’t a proud lot marching, there was no doubt about it, and it was amazing to me, how many people, on the sidelines, said: “Oh, they were on telly last week! Remember the Land Girls, they were on telly?”, (laughter), and by this time, our president had a banner made for us, and the Scouts from that area always carry our banner, and do us proud, don’t they?
I think there must have been about four hundred girls, so there was, there were a lot of girls marched, that had never marched before.
Copyright Gwlad McLachlan: Available for download for personal use.