Women landed vital wartime role
Newspaper harvest reveals how women kept nation and troops fed
9 May 2017
What did you do in the war, Mummy?
A whole lot more than most people think, or remember, according to some Trove-driven research emerging out of New England, in northern New South Wales.
They say an army marches on its stomach but first you have to get the harvest in, and during World War 2 with most of Australia’s male farmers and rural workforce in uniform it was the nation’s women who stepped up to keep the nation and its troops fed.
It was a bumper harvest of digitised newspaper titles on Trove, including The Armidale Express and New England General Advertiser, that enabled University of New England Archivist Bill Oates to unearth the story of the WASPS - the Women's Agricultural Security Production Service.
First recruited in Armidale by grazier Don Shand, who went on to found East-West Airlines, the WASPS were the lesser known sisters of the Australian Women’s Land Army and worked as an on-call labour force to tend and harvest crops, and farm work in general.
Mr Oates said the discovery in Armidale of a couple of albums with photographs had coincided with the sudden rush of material available on Trove through the State Library of NSW and its partnership with the National Library’s Trove digitisation program.
He said Trove gave the UNE and Regional Archives the ability to crosscheck what it had against the public record and allowed it to look further afield.
“We suddenly had a huge amount of material that was coming up in the Australian Women’s Weekly and the Port Macquarie papers and in Nambucca,’’ Mr Oates said.
“What we discovered is what we thought was an Armidale and New England operation was actually spread state-wide and had as many members as the Land Army.
“It turned it from a hypothetical into a reality, it was so easy and gave us pictures as well. Once we got the Australian Women’s Weekly stuff up we were able to take a look at pictures of people we knew.’’
The Weekly devoted a whole page to the WASPS in its 24 April 1943 edition.
“Girl farm-workers have saved thousands of pounds' worth of essential wartime crops in the New England district of New South Wales.
This army in sunbonnets was recruited among farmers' daughters, former waitresses, wives of farmers in the fighting services, and girls who have never worked before,’’ the Weekly reported.
Some of the women recruited by Don Shand included students at the then Armidale Teachers’ College but he took on anyone and once wrote to the Express calling on married women to join, amid some public disquiet.
It gave the women a taste of a different life and opened up possibilities. One WASPS recruit, Hilda tells the Weekly, “It’s much harder work but I like it because it’s a worthwhile job.’’
One standout was teenager Dulcie Edwards, who was secretary of the Armidale group. She could drive eight types of tractors by the time she was 18 and is pictured in the Weekly working as a timber logger.
“What a day!’’ she exclaims to the Weekly. ”No morning or afternoon smoke, and no tea for lunch. The tractor boiled and we had to use our drinking water for it.’’
It wasn’t only food crops the women brought in, there were also drug crops, including opium, grown to meet wartime shortages of morphine. Former shop assistant Mary Burt is shown in the Weekly with a bag of poppy seed for sowing.
Mr Oates said he was about six months into this “spare-time project”, which he hoped would spawn some serious academic research.
He said the Archives also had some big research projects planned in the next few years, specifically on early photographers and their scattered collections.
“It’ll take Trove to track and recover these collections at a single point,’’ Mr Oates said.
The Trove Roadshow rolls into Armidale on Thursday, when you can learn how your collection can join millions of others in the treasure that is Trove.
Find out where the Roadshow is heading here – and book in to join in if we are coming to a town or city near you.