Women's Land Army
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The Women’s Land Army: The 4th Service
During the Second World War, as a great number of young men who would normally be employed as rural and farm workers had listed in the armed services, there was a crisis of manpower to keep up agricultural production.
In July 1942 the Director-General of Manpower responded to the call to farms with ‘girl-power’.
The Australian Women’s Land Army was established and 3,500 women, aged between eighteen and fifty, volunteered to keep the farm gates open. The service was open to all women, as long as they were British subjects.
A Training School was established at the Werribee Research Farm where life on the land at Werribee promised a healthy lifestyle, with fresh farm food to eat, the companionship of like-minded girls, open skies above and the opportunity to learn new skills.
One of the great attractions the service promised was that the women would not be engaged in domestic work, but in all aspects of primary production, from ploughing fields to harvesting onions, keeping chickens to raising potatoes.
The Fourth Service
Known unofficially as the Fourth Service, the Women’s Land Army [A.W.L.A.] was administered by the Department of Manpower and was therefore not actually an arm of the military services.
Full-time members of the service were enrolled for twelve months at a time and received a full dress uniform, service badges, working clothes and other equipment as needed for whichever task they were assigned.
Auxiliary members [part-time] were usually needed for seasonal work, taken on for not less than four weeks at a time and were supplied with working clothes and equipment on loan.
The average working week was forty-eight hours. The women were paid on average thirty shillings per week, although this was much less than a wage paid to male workers doing the same job.
Local Farmers Object
There was some initial resistance from local Werribee farmers to the employment of unskilled city girls. The regulations disallowed any women already farming, or related to landholders, from enlisting. The aim of the service was to add to the labour force in a meaningful way, not just keep some existing rural workers employed during the war years.
Carter's Poultry employed AWLA workers and they were housed by the Carters in two homes which they had purpose-built. Ten girls, plus a matron to ‘oversee their welfare’ were accommodated in each.
Local farmers called a meeting in the Werribee Shire Hall on 2 November 1942 to consider the Land Army Girls interests.
While some doubted that the girls were suitable for farming work anyway, claiming that they knew little about it, or were not strong enough, or that they could be put in moral danger—the facts of the girls employment proved to be the opposite.
Mary O’Reilly, a journalist writing in the Argus on 5 September 1944, after a trip to the farm, observed:
‘It was the sight of two girls coming home to lunch on the back of a wonderful draught horse which dissolved my prejudices, for they seemed to epitomise the whole appeal of country life’.
She met four girls who were hoeing a cabbage patch who ‘had that goldy-tan look which makes pale people feel pale’.
‘As they learn to milk and plough, these girls are able to appreciate the rural point of view. They’re understanding the trials and disappointments of life on the land and they’re also feeling its quiet but satisfying compensations’.
After the War
The AWLA was to be formally constituted under the National Security Regulations, which would have it formally, recognised as one of the armed services. Legislation to make that change had been proposed, but it was not completed until 1945 and by the time the desired changes had been made the war was over. To make matters worse, at war’s end, all official records of service were destroyed.
Only a few of the girls who worked in Werribee remained in the district after the war. Some had married local lads, and one or two continued to work at the Research Farm.
1942 'Land Army Girls For Poultry Farm.', Werribee Shire Banner (Vic. : 1911 - 1952), 16 July, p. 2, viewed 3 January, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article74061894
1942 'Land Army Girls' Interests.', Werribee Shire Banner (Vic. : 1911 - 1952), 5 November, p. 2, viewed 3 January, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article74062238
1944 'Land Army Life Is A Good Life.', The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957), 5 September, p. 9, viewed 3 January, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article11359613