It’s been 80 years since a group of trailblazing young women went to work on farms across Australia to fill the gaps left behind by men sent to fight in World War II.
As the war stretched on, by 1942 as many men as possible were needed on the front line.
But that left Australia’s agriculture sector grappling with a big problem: those same men were needed on farms at home to grow the food required to feed both a hungry nation and the allied forces.
It led to the formation of the Australian Women’s Land Army and, during the course of the war, more than 3,000 women would volunteer.
The women who soldiered on
Many were as young as sixteen, and most were from towns or cities.
“Two-thirds of the enlisted women in the Women’s Land Army were women who had never jumped a barbed wire fence, they’d never milked a cow, they’d never picked strawberries and boxed them or driven a tractor,” said India Dixon , a librarian at the State Library of Queensland.
One of those young women was a teenager from Bundaberg.
“My Mum’s name was Beryl Johnson,” said Lorraine Newton.
Beryl died in 2019 but fortunately, we can still hear her memories of that time.
More than 20 years earlier, her story was recorded as part of an Anzac Day program on a local radio station.
Lorraine Newton still has both the cassette tape and a working tape deck.
Telling the story of her service, Beryl recalls knowing nobody when she was sent by train to Far North Queensland for her first ticket.
Like all “Land Girls”, as they came to be known, Beryl quickly learns to turn her hand to many different jobs.
“I loved working outside on the farms and did all sorts of things, cotton and picked up potatoes. Yes, I think it’s something we can all be proud of, the Australian Women’s Land Army.”
It was not all work though, and the offer of a lift to a local dance when stationed north of Brisbane would change the course of Beryl’s life.
Doug Price was a third-generation Redlands farmer who had been medically discharged from the army.
He and Beryl were married after the war ended and they remained living and working on the land while raising their family.
“We had custard apples, carrots, tomatoes, cabbage, lettuce, capsicum, potato, pumpkin, rockmelon, watermelon,” said Lorraine Newton.
“Every small crop, we had it – as well as hundreds of chickens.”
Remembering the Land Girls
Today, the area on Brisbane’s bayside bears little resemblance to a farming district but there are still reminders of when the Land Girls came to town all those years ago.
Beryl’s Land Army uniform is now on display in the Redland Museum, which is built on the site where the Price family farm once stood.
“There were Land Army girls on quite a few of the farms in this area,” said Rick Thomason OAM, the curator of the exhibition at the Redland Museum.
At nearby Birkdale, the School of Arts hall was once a dormitory for the young land army volunteers.
“The Australian Women’s Land Army were apparently camped around the outside of this hall and at 5.30am, they’d get woken up and then they had to be in here by 6.30am to have breakfast,” said Redland City Councilor Paul Bishop.
From dairying to driving tractors, the work required of the land girls was varied. But one thing was certain – it was quite unlike what was generally expected of women in the 1940s.
“They were some of the most extraordinary pioneers because they were doing things and transforming our understanding, particularly for women, of what women could do,” said Councilor Bishop.
Fighting for recognition
For many, that work was also the beginning of lifelong connections.
“My mother was a great letter writer. Mum would write two or three letters a week. She just loved that communication and loved hearing what everyone was doing.”
A key reason for keeping in touch after the war ended was to fight for recognition of the contribution of the AWLA.
“The Land Army committee used to meet in the city, and they fought for a long, long time to be recognized,” said Lorraine Newton.
“For a long time, those women just quietly served and then went home again,” said India Dixon, from the State Library of Queensland.
“That recognition of their service has been incredibly important both for them and for Australia because if we do not recognize that service, and we are not aware that that service even occurred, how can we have a full understanding of the history of gender equality and gender dynamics within Australia? “
Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline at 12:30 pm on Sunday, or on ABC iview.