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The life and times of a wartime volunteer
Grace was the archetypical Women's Voluntary Services volunteer in Camden. She, like others women who joined the Camden WVS, was middle class, Protestant, conservative and British. Grace was similar to many women who volunteered for similar organisations at the outbreak of war in Britain, New South Wales and Camden. She was a hard worker for local causes and always had the best interests of the community at heart. She was not a radical and supported Camden's status quo.
Grace was typical of women her age in Camden and had grown up under the influence of the Macarthur women, firstly 'Mrs Onslow' and her daughter, 'Miss Onslow', as Grace referred to them. Grace's mother, like other women her age, was a Victorian and had schooled her daughter in the Victorian notions of femininity and the 'ideals of service'. Grace's mother had been a member of the St Johns Mothers' Union that was established by 'Mrs Onslow', and a foundation member of the Camden Red Cross with 'Miss Onslow', 'Mrs Crookston' and her daughter. In her younger days Grace had been a member of Camden Girl Guides and the Junior Red Cross, both sponsored by 'Miss Onslow'. As Grace grew older, like many of her friends, she had become a member of the Camden Red Cross, of which 'Miss Onslow' was president.
Grace's belief system was typical of her class grouping in Camden and was anchored firmly in her British origins. She accepted the obligations and responsibilities of British citizenship and was a patriotic member of the British Empire. Her family and friends had close connections with Britain. They wrote to relatives and friends, who often sent British papers out for them to read. Grace and her friends often referred to Camden as a 'little England', and for them 'What was British was best!' These values guided her actions, and those of her friends, when they volunteered for the Camden WVS in 1939.
Grace's day to day life and her activities in the WVS were guided by Camden's rural ideology. When asked, she readily acknowledged it existence, but otherwise rarely spoke about it. She felt that it confounded 'outsiders' who did not understood it. There were many aspects to this ideology but its influence was all consuming and affected everything she did, including what she did as a volunteer for the WVS.
Grace, like most of the people she mixed with at the WVS, were proud and independent. She felt that this was partly derived from Camden's rural culture, the influence of working the land and all the tribulations that were 'just part of rural life'. Grace felt that for a significant part of the community working the land carried a special, almost religious, quality about it. She didn't understand why she felt this way, but did not seem to worry her. She understood the vagaries of rural life and the isolation and hardships that many rural women faced in the Camden area, particularly in the western parts of the region. But for her at least, the train from Camden gave her relative easy access to Sydney.
Grace was married with a family and felt, like other women from the WVS, that her main role in life was to nurture and care for them. Her husband and family came first, but she also felt an obligation to serve the community. It was this experience she took with her to the WVS and guided her response to the war.
Grace had read in the women's pages of the Sydney Morning Herald about the British WVS, the activities of Lady Reading and the efforts of Ruby Board to establish branches of the WVS throughout New South Wales. It appeal to her and when a public meeting was called by 'Mrs Kelloway' she went along to hear all about it. Grace knew all the women who attended the meeting. They all came from a similar background, and shared similar values and upbringing. The women were mainly from Camden's middle and upper classes. Grace admitted that class was one of the most important social factors in Camden's social life. Class ordered social events, inter-personal relationships, social networks and hierarchies and the town's social routine. It played a significant role in the activities of the WVS, and in one way or another all activities of the WVS were related to it.
'Miss Onslow', according to Grace, had a profound influence on all things that affected Camden, including the foundation of the WVS. She provided the moral leadership for female philanthropy in Camden. She was a 'Lady Bountiful' figure in Camden and it was rare for any member of the community to escape her influence. She was the classic role model of a Victorian female philanthropist. 'Miss Onslow' and her mother had created a dynasty which had controlled female philanthropy from 1900. It started with the Camden branch of the New South Wales Patriotic Fund in the Boer War, and then the Camden Red Cross in the First World War. These two organisations provided Camden women, including Grace's mother, with valuable experience of war work. The social authority of Camden's women's groups was consolidated after the First World War by the foundation of the CWA and Hospital Auxiliary, both of which gave valuable experience in committee work to local women. Grace believed that in 1939 the WVS brought all this experience together and assisted in its success. The sponsorship of the WVS by 'Miss Onslow' automatically gave it social acceptability, and then she encouraged middle class women, including Grace, to join it. 'Miss Onslow' seal of approval ensured its success.
Grace motives for joining the WVS, like other women, were a combination of factors. Grace admitted that she copied the service commitment of 'Miss Onslow'. Grace felt that if 'Miss Onslow' thought it good enough to volunteer then she would do the same. She had also been influenced by the ideals of Lady Reading that she had read about in the Sydney papers. She also felt that she was not going to be sidelined, like some Camden women were in the First World War. She joined the newly created Camden WVS was keen to be registered and take up training.
Grace also found the central doctrine within the WVS, its ideology of service, fitted all the values that she expressed towards philanthropy and volunteering. For her the WVS represented a little bit of Britain in Camden. She found that her voluntary service for the WVS was an act of patriotic altruism that involved self-sacrifice and dedication to duty. It looked back to Victorian interpretation of femininity and its service obligations, and it agreed with her views of Christian charity drawn from her evangelical Protestantism, that had guided her mother's giving and volunteering. As a British citizen she saw the war as a just and righteous cause, and felt an obligation to help the Empire in way she could. For her, the WVS was a British organisation and volunteering for the it was just being patriotic. She thus willing gave her time freely to assist 'the boys' in the belief that she was 'just helping the war effort'.
Grace understood that she would get little recognition if she undertook sewing, cooking and knitting for the WVS, but she willing accepted this as the price for helping 'the boys'. Many of the women she worked with did the same, and willing volunteered their time and effort for no obvious reward other than personal satisfaction and fulfilment, such as 'Mrs Huthnance'. The women just wanted 'to do their bit for the war effort' and the work they did was just like 'what you did at home anyway'. 'We knew we were good at it', so Grace maintained, 'and people respected us for it'. She stated it 'was all for the war effort, it was just being patriotic'.
Grace volunteered to work on all WVS activities during the war, and some of those not organised 'by us'. She sewed comforts for the soldiers, collected money for the appeals, volunteered at fundraisers like fairs, carnivals and street stalls, and she worked on the nets at the CWA centre, when she had a chance. She saved paper for 'Mrs Huthnance', and felt the 'Mr Weaver' had not been fair to 'Mr Young'. She served teas at the soldiers' farewells and the Hospitality Centre, and subscribed to 'Mr Gibson's War-Time Plan' and sewed for the soldiers at Narellan. At the beginning of the war she registered like everyone else, went to the air raid lecture and ambulance driving course, but thought that they were really a waste of time, as there was never any opportunity to put anything into practice. She found the first aid and home nursing courses 'useful', 'at least you could use what you learnt'. Although overall, she was happiest sewing and knitting for 'the boys', because she knew they appreciated her efforts from the hundreds of 'thank you' letters they sent the WVS, and she was good at it.
Grace knew that the upper class women, like 'Mrs Crookston', would organise all WVS activities, because that is what they did before the war. She also understood that this meant that they would also take all the glory. Grace stated that the absence of people, like 'Mrs Crookston', from an activity, such as the sewing party to the Narellan camp, usually meant that it received little or no publicity, and the volunteers were rarely acknowledged publicly. The upper class in Camden controlled the press, the social networks and hierarchies and other forms of social interaction, and therefore it was quite natural that they would congratulate themselves on a job well done. One thing that she didn't like was how the upper classes demanded varying degrees of deference from those further down the social ladder. She said that this was enforced through social coercion, persuasion, social boycotts, intimidation or exclusion. Grace stated that the only thing during the war upset this social order was 'Miss Onslow's' death in 1943. Although not unexpected, it was still a great shock at the time and was the end of an era in Camden. Grace stated that it took ages to for some members of the upper class to get over it, especially those who knew her best, such as 'Mrs Crookston'.
Grace acknowledged that her membership of, and volunteering for, the WVS gave her a certain amount of kudos during the war from the rest of the Camden community. She said that the women of the WVS did not need to publicly advertise their activities in the town. 'Everyone in Camden knew who we were and what we did'. 'We did not want to make a big thing about it in the papers, like the men always did'. Grace maintained that the women just got on with the job at hand, while the men had to get their names in the paper all the time. She maintained that the women she worked with did not mind if the men received 'all the glory', for example at the soldier's farewells and organising the soldiers' recreation room. Grace maintained that the women knew how to get her own way without upsetting the men 'at home' or publicly challenging their position in the town. She felt women naturally possessed a significant amount of authority in their own private space, particularly within the family and the organisations that they had established for themselves, like the WVS. Grace maintained that the WVS was quite influential in Camden and the enthusiasm shown by the women was influential on other wartime efforts in the town, especially some of the men.
Grace maintained that the men from the upper and middle class only became involved in matters that they thought were seen to be important in the life of the town. She admitted that men's organisations that were seen to be under the control of the women, such as the Men's WVS Auxiliary, just did not get any support. She found that the men were quite happy to help the WVS, like the RSSAILA, as long as they were independent of the women. The men were also quite willing to acknowledge the expertise of Camden women in the various type of war work that the WVS involved itself. Grace admitted quietly that on wartime matters related to soldier welfare, the social authority of the women of the WVS, the Red Cross, and the CWA was unassailable.
Grace said that 'Mrs Crookston' did a 'good job' running the WVS. For example, 'Mrs Crookston knew what she was doing' when she organised the British Canteen Fund Appeal. We all felt good about the canteen appeal because we were helping those 'at home'. We all had relatives and friends who were going through the bombings in England. Grace supported the listing of names and donations in the paper by 'Mrs Crookston', because it guaranteed that you got a good response. People liked to see their names in the paper. She also felt that 'Mrs Crookston's' decision to use donors names and their contribution in the paper helped our cause. People knew everyone and expected a person to donate a lot of money if they were well off (fiscal patriotism). Grace felt that any business in town that did not to support an important wartime appeal would lose a lot of customers. In small communities everyone knew most things about everyone else. It was very hard to keep a secret. That is how small communities work. This helped maintain the status quo and added to the conservatism of these communities. As well 'Mrs Crookston' regularly put letters from the men in the paper if we were short of volunteers for anything and 'it always worked'. Grace admitted it was a form of moral coercion, although 'Mrs Tucker' did not use it with the CWA.
'Mrs Crookston' never had any trouble working with the upper class men in Camden on committees, according to Grace. 'Mrs Crookston's' husband was the local doctor and she just had that 'air about her'. Grace stated that she knew them all anyway and mixed with them at social gathering and the like. 'I think she enjoyed it'. She was able to the get the support of the men on most things for the WVS, especially the 'First World War diggers'. Grace maintained that 'Mrs Crookston' was one of Camden's public figures, and that she had created a position of importance for herself within the Camden community through her philanthropic activities. 'Mrs Crookston' was able to speak out on behalf of Camden women and 'everyone always listened to her'.
Grace admitted that Camden's younger women wanted a bit more independence than she, and her friends, had been used to in their lifetime. Grace maintained that the young women just 'wanted to be modern', like the girls they saw at the movies on Saturday night. Grace stated that you 'just had to let them go', especially when they received invitations from the airmen at the aerodrome. The airmen were 'nice young men', 'they behaved themselves' and 'they made good husbands too'. She felt the Hospitality Centre was an opportunity too good to miss in this respect. She couldn't understand why 'Mrs Crookston' or 'Mr Sidman' did not run the Centre, but put it down to 'Miss Onslow's' death. She said 'they all took it really bad at the time'. She said that the Centre was run by 'outsiders', which was unusual, but they seemed to have the interests of the town at heart, and they did 'an all right job, which is all that really mattered in the long run'.
Grace, like other members of the WVS, was a passionate supporter of local causes and worked very hard on their behalf. She was proud to live in the Camden area, admitted that she could be a bit parochial and had a real emotional attachment to the Camden area. Grace was always a bit suspicious of 'outsiders', especially those from the city. They gave the impression that they always thought they knew best. Although, she did admit that some were all right. Especially when they listened to local concerns and were sincere in their efforts to support local interests, such as those who ran the Hospitality Centre. The Hospitality Centre committee had a few 'blow ins' as well, 'you know, bank managers and the like'. As already mentioned Grace felt that 'Mr Young' got a 'raw deal' from 'Mr Weaver' in Sydney. 'Mr Young' was just trying to 'his bit for the war effort'. She agreed with others who said that they were 'not going to co-operate with the likes Weaver', who, she felt was only interested in taking from them 'what Camden locals thought was rightfully theirs'. In this situation the local community closed ranks behind 'Mr Young'. She felt the same way about the Lord Mayor's Patriotic and War Fund and the way it acted over soldier comforts and the WVS. Grace maintained that part of the success of the WVS rested on the fact that 'we always had a local focus on most things we did'. 'Mrs Crookston' understood the values and attitudes of the local community, and always tried to connect to it. For example, the British Canteen Fund Appeal connected directly to Camden's Britishness, and the soldier comforts of the WVS were going to 'our boys'.
Another part of rural life in Camden that Grace understood, but rarely spoke about, was religion. She understood that it was not appropriate for her to mix socially with Camden's Catholic community, lest she was ostracised by other members of the WVS. She also knew that although the Methodists were only a small number of people in town, they held important positions, like 'Mr Kelloway', the mayor, or ran local businesses, like 'Mr Sidman' who owned the Camden News. His paper was a powerful voice for the conservative element in Camden and he was a strong supporter of the war. 'Mr Sidman' did not like alcohol and she agreed with his actions over the fuss in early 1943 with 'drunks' who turned up on the train one Sunday. He always printed lots of stories about the WVS. For example, the roster for the Hospitality Centre, the 'Honor Rolls', and our meeting dates and so on. Grace thought that the publicity the WVS received in the Camden News and the Camden Advertiser helped the cause of the women. Both of Camden's paper gave a large amount of coverage to all WVS activities. They continually put the WVS and other female voluntary organisations in front of the local community which in turn increased 'our status and social authority'. She felt that this also helped the patriotic response of the community to the war.
Grace maintained that the progress of the war directly affected WVS activities. Up the end of 1941 the war was really only about what was going on in Europe and North Africa. Camden men were volunteering and going off to support the cause of the Empire. Grace stated that the events at Dunkirk gave us all a shock, and encouraged the men in Camden to start a number of voluntary activities. But once the kudos disappeared they lost interest. Nevertheless, 'we stepped in' and the WVS filled the gap. After the Japanese entered the war this changed things. The fall of Singapore frightened us, we had evacuation plans, blackouts and air raid practice. She stated the WVS responded to the crisis re-directing its efforts away from Britain. This mainly involved supporting local servicemen on active service through soldier comforts, and volunteering for a number of activities conducted by other organisations in Camden.
Grace maintained that a considerable part of the success of the WVS was based on the co-operation between the women's organisations in Camden. As already noted, Grace was a member of the WVS and the Red Cross and the other women she worked with were members of the VAD, CWA and the Hospital Auxiliary. Everyone knew what everyone else was doing. The organisations did not double on any activities, for example, sewing was held on different days for different organisations. Some women volunteered for each organisation. Grace maintained that the level of co-operation between the WVS, the CWA and the Red Cross created a powerful force in Camden's wartime voluntarism. These organisations effectively controlled the majority wartime activities in Camden, including the exclusion of a significant proportion of Camden's Catholic population from most of these activities. There were some notable exceptions, for example Mrs Byrne from Narellan. She was the wife of a local businessman and therefore 'an important person'.
The level co-operation between the women's organisations, according to Grace, helped make the Camden WVS one the most successful WVS centres in New South Wales. This kind of co-operation was a natural part of Camden's female philanthropy. The women who joined these organisations knew each other through inter-personal and kinship networks, their membership of the middle and upper classes and considerable amount of overlapping membership between these organisations, including the Camden WVS. Grace stated that a small group of women, the female clique, held most of senior positions in these organisation. Up the 1943 it was led by 'Miss Onslow'. The clique controlled the social interaction between the WVS and the other women's groups. She stated that when the women's clique was combined with the men's equivalent, they became a de-facto patriotic committee. This combined group ran the town's response to the war, and in the process strengthened the hand of the WVS.
Grace was not all put off by the closure of the WVS. The war had ended and she saw no further need for it. The closure was not a momentous event and only received a small report in the local press. After the WVS wound up in late 1945, its funds were transfered to a new organisation, the Camden District Patriotic Fund which operated from 1945 to 1949, which then became the Camden RSL Women's Auxiliary in 1959. Grace's comment on this was 'that every in Camden it connected to everything else'.
Grace admitted after the war that one of the principal legacies of the WVS, was laying the ground work for the post-war emergence of 'Mrs Tucker' as the leader of the female clique. 'Mrs Tucker' led the Camden CWA until her death in 1961 and became the natural successor to 'Miss Onslow'. 'Mrs Tucker' was a foundation member of the WVS and was largely responsible for close relationship between it and CWA during the war. 'Mrs Tucker' always felt that there was a close connection between the WVS and the CWA. 'Mrs Tucker' stated that the origins of the CWA were derived from rural ideology, and was not all surprised that the WVS had a strong network of country centres, including Camden. Grace felt that the experience the women gained in the WVS helped the CWA to become the most important women's organisations in Camden after the war. At the same time, she noted, that the Red Cross declined in influence and members.
Grace stated, that apart from the success of the WVS, the war also created other effects which indirectly influenced the activities and fundraising of the WVS. For example, the war increased the level of economic activity in the town, and while not directly admitting that local businesses benefited from the war, Grace did agree that the presence of the military establishments in the area, and the large number of personnel who passed through them, meant that there was more money in the town. Local businesses and farmers gained government contracts to supply the military bases with various type of goods and services. She did agree that a large number of jobs were created by the increased output of coal mining, and that this then flowed into other areas, such as transport.
Read more @ Camden Women's Voluntary Services 1939-1945