Whether as ‘Angels of Mercy’ or ‘Ministering Angels’, from 1914 women joined local Red Cross branches and their affiliates in the towns and villages across the state and the country. They sewed, knitted and cooked, ran stalls and raffles, and received considerable community support through cash donations from individuals and community organisations for patriotic Red Cross activities.
The Red Cross was national federation of state-based divisions, with a place-based branch network that attracted women as volunteers. Under the enlightened leadership of founder Lady Helen Munro Ferguson, local branches across the country harnessed and thrived using parochialism and localism for national patriotic purposes. The society re-enforced this with an iconography that presented the organisation as mothers and guardian angels to wounded soldiers on the battlefield. The Red Cross encouraged women to immerse themselves in the mythology and serve ‘their boys’ by volunteering at branch sewing circles and fundraisers, and as voluntary aids at military, civilian and Red Cross hospitals.
Edwardian women provided leadership at a local, state and national level. These women were intelligent, wealthy and powerful with extensive transnational networks between country towns, provincial Sydney and metropolitan London. Their families provided their fathers, sons and brothers for Australia’s overseas military excursions from the time of the Boer War, and local women worked to support ‘their boys’. The leadership group created ground-breaking opportunities that empowered women and allowed them to exercise their agency by undertaking patriotic activities for the first time.
In their wake the women created the most important homefront voluntary organisation of the war, a small part of the narrative of the Australian Red Cross, arguably the country’s most important not-for-profit organisation. Their stories were the essence of place, and the success of the local branches meant that over time homefront volunteering became synonymous with the Red Cross. Local Red Cross volunteering in war and peace provides a small window into the national and transnational perspectives of one of the world’s most important welfare organisations.