The Blue Plaques program aims to capture public interest and fascination in people, events and places that are important to the stories of NSW.
The Blue Plaques program celebrates NSW heritage by recognising noteworthy people and events from our state’s history.
The aim of the program is to encourage people to explore their neighbourhood and other parts of NSW and connect with people of the past, historical moments and rich stories that matter to communities and have shaped our state.
The program is inspired by the famous London Blue Plaques program run by English Heritage which originally started in 1866, and similar programs around the world.
“Behind every plaque, there is a story.”
The essence of the Blue Plaques program is the storytelling. A digital story will be linked to each plaque.
The Blue Plaques should tell stories that are interesting, fun, quirky along with more sombre stories that should be not be forgotten as part of our history.
What is the Camden Red Cross story?
What is being recognised?
Camden Red Cross patriotic wartime sewing circles at the Camden School of Arts (later the Camden Town Hall now the Camden Library) – 1914-1918, 1940-1946.
What is the story?
The Camden Red Cross sewing circles were one of Camden women’s most important voluntary patriotic activities during World War One and World War Two. The sewing circles started at the Camden School of Arts in 1914, and due to lack of space, moved to the Foresters’ Hall in Argyle Street in 1918. At the outbreak of the Second World War, sewing circles reconvened in 1940 at the Camden Town Hall in John Street (the old School of Arts building – the same site as the First World War)
These sewing circles were workshops where Camden women volunteered and manufactured supplies for Australian military hospitals, field hospitals and casualty clearing stations. They were held weekly on Tuesdays, which was sale day in the Camden district.
Sewing circles were ‘quasi-industrial production lines’ where Camden women implemented their domestics skills to aid the war at home. Camden women cut out, assembled, and sewed together hospital supplies, including flannel shirts, bed shirts, pyjamas, slippers, underpants, feather pillows, bed linen, handkerchiefs, and kit bags. The workshops were lent a number of sewing machines in both wars.
The sewing circles also coordinated knitting and spinning for bed socks, stump socks, mufflers, balaclava caps, mittens, cholera belts (body binders) and other items. The women also made ‘hussifs’ or sewing kits for the soldiers. During the First World War, the sewing circles attracted between 80-100 women each week. The list of items was strikingly consistent for hospital supplies for both wars, with the only significant addition during the Second World War being the knitted pullovers and cardigans.
The production output of the Camden women was prodigious. Between 1914 and 1918, women from the Camden Red Cross sewing circle made over 20,300 articles tallied to over 40,000 volunteer hours. Between 1940 and 1946, during World War Two, women made over 25,000 articles, totalling over 45,000 voluntary hours.
The operation of the sewing circles was fully funded through the fundraising of Camden Red Cross and community donations. In 1917 alone, over 95% of branch fundraising was dedicated to these activities.
In World War One, other Red Cross sewing circles in the Camden district were located at The Oaks, Camden Park, Theresa Park, and Middle Burragorang. During World War Two, other centres across the local area included Bringelly-Rossmore, Menangle, Narellan, and The Oaks. Each group independently funded its activities.
These patriotic voluntary activities by Camden women were part of the war at home and have received little recognition at a local, state or national level. Wartime sewing and knitting have been kept in the shadows for too long. There needs to be a public acknowledgement of the patriotic effort of these women.
Where will the plaque be placed?
Camden School of Arts – later called the Camden Town Hall (1939-1945) and now the Camden Library.
What will the plaque say?
Camden Red Cross patriotic wartime sewing circles – 1914-1918, and 1940-1946.
English Heritage and Blue Plaques in the United Kingdom
London’s blue plaques scheme, run by English Heritage, celebrates the links between notable figures of the past and the buildings in which they lived and worked. Founded in 1866, it has inspired many similar schemes in the UK and around the world.
Reference for Camden Red Cross story
Ian Willis,Ministering Angels, The Camden District Red Cross 1914-1945. Camden Historical Society, Camden, 2014.
In 1919 Mowbray Park, five kilometres west of Picton, was handed over to the Commonwealth Government to be converted to a convalescent home for invalided soldiers from the First World War. The home was called Waley after its philanthropic benefactors.
From 1915 the Red Cross established a network of hospitals and convalescent homes due to the shortcomings of the Australian military medical authorities.
By the end of the World War One hundreds of invalided soldiers were returning to Australia, and they passed through medical facilities managed by the Red Cross, and Waley was one of them.
Local Red Cross branches and state-wide campaigns organised by New South Wales Red Cross divisional headquarters in Sydney provided funding for these efforts. The Commonwealth Department of Repatriation paid a fee of six shillings a day for each patient to cover running expenses. (Stubbings, ‘Look what you started Henry!’ 1992. pp. 13-14.)
The Waley Convalescent Home was created when Englishman FG Waley and his wife Ethel presented Mowbray Park and 180 acres (73 ha), to the Commonwealth Government as a “permanent home for shell-shocked and permanently incapacitated sailors and soldiers”. (SMH, 4 March 1920) These days it is called posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The Waleys had originally purchased Mowbray Park (800 acres, 324 ha) in 1905 from WM Barker, who had had the main house built in 1884. (Mowbray Pk History). Mowbray Park had been the Waley family country retreat – a gentleman’s country estate.
FG Waley was an executive member of the New South Wales Red Cross in 1919 when the family donated the farm to the Commonwealth. Several wealthy landowners donated homes and buildings for Red Cross use as convalescent homes, a philanthropic practice adopted in the United Kingdom.
Waley was a farm hospital with about 60 acres under cultivation and the main house supplied with vegetables, eggs, milk and butter from the farms 21 cows and 26 pigs.
Most patients at Waley Hospital stayed at the home between one and three months, with some up to 8 months for those suffering from neurasthenia or hysteria. It was reported that “the quiet, regular life, under good discipline, with a regular work period each day, is the best way of endeavouring to the fit these men for occupation again”.
Activities were general farm work to return the men “to their own occupation”. Major-General GM Macarthur Onslow chaired the farm committee. (Annual Report 1923-24, ARCS (NSW), p. 19.)
Opening in 1920
The home was officially opened in March 1920. The Waley donation of the house was expressed in noble terms as an act of patriotic nationalism. The Sydney Morning Herald stated that
As the cars swung through the broad entrance gates and traversed the winding drivethrough an avenue of pines to the beautifully situated homestead one realised the noblesentiment which prompted the owners – Mr. and Mrs. F. G. Waley – to hand over to thenation this rich possession. In order that those men whose nerves had suffered from theshock of Year might be given an opportunity of recuperating their health. (SMH, 4 March 1920)
The opening ceremony attracted a list of Sydney notables and the Australian Governor Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson and Lady Helen Munro-Ferguson, the founder of the British Red Cross in Australia. His Excellency accepted the house and land on behalf of the country. The press report stated:
The Governor-General expressed pleasure at being present to transfer the property fromtheir host and hostess to the nation. “It is,” he added, a noble gift, and I am indeed gladto find myself under this Hospitable roof tree.” (SMH 4 March 1920)
The home received considerable support from local Red Cross volunteers who provided entertainment in concerts, picnics, and library services from its inception.
For example, in November 1919, the Camden Red Cross organised a basket picnic and an outing for the soldiers from Waley ‘on the banks of the [Nepean] river at the weir’ at Camden. Red Cross voluntary workers provided cakes, scones and afternoon teas for soldiers. (Camden News, 4 September 1919, 6 November 1919)
In March 1920, the Camden News reported that the Narellan Red Cross donated three bookcases with over 600 books to fill them (Camden News, 18 March 1920)
The Red Cross staffed convalescent hospitals with voluntary aids (VAs) from detachments in localities adjacent to the home. In the Camden district, Waley’s opening triggered the foundation of voluntary aid detachments at Camden and The Oaks.
There were three dedicated staff positions for voluntary aids (VAs) at the home drawn from Camden, Picton, The Oaks, Menangle and Narellan voluntary aid detachments (VAD).
During 1919 six VAs from The Oaks VAD volunteered at Waley Hospital, and by 1921 this had increased to 10, with a further 10 VAs from the Camden VAD, who included Mary McIntosh, Miss Hall and Miss Gardiner.
In 1920 Narellan VAs Eileen Cross and Cory Wheeler were volunteering at the home. The Camden VAs put in 117 days in 1921 and 116 days in 1922 at the hospital. In 1922 the VAs relieved the cook and the ‘Blue Aids’ for their days off.
By 1923 there were 13 VAs, with one VA from Narellan Red Cross, who collectively worked 65 days. (NSW RC Annual Reports 1918-19 to 1923-24; Minutes, Camden Red Cross, 1915-1924.)
By 1924 the number of voluntary aids had dropped to only a ‘few’ making monthly visits to the patients.
Disposal of home
Waley was closed by 1925 and sold off at auction. The home operated from March 1920 to April 1925. Under the Waley deed of gift funds from the sale of the home by the Commonwealth of Australia were distributed to Royal Naval House in Sydney, the Rawson Institute for Seamen and the Sydney Mission for Seamen. (Sydney Morning Herald, 22 April 1925)
Groundbreaking medical care
Waley Convalescent Home was one of Red Cross medical activities that broke new ground in medical care and convalescence for ‘shell-shock’ now called PTSD.
By 1920 the New South Wales Red Cross managed 26 homes and rehabilitation centres, five field and camp hospitals, including Waley at Mowbray Park. (NSW RC AR) There were similar medical facilities in other states.
The Red Cross pioneered this area of clinical practice by providing a level of care and soldier welfare activities never seen before in Australia.
Camden has a fine tradition of sport dating back into the 19th century. But one day in 1925 Camden’s civic leaders banned Sunday sport at Onslow Park.
There was no public outcry. There were no protests in the street. It passed without a murmur.
So what prompted this momentous decision?
A letter to Camden Municipal Council in early 1925 from Rev CJ King, rector of St Johns Church, and Rev AH Johnstone, minister at the Camden Methodist Church, complained about a clash between religious services held on Onslow Park and a number of Sunday cricket matches. (Camden News, 26 February 1925)
The 1925 ban Sunday sport erupted after the Camden Mayor, GF Furner, granted permission for religious services on Sundays at Onslow Park. There had subsequently been a clash between local cricketers and religious services in January 1925 using the ground. (Camden News, 26 February 1925)
Originally Onslow Park had been made available to the Camden community by Sir William Macarthur and Mrs Elizabeth Onslow in 1882 from their pastoral property of Camden Park. The 10 acres had been put into a trust (a deed of gift) that allowed the area to be used by ‘inhabitants and visitors to the town and district as a pleasure ground and place of recreation’. The trustees were JK Chisholm, HP Reeves, E Simpson, and F Ferguson. (Camden News, 16 September 1897)
William Theobald writes that recreation grounds date back to the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians around 2000 BC. During Ancient Greek and Roman times these parks and open spaces were the privilege of the elites. In England the story of recreation grounds dates back to the 14th century when wasteland, or the local village common, reserved for grazing cows was made available for children’s play and ‘young people’ (men) after the days work.
London’s Royal Parks were opened to the public on Sundays with the first being Hyde Park in 1635. Urban recreation grounds were a Victorian innovation in response to the unhealthy aspects of the Industrial Revolution and the desire by Victorians to improve the physical and spiritual well-being of town dwellers. St James Park in London was the first public park opened in 1835.
The concept of a public pleasure ground outlined in the Onslow Park 1882 Deed of Gift dates back to Ancient Romans and usually related to landscaped gardens. In England pleasure grounds were gardens opened for entertainment and recreation from the 18th century and often had concert halls, bandstands, zoos, amusement rides and menageries.
These were the influences and traditions that encouraged the Macarthur family to dedicate Onslow Park to the Camden community in 1882. The family were always interested in improvements in the well-being of the local population.
The earliest references to Camden sport on Onslow Park date back to the mid-1890s with local football matches. There was a press report of a lively rugby match between Camden and Campbelltown and consideration was given to the formation of the football club. (Camden News, 13 June 1895)
The Camden cricketers had the use of the grounds on a regular basis with the first reports in the Camden press to cricket being played on Onslow Oval in 1895. (Camden News, 1 August 1895)
Onslow Park Act 1924 (NSW)
The background story of the Sunday sporting bans had been complicated when the responsibility for Onslow Park had been transferred to the council from the Onslow Park Trust and the Camden AH&I Society in 1924 by an act of parliament. The New South Wales government specified in the Act that the ground was to be used for ‘public recreation’ (Onslow Park Act 1924 (NSW)). The ground trust was represented by FA Macarthur Onslow of Camden Park, and the Camden AH&I Society by GM Macarthur Onslow, and TC Barker of Maryland.
Even earlier war the Sunday sporting ban had remained in place after Rev AE Putland from the Camden Methodist Church had raised objections to Sunday cricket in 1941.(Camden News 13 March 1941)
‘Too hot to handle’
Baker’s challenge to the sporting ban was discussed by Camden Municipal Council in mid-1943 when a rescission motion was placed on the council business papers.
The rescission motion was highly contentious and was considered ‘too hot to handle’ by council aldermen.
The proposed solution was a referendum.
The opposing camps divided on religious lines. The Methodists conducted the ‘No’ campaign and handed out literature in Argyle Street. The ‘Yes’ vote was supported by the soccer club, St John’s Church of England and their supporters. There were heated letters in the Camden News, and George Sidman, its owner and an active Methodist, remained impartial during the whole debate.
Eventually common-sense prevailed and the result was a resounding ‘Yes’, with 393 votes, to 197 ‘No’ votes, and as far as Sidman was concerned that was the end of the matter. The soccer competition between the military and the Camden community proved to be a complete success. (Camden News, 1 July 1943, 15 July 1943, 22 July 1943, 29 July 1943, 5 August 1943.)
Other communities with defence establishments did not have similar problems. For example at Temora RAAF airmen became involved in cricket and tennis, and Women’s Australian Auxiliary Air Force (WAAAF) personnel played basketball, while in Albury the military joined local sporting competitions (Maslin, Wings Over Temora, p. 29; Pennay, On the Home Front, p. 32.).
Camden war cemetery is located on the corner of Burragorang and Cawdor Roads, three kilometres south of Camden Post Office. The cemetery is on a slight rise above the Nepean River floodplain, with a northerly aspect at an elevation of 75 metres.
The vista to the north provides a picturesque view across the floodplain and is dominated by the town with the spire of St John’s Church in the background. It is not hard to imagine the scene that met these servicemen when they arrived in Camden during wartime over 60 years ago.
When the visitor approaches the cemetery, they do so from the east. They advance along a paved walkway lined with low hedgerows. The walkway is dominated by a flag pole in the centre of the path. The visitor then walks through a gate into the cemetery proper, and they are immediately struck by the serenity of the site.
The Camden War Cemetery contains the graves of seventeen Royal Australian Air Force servicemen, four army personnel and two Royal Air Force servicemen. The headstones are lined up in an North-South configuration, with the graves facing East-West. The graves are surrounded by a border of oleanders and a bottlebrush and dominated by a single majestic tea tree. The cemetery is well kept and has a pleasant outlook.
The cemetery contains the bodies of twenty-three servicemen who were stationed in the Camden area during the Second World War. These men fit within the long military tradition of the Camden area when local men went off to the Boer War and later the First World War.
There were thousands of servicemen who passed through the Camden area between 1939 and 1946 at the various defence facilities. The major major military establishments were the Narellan Military Camp on the Northern Road at Narellan, and the Eastern Command Training School at Studley Park, Narellan.
Many army units also undertook manoeuvres throughout the area and there were temporary encampments in several other locations including Camden Showground, Smeaton Grange and Menangle Paceway.
The principal RAAF establishment was located at Camden Airfield, with secondary airfields at The Oaks and Menangle Paceway. As well, there were a number of emergency runways constructed throughout the local area. The Royal Air Force also had several transport squadrons based at Camden Airfield between 1944 and 1946.
The names of the World War One servicemen and women re listed on the memorial gates to Macarthur Park, Menangle Rd, Camden. For more information on the service of Camden servicemen and women see Camden Remembers. These servicemen add to the Anzac mythology that is on display every Anzac Day.
Royal Australian Air Force
Five airmen were killed in Hudson A16-152, which was part of No 32 Squadron RAAF. The aircraft crashed south-west of Camden on 26 January 1943 while on a cross-country training flight. The aircraft was based at Camden airfield. The pilot and the four-man crew were killed. Pilot: F/Sgt SK Scott (402996), aged 25 years. Crew: Navigator F/Sgt HBL Johns (407122), aged 27 years. W/T Operator Sgt BCJ Pearson (402978), aged 25 years. Sgt GD Voyzey (402930), aged 24 years. Sgt GT Lawson (412545), 30 years.
Sgt SW Smethurst (418014), aged 20 years, crashed his Kittyhawk A29-455 at The Oaks Airfield on 30 September 1943 while on a training exercise strafing the airfield. This exercise was in conjunction with the 54th Australian Anti-Aircraft Regiment which erected gun positions adjacent to the airfield. The aircraft splurged at the bottom of a shallow dive and struck the ground.
Five airmen were killed on 18 November 1943 in Beaufort A9-350, which was part of No 32 Squadron RAAF. The aircraft crashed on a night cross country exercise training exercise, while based at Camden airfield. The pilot and crew were killed. Pilot: F/Sgt RC Christie (410630), aged 23 years. Crew: Navigator Sgt DR James (418721), aged 20 years. WOAG Sgt FN Fanning (419465), aged 20 years. Sgt RA Sharples (419226), aged 23 years. F/S HSJ Terrill (419426), a passenger from 73 Squadron, aged 20 years.
Corporal JP Kerrigan (62397) was an electrical mechanic and was killed in a car accident in Sydney on 11 December 1943, aged 29 years.
Five airmen were killed on 29 March 1944 in Beaufort A9-550, which was part of No 15 Squadron RAAF. The aircraft was based at the Menangle Paceway Airfield. The aircraft crashed after take-off when the port engine failed. Pilot: F/Sgt HB Johnston (420024), aged 26 years. Crew: 2nd Pilot F/O RW Durrant (422555), aged 24 years. Navigator F/O HD Wheller (426409), aged 21 years. W/T Operator F/Sgt RAC Hoscher (412535), aged 23 years. AC1 WH Bray (141632), aged 22 years.
Royal Air Force
LAC A Mullen (RAF) 1526778 was involved in a fatal accident on the Camden airfield tarmac on 12 October 1945, aged 23 years.
WOFF FS Biggs (RAF) 365157 from the Servicing Wing, RAF Station, Camden, was killed in a car accident in Sydney on 25 November 1945, aged 36 years.
Private Leonard Charles Walker (V235527) enlisted in the Australian Citizen’s Military Forces at Ballarat, Victorian on 8 October 1941. He was born in Ballarat on 28 June 1923. He served in the: 46th Australian Infantry Battalion, 29/46th Australian Infantry Battalion. He died at Menangle on 18 July 1945 aged 22 years.
Warrant Officer Class Two John Gow Alcorn (NX148530) enlisted in the Australian Citizen’s Military Forces at Sydney on 28 May 1934. He was born in Glasgow, Scotland on 19 January 1900. He transferred to the 2/AIF on 26 February 1943. He served in the: Sydney University Regiment, 110th Australian Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, 41st Australian Infantry Battalion, 41/2nd Australian Infantry Battalion. He died of illness on 31 March 1944, aged 44 years.
Warrant Officer Class Two Harry George Grinstead (NX126686) enlisted in the Australian Militia Forces at Sydney on 17 February 1930. He was born in London on14 August 1910. He initially transferred to the Australian Citizen Military Forces on 17 February 1940, and then to the 2/AIF on 15 August 1942. He served in the: 9th Australian Field Regiment. He died on 15 August 1944 as the result of injuries sustained in a railway accident, aged 34 years.
Craftsmen Elwyn Sidney Hoole (NX97717) enlisted in the 2/AIF on Paddington on 11 August 1942. He was born at Walcha, New South Wales, on 12 October 1908. He served in the: 1st Australian Ordinance Workshops Company, 308th Australian Light Aide Detachment. He died on 6 June 1944, aged 35 years.
RAAF Historical Section, Department of Defence, Air Force Office, Canberra. Correspondence, Accident Reports.
Central Army Records, Melbourne. Correspondence.
Updated 19 August 2021. Originally posted 19 September 2014.
Australia had very close links with United Kingdom at the time as part of the British Empire. The country relied heavily on the UK for its defence needs and Camden airfield played a small part in that story.
The tenders for the of the supply of the hangars, according to Dunn, were called in mid-1940 by the Australian Government’s Department of Supply and Development. Overall 283 Bellman hangars were supplied to a variety of sites across Australia and New Guinea. The final cost to the Commonwealth Government for the supply of the hangars was around £1,500 each.
Over 85 per cent of the Bellman hangars in Australia were supplied by Waddingtons (Clyde). Waddingtons got into financial trouble with the Bellman supply contract and under the wartime regulations the Commonwealth Government took a controlling interest in the firm. The government discovered that there were all sorts problems with supplying the hangars, although they were a ‘simple product’. The problems were eventually sorted out and the hangars were all supplied.
Under wartime regulations Waddington’s was a protected industry and supplied a variety of wartime contracts in the engineering field. They included railway wagons, ocean-going lighters, ‘Igloo‘ hangars, pontoons, landing barges, and buses. Waddingtons was completely taken over by the Commonwealth Government in 1946 and renamed Commonwealth Engineering Co Ltd. Interestingly, in the 1920s the principals of Waddingtons ran a business called Smith and Waddington which made ‘custom’ car bodies for imported chassis of Rolls Royce, Hudson, Wolseley and Fiat in a factory on Parramatta Road, Camperdown.
The Bellman hangars were only ever meant to be temporary, and they were supposed to be capable of being erected and dismantled by unskilled labour with simple equipment. Dunn maintains that the Bellman hangars were 95 feet wide (1 feet = 0.304 metres), 122 feet long, 17 feet high, covered an area of 10,000 square feet (1 square foot = 0.092 square metres), consisted of 60 tons of steel, at an average cost of £3,365 (erected), had 80 major components and could accommodate 5 Barracuda aircraft.
Waddingtons supplied Bellman hangars to around 25 airfields and other locations in New South Wales (from Camden to Temora), 15 in Queensland (from Cairns to Kingaroy), 17 in Victoria (including Ascot Vale and Port Melbourne), 4 in South Australia (including Mallala and Mt Gambier), 8 in WA (from Canarvon to Kalgoorlie), 3 in Tasmania (including Western Junction), 1 in the ACT (Kingston), 3 in the Northern Territory (including Gorrie and Wynellie) and Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea.
Initially Bellman hangars were designed in the United Kingdom with canvas panelled doors and canvas under the eaves, although steel-framed and clad doors were introduced after heavy snowfalls at Thornaby Airfield in the winter of 1937. The time taken to erect the UK hangar including levelling the ground, laying door tracks, erecting the steelwork and fitting the original oiled canvas Callender doors, was 500 man hours.
The British Ministry of Defence states that there are over 100 Bellman hangars still in existence in throughout the UK that were built around the Second World War in 2014. They were originally constructed by provide a fast, economical solution to a need for hangars. It is described as being a lightweight structure made from steel lattice frames, to form 14 bays giving an overall length of 53 metres and width of 29 metres.
According to some reports there are 14 surviving Bellman hangars at RAAF Base Wagga, at least three at Point Cook (RAAF Williams), one at RAAF Base Fairbairn, Canberra Airport, four at HMAS Albatross, Nowra, a number at Auburn, Bankstown and Camden. For the enthusiast there is an interesting article on Bellman hangars on Wikepedia.
Updated 14 August 2021. Originally posted 15 July 2014.
During the First World War, the Camden News’s editorial policy expressed strong cultural connections with France, especially around Bastille Day. The News carried reports of patriotic celebrations around the French National Day, visits by French soldiers and the personal reminiscences of Paris by Camden identity and owner of the News, William Sidman.
The Franco-Prussian war
In September 1914, the Camden News published a series of six articles written by William Sidman. They documented his personal experiences of the chaotic events of Paris at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. (Camden News, 27 August, 3 Sept, 10 Sept 1914, 17 Sept, 24 Sept, 1 Oct 1914)
Sidman had been sent to Paris in mid-1869 to ‘take charge ‘of The European News by the owners of Hull’s The Eastern Morning News, where he worked as a ‘junior reporter’. (CN, 27 August) The European News was large circulation bi-lingual, English-French, daily with a weekly edition. (CN, 3 Sept 1914)
In his memoirs, Sidman wrote about the chaos that broke out in Paris in mid-1870. There were large mobs of people roaming the streets after a national vote supporting the bellicose policies of Napoleon III towards Prussia. Sidman recalled that the ‘ends of streets were made impassable, omnibuses overturned’, resulting in ‘a political crisis’ with a ‘simmering discontent by the masses’. (CN, 10 Sept 1914)
Sidman wrote that eventually, the French government declared war on Prussia. The situation in Paris deteriorated, foreign nationals were told to leave, and Sidman left for London (CN, 24 Sept 1914). He was later told by an English compositor who fled Paris that the lead-type of The European News had been ‘melted down for bullets’ during the Prussian siege of the city in late 1870. (CN, 1 October 1914)
Sidman felt guilty leaving France and recalled that he felt sorry for ‘all my French friends’ during the conflict. The following year, he returned to Paris and found that the old newspaper office had been re-built by French authorities after its destruction by Prussian forces. (CN, 1 October 1914)
William’s articles were published under George Sidman’s editorship of the Camden News and were put on the front page. GV (George) Sidman was William’s son, took control of the Camden News in 1912, and continued William’s support for the French.
Support for French patriotic causes was not unique to Camden. Historian Alexis Bergantz in his book French Connections, Australia’s Cosmopolitan Ambitions, writes that Bastille Day celebrations in Melbourne in 1915 were prevalent. He reports that ‘hundreds of women spilled onto the streets selling flowers and cockades and flags in the colours of France’ according to the Melbourne Argus. The Marseillaise was played and funds raised for the French Red Cross on 14 July. The day was topped out with a ‘great concert of French music’ at the Melbourne Town Hall. (Bergantz, p136)
Camden’s first celebration of Bastille Day and French nationalism occurred on Friday, 14 June 1916. The Camden News published Marcus Clarke’s patriotic French poetry as the story’s lead item (see the beginning of this article) and then reported on a town hall meeting called by Camden Mayor GF Furner. Press reports stated that a ‘very enthusiastic’ crowd celebrated the ‘French National Day’ by listening to patriotic speeches from the mayor and Rev Hogan and ended with ‘three hearty cheers’ for France. (Camden News, 20 July 1916)
In 1917 the Camden Red Cross organised a fancy dress procession and sports day for France’s Day on 14 July and raised £374. The aim of the appeal was to assist French widows and children after the defence of Verdun. France’s Day started with a ‘hearty’ fancy dress procession along the main street, ending up at the showground, led by the Camden District Band and the fire brigade.
The procession along Argyle Street was followed by a sports day where the Camden Red Cross conducted a ‘tea tent’. The whole event attracted an ‘enormous crowd of people’ and entry was 1/-. The ‘younger members’ of the Camden Red Cross organised a concert (9 July) and raised £23 with entertainment provided by the Guild of St Faith and the Camden District Band. (Camden News, 5 July 1917, 12 July 1817, 19 July 1917.)
New Caledonian garrison visits Camden
These Red Cross activities were followed later in 1917 (Monday, 15 October) with a visit by a group of 20 French soldiers from the New Caledonia garrison. Sibella Macarthur Onslow hosted the soldiers in the ‘famous gardens’ at Camden Park after a planned visit to Gilbulla had been cancelled. The soldiers were part of a group of nearly 300 French troops welcomed in Sydney by the military, the Red Cross and Sydney’s French residents. They were entertained at a variety of functions around the city.
After their morning visit at Camden Park, the soldiers were driven into Camden, where they were entertained at a garden party on the lawn at the Commercial Bank in Camden’s main street. They took afternoon tea and were introduced to Camden’s mayor, WF Peters, his wife, over 25 members of the Camden Red Cross and other local identities by Sibella Macarthur Onslow. Several toasts and speeches were followed by rousing cheers of thanks, after which they boarded the train for Sydney. (Sydney Morning Herald 15 October 1917; Camden News, 18 October 1917.)
Sidman and French nationalism
The country press is a store of knowledge around cultural heritage and powerful local political interests especially in wartime.
Sidman was an identity of some weight in the Macarthur family strong-hold of Camden and his newspaper was a powerful voice in the town and district. He well understood the impact of the provincial press after working on a number of local mastheads in the United Kingdom and his time in Paris. So what was he up to? What was he trying to achieve with his French memoirs of war?
I would argue that while Sidman’s memoirs were really just a recollection of events at the time, their publication had a very pointed political agenda in a New South Wales country town at the outbreak of the First World War.
Sidman whimsically opened his memoirs of Paris with these comments:
memory is our only friend and true in thought and as long as a man’s memory lasts it becomes a treasure of unknown intrinsic value’
(Camden News, 27 August 1914)
What was Sidman really trying to say in his memoirs? Who was he trying to influence?
Disappointingly George Sidman did not provide insight or editorial comment in the Camden News at the time of William’s memoirs of Paris to help answer my questions.
Part of the answer might be provided by William Sidman in 1898. He wrote of his despair at the cost of warfare, the loss of resources in the nations which took part in them and the threat to world stability. (Camden News, 9 June 1898)
In Camden the ideology of motherhood expressed itself in the foundation of the St John’s Mother’s Union in 1900 which saw that mothers were an integral part of women’s service role to the British Empire. (Ministering Angels, p19) and later the Red Cross in 1914 and Camden Country Women’s Association in 1930. (Ministering Angels, 21)
In the early 20th century the Red Cross was variously described as the ‘Greatest Mother in the World’, and the ‘Mother of all Nations’ (Ministering Angels, 6) The CWA were concerned with motherhood and infant mortality and of their main activities in the early 20th century was the foundation of baby health centres across the country.
Around the turn of the century a direct link was made between infant welfare, motherhood, patriotism and nationalism. Motherhood and mothering were expressed in terms of patriotism and a national priority. All driven by European exceptionalism, expressed in Australia as the White Australia policy. There was anxiety around falling birth rates, whiteness and the strength of the British Empire.
Motherhood as national building
Sociologist Karen Swift writes that from the around the middle of the 18th century the state became interested in motherhood where ‘the state’s interest in controlling and using female fertility for nation building and economic purposes’. Biological determinism stated that motherhood was a natural state for women and that is should be a national priority.
The ‘master narratives’ governing European motherhood in earlier centuries was that of nation building, especially in the colonies. The creation of new nations required a growing, healthy population, with women’s roles focused on producing and rearing soldiers and laborers. Once nation-building efforts became established, mothers were called upon to contribute to the development of a large and prosperous white middle class needed to perpetuate and grow capitalism. For this purpose, white mothers were needed to learn, teach, and demonstrate the moral authority the middle class required to dominate those below in the social, economic, and racial hierarchies.
The metaphor of the Red Cross as mother and guardian angel was extended in the post-war environment and incorporated a concern for mothers and infants. The terrible losses of the First World War, and declining birth rate made the welfare of mothers and infants a national defence priority. There were calls to repopulate the country (The Maitland Weekly Mercury, 30 November 1918.) and a developing national anxiety around motherhood. Some of Sydney’s conservative elite had expressed concern about the issue of infant welfare, and set up the Kindergarten Union and Free Kindergartens in the 1890s.
Support from the National Council of Women of NSW, of which Sibella Macarthur Onslow of Camden Park was a member, and others who were concerned about the welfare of mothers and infants led to the establishment of day nurseries, supervised playgrounds and other initiatives in inner Sydney in the early 1920s. There were high rates of infant mortality in inner Sydney and social conditions for single mothers with children were less than desirable. There had been the Royal Commission on the Decline of the Birth Rate and the Mortality of Infants in New South Wales in 1904 and the Edwardian period was characterised by a nationalistic concern over the moral decline of the British race. (Ministering Angels, 65-66)
‘Perfect Motherhood is Perfect Patriotism’
‘Perfect Motherhood is Perfect Patriotism’ according to Sydney’s Daily Telegraph in 1926. The article was a part of the publicity associated with a fundraising campaign for the Karitane-Sydney Mothercraft Centre at Coogee operated by the Australian Mothercraft Society. The society had been established in Australia in 1923 modelled on the Royal New Zealand Society for Health of Women and Children, commonly called the Plunket Society, established by New Zealand doctor Sir Truby King in 1907.
You should have a white Australia. But if you find the Eastern nations more moral more noble to make more sacrifices for the continuity of the race, you know the result must be the same as has been the case with the great civilisations of the past. Greece and Rome went down, not through any failure in the valour or courage of their young men, but because of the increase in luxury, the repugnance to rearing families, followed by decadence and sterility and eventually extinction. If the population of Australia do not do their duty to the race there cannot be any resistance to other races coming in and populating this fair land.
In 1920 the women of the Camden Red Cross were concerned about these issues and donated £14 to the Society for Welfare of Mothers and Babies. The society had been formed in 1918 in Sydney, aimed to teach mothercraft and eventually set up the Tresillian training school at Petersham in 1922.
Red Cross Baby Day became an important part of the district Red Cross child welfare agenda in the post-war years. The Red Cross coordinated the first Baby Week in 1920 in the first week of April and encouraged the formation of local committees.
The Baby Week was supported by Lady Helen Munro Ferguson and had its origins in England with the National Baby Week Council in 1900. Its objects were to foster child welfare by decreasing infant mortality, to promoting the health of mothers, and to encouraging motherhood and maternal nursing(The Braidwood Dispatch and Mining Journal, 27 February 1920) (Ministering Angels, 66).
The 1920 Red Cross Baby Day in Camden was held on 30 March and the Camden branch had two street stalls, while the Narellan Red Cross had an afternoon tea stall at the Bank of New South Wales. (Minutes, Camden Red Cross, 9 March 1920 )
The support continued in 1925 when the Camden Red Cross was assisted on the dip stalls by Miss Gardner from Camden Public School and her kindergarten class. The total raised by Camden was £23 and Narellan Red Cross raised £9. Camden News, 1 April 1920)
The funds were donated to the Camden District Cot at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children. In 1925 Camden Red Cross members sought the assistance of the girls from Camden Superior Public School, with the girls helping out on one of the dip stalls. This practice continued until 1940. The Camden Red Cross branch made a regular donation and it generally varied between £20 and £50, with a peak in 1922 of £53. The overall average donation between 1921 and 1939 was £34, while during the Furner presidency the average donation was £37 and Macarthur Onslow’s presidency £32. The Camden Red Cross made a number of donations to nursery movement groups during the 1920s and they included: Nursery Association (1924, £10); Sydney Day Nurseries (1925, £10); Infant Home, Ashfield (1925, £7, and 1926, £10); and the Forest Lodge Day Nursery (1927, £6). (Ministering Angels, 66)
The Fall of Singapore in February 1942 was a disastrous military defeat for the British Imperial forces and a defining point of the Second World War for Camden.
Tensions in the district had been rising for weeks during late 1941.
At the beginning of December the Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbour, Royal Air Force facilities on the Malayan coast (7 December 1941) and other locations. Shortly after this the Japanese navy sank the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser HMS Repulse (10 December 1941).
Camden resident Donald Howard wrote that the town ‘like the rest of Australia knew that sooner or later we would be “for it”‘. (Howard, The Hub of Camden, p. 25.) Earlier in the year the Camden area had been declared a ‘vulnerable area’ (August) and the town had its first blackout test.
Singapore had been on the minds of Australia’s strategic thinkers since the end of the First World War. The Australian Government felt that the country’s greatest military threat came from Japan, and Australia joined forces with Britain in what became known as the Singapore Strategy. British naval facilities were strengthened at Singapore and a string of conservative Australian governments reduced spending on defence across the Interwar years.
‘A black month’
Historian Michael McKernan in his book All in! Australia during the second world war has called December 1941 a ‘black month for Australians’ and Prime Minister Curtin told the nation ‘We are at war’. (McKernan, All In!, pp. 96-97.)
Things were heating up and the Japanese Imperial Army landed forces on the Malayan peninsula on 8 December and started their land-based push towards Singapore.
TheCamden News ran an editorial with the headline ‘Japan – According to Plan’. The News stated:
‘The feeling has been that war with the crafty and ambitious Japanese, rapidly rising to power, was bound to come sooner or later. For years the ‘Yellow Peril’ has provided an incalculable element in all Australian political thinking. Put bluntly, the traditional ascendancy of the white race might well be at stake if Japan were enabled to gather strength from this war in anything like the same proportion as she took it from the last.’
The warning of a threat to European exceptionalism advanced by the Camden News was not new. The ascendancy of the white man was a long-held belief by Europeans across the world and the defeat of the British Empire troops in Singapore came at the hands of an Asian power came as a complete shock. According to many in the late 19th and early 20th century, it was Europeans’ duty—the “white man’s burden“—to bring civilisation to non-white peoples through beneficent imperialism. In Australia, this found expression in the White Australia policy.
We are getting worried!
There were signs that the Camden community were seriously worried by the progress of the war. The Camden National Emergency Services jumped into action: there was an urgent call for wardens; civil defence meetings were held with training sessions; sand dumps were established in case of incendiary bombs; street lighting was reduced; sandbagging was increased at Camden Hospital; and police strictly enforced fuel regulations.
The Japanese advance down the Malay peninsula continued and units from the Australian 8th Infantry Division saw action in mid-January. By the end of month the Malaya campaign was going badly for the British forces.
The Camden News ran an editorial headed ‘The Jap is not a Super-man’:
‘The Japanese continue their rapid advance through the islands of the north until they are now within striking distance of the biggest island of all — our own homeland. That is cause for anxiety enough, but don’t let us help the enemy by crediting him with powers and capacities. he does net possess. The Jap, good fighter though he is, is not yet a superman.’
On 8 February 1942 the Imperial Japanese Army landed on Singapore island. Within a week the British forces had surrendered. The Fall of Singapore on 15 February to the Japanese forces was a profound shock to Australia and other parts of the British Empire.
‘was the scene of the largest surrender of British-led forces ever recorded in history’. The British considered Singapore as their ‘Gibraltar in the Far East’ and it was assumed to be just as impregnable’.
The Camden News editorialised the defeat as Australia’s Total War— And Its Implications. The News warned that Australia was under direct threat of invasion:
Official pronouncements made last week, and again this week, should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that the ‘battle of Australia’ has now definitely begun. We face total war — possibly on our own soil. The events of the last week — one of the blackest weeks of the whole war — have shattered our complacency, and he is a foolish man indeed who still faces the immediate future with light-hearted abandon.We must rid ourselves of our comfortable beliefs that Australia is too far from Japan for successful invasion.
Camden’s civil defence authorities drew up plans for the town’s evacuation, and formed a scorched earth policy committee. Helen Stewardson wrote to her brother, Harry, an airman in England, ‘I guess you hear the news the same as we do, it is rather disheartening, but we hope for the best’. (Vernon, ‘Letters to an Airmen’, Grist Mills, Dec. 1999, p. 56.)
The failure of the British Imperial Forces at Singapore was profound.
Terry Stewart maintains that the arrogance of the British led to underestimate the ability of the Japanese forces. She writes:
In the 1930s and 1940s, the British forces stationed in Singapore epitomised the British military idea of officers and gentlemen. The atmosphere was very much one of colonial sociability.
Oliver Steward writes that the British High Command left Singapore vulnerable, with a lack of equipment including tanks and aircraft, without proper kit to be worn by troops in a jungle environment. This situation was complicated by Churchill’s attitude who ordered Empire forcesunder the command of General Percival to “stand their ground to the last man standing”.
When the British commander Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival surrendered on 15 February 1942 more than 130,000 British Imperial troops were taken prisoner.
The National Museum of Australia states that for Australia, the fall of Singapore was a disaster. More than 15,000 Australian soldiers were taken captive. Of these, more than 7000 would die as prisoners of war. Controversially, the commander of Australian forces on the island, Major General Gordon Bennett, escaped the island with two staff officers on the night of the surrender. (NMA)
One Camden soldier, Private Robert J Auld, served with the 2/20 Australian Infantry Battalion and was taken prisoner at the Fall of Singapore. In 1940 Auld enlisted and married Camden girl Phyllis Kerswell. The 2/20th saw action in the Malayan peninsular campaign and withdrew under the Japanese advance in December 1941 and arrived in Singapore at the end of January 1942. Imprisoned in Changi after the surrender, Auld and others were transferred to Sandakan. Auld died in June 1945 aged 30. (Camden Remembers)
The imprisonment of Australian troops created the POW as the dominant stereotype for Australia during the Second World War. Craig Barrett writes in his PhD titled Remembering Captivity: Australian Prisoners of War of the Japanese that the POWs have become ‘an integral part of Anzac Day and the Anzac legend’.
Updated 1 February 2021. Originally posted 29 January 2021.
For over a century, the Anzac story has been a central part of the Australian cultural identity. The contradictions that have emerged around it have shown no sign of going away. Historians have been unpacking the meaning of Anzac for decades and seem to no closer to any absolute sense.
In a packed auditorium on 20 April 2017, University of Wollongong historian Dr Jen Roberts gave the inaugural public lecture in the Knowledge Series of the University of Wollongong Alumni. Robert’s presentation called ‘Men, myth and memory’ explored the meaning of Anzac and how it is part of Australia’s cultural identity. The attentive audience was a mix of ages and interests, including past military personnel.
One old gentleman in the audience stood up in question time and announced to the audience that he felt that Dr Roberts was ‘a brave lady’ to ‘present the truth’ about the Anzac story in her evocative lecture.
Robert’s compelling presentation left none of the alumnus present in any doubt about the contested nature of Anzac and that there is far from just one truth. Anzac is a fusion of cultural processes over many decades, and it has grown into something bigger than itself.
The Anzac acronym, meaning Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, was first used by General Sir William Birdwood, and its legal status was confirmed by the Australian Government in 1916.
The Anzac story needs to be inclusive and not exclusive, and while the current service personnel are the custodians of the Anzac mythology, it can sometimes be a heavy responsibility.
Tensions and contradictions
The Anzac story is ubiquitous across Australia. It is embedded in the heart and soul of every community in the country. Within this narrative, there are contradictions and tensions.
The war that spawned the notion of Anzac was a product of industrial modernism. While the Anzac shrines of commemoration and remembrance across Australia were a product of Interwar modernism, some were the work of Rayner Hoff. Yet these same artists and sculptors were supporters of Sydney bohemianism and its anti-war sentiments.
There are a host of other contradictions that range across issues that include gender, militarism, nationalism, racism, violence, trauma, and homophobia.
Jen Roberts argued in her lecture that the Anzac mythology and iconography point to Australian exceptionalism. She then detailed how this was not the situation. She analysed the horrors of war and how this is played out within the Anzac story.
According to Roberts, the tension within the meaning of Anzac is represented by the official state-driven narrative that stresses honour, duty and sacrifice through commemoration, remembrance and solemnity.
On the hand, the digger mythology’s unofficial story is about a man who is not a professional soldier, egalitarian, loyal to mates and a larrikin – an excellent all-around Aussie bloke.
The official/digger binary highlights the contradictions with the Anzac tradition and its meaning for the military personnel, past and present.
Gunner Bruce Guppy
In 1941 an 18-year-old country lad called Bruce Guppy from the New South Wales South Coast volunteered for service with the 7th Australian Light Horse. Guppy volunteered because his brothers had joined up, and the military looked to have better prospects than working as a dairy hand. Gunner BW Guppy had little time for jingoism or nationalism as a laconic fellow and stated, ‘life is what you make it’.
Bruce Guppy was a yarn-spinning, non-drinking, non-smoking, non-gambling larrikin who saw action in the 1942 Gona-Buna Campaign in New Guinea and later trained as a paratrooper. His anti-war views in later years never stopped him from attending every Sydney Anzac Day March with his unit, 2/1 Australian Mountain Battery, and the camaraderie they provided for him. A lifetime member of the New South Wales Returned and Services League of Australia, he never discussed his wartime service with his family until I married his daughter.
Guppy had five brothers who saw active service in the Pacific conflict, with one brother’s service in British Commonwealth Occupation Forces in Japan cited in Gerster’s Travels in Atomic Sunshine. Guppy would not call himself a hero, yet he willingly participated in Huskisson’s Community Heroes History Project in 2007. Guppy was something of a bush poet and, in 1995, wrote a poem called ‘An Old Soldier Remembers’, which in part says:
So it surprised no one when Bruce Guppy made the national media in 2013 when he handed Alice Guppy’s Mother’s Badge and Bar to the Australian War Memorial. Australian War Memorial director Brendan Nelson was moved by his death in 2014 and personally thanked the family for his ‘wonderful’ contribution to the nation.
For Guppy, Anzac Day embraced both meanings expressed by Roberts: The official commemorative remembering; and the larrikin enjoying the company of his mates. The purpose of the Anzac story has changed during Bruce Guppy’s lifetime and the experiences of his digger mates who served in the Second World War.
While many lay claims ownership of the cultural meaning of Anzac, Roberts contends that the organic growth of the Dawn Service is an example of the natural development of Anzac and its sensibilities for different parts of Australian society.
The site and the myth
Roberts examined the two aspects of Anzac mythology – the site and the myth. She maintained that there are many claims to the ownership of the cultural meaning of Anzac. Roberts then pondered the meaning of the slaughter on the Western Front. She asked the audience to reflect on the words of Eric Bogle’s song, And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda covered by an American Celtic band, the Dropkick Murphys.
The Gallipoli peninsula is a site of pilgrimages from Australia while being the only locality in modern Turkey with an English name.
Pilgrims and memory
Roberts contrasted the small group of military pilgrims who went to the 1965 50th anniversary with the lavish all expenses tour of the 1990 75th anniversary sponsored by the Hawke Labor Federal Government. She maintains this was the start of the modern pilgrimage industry.
Roberts drew on personal experience and related anecdotes from her five visits to Gallipoli peninsular with University of Wollongong students. These young people undertook the UOW Gallipoli Study Tour, organised by her mentor, friend and sage UOW Associate-Professor John McQuilton (retired).
Widespread interest in Gallipoli pilgrimages has grown in recent times. Family historians have started searching for their own digger-relative from the First World War. They seek the kudos derived from finding a connection with the Gallipoli campaign and its mythology.
The Howard Federal Government started by promoting soft patriotism, followed by the Abbott Government promoting official celebrations of the Centenary of Anzac.
Official government involvement has unfortunately increased the jingoism of these anniversaries and the noise around the desire by some to acquire the cultural ownership of the Gallipoli site.
For example, the Australian Howard Government attempted to direct the Turkish Government on how to carry out the civil engineering roadworks on the Gallipoli peninsular.
Roberts dislikes the Brand Anzac, which has been used to solidify the Australian national identity. Anzacary, the commodification of the Anzac spirit, has been an area of marketing growth, with the sale of souvenirs and other ephemera. Jingoism and flag-flapping have proliferated with the rise of Australian exceptionalism from the national level to local communities.
Anzac mythology and memory tend to forget the grotesque side of war and its effects. First World War servicemen suffered shell shock (PTSD) and took to alcohol, gambling, domestic violence, divorce and suicide. They became the responsibility of those on the homefront.
The Anzac mythology disempowers and marginalises people. The legend is about nationalism, jingoism, racism, and stereotypes while at the same time offering hope, glory and answers for others. The Guppy brothers and their comrades felt they understood the meaning of Anzac.
Roberts maintains that the ideas around the Anzac story belong to everyone and offer contradictions for some and realities for others.
The members of the Australian community are the ones who will make a choice about the meaning of Anzac.
Updated on 23 April 2022, 16 April 2021. Updated on 27 April 2020 and re-posted as ‘Brand Anzac – meaning and myth’. Originally posted on 24 April 2017 as ‘Anzac Contradictions’
a potentially debilitating fungal infection that thrived in the wet, cold and squalid conditions, and could lead to gangrene and amputation if left untreated.
Soldiers wore stiff leather boots that were poorly insulated with two pairs of socks in freezing winter conditions to keep out the cold and wet.
Authorities recommended that troops change their socks twice a day to avoid trench feet. Reports from New Zealand maintained in 1915 that
a pair of socks lasted no more than two weeks when on active service.
So it was unsurprising that there was a constant shortage of socks.
Shortages from the start
Sock shortages commenced from the outbreak of war and illustrated how the progress of the war completely overwhelmed military authorities with their unrealistic expectations.
At the Liverpool Infantry Camp in November 1914 military authorities were advising that three pairs of woollen socks would be adequate for the duration of the campaign, while new recruits were advised by bring ‘strong boots’ and ‘knitted socks’ because the army could not supply them.
Knitting for the troops was not restricted to the American Red Cross.
Knitting was part of the homefront response to the outbreak of war across all British Empire countries including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
Across the globe, millions of knitted items found their way to the trenches on the Western Front.
Socks were only one of a large list of items that women made for the war effort. Other knitted items included cholera belts, scarves, gloves and balaclavas, and this was supplemented by a considerable effort sewing hospital supplies.
Women volunteer to supply socks
Australian women volunteered to supply knitted from the start of the war. Unlike women in the United Kingdom, Australian women did not replace men in their civilian roles during the war.
In Australia, the push for knitted-socks, and other items, was co-ordinated by the Red Cross, the Australian Comforts Fund and other groups including the Soldiers’ Sock Fund.
In Queensland, the Governor’s wife, Lady Goold-Adams, established the Queensland Soldiers’ Sock Fund.
Knitted socks were part of the soldier’s bag that Red Cross volunteers signed up to supply on the foundation of branches throughout New South Wales in August 1914. Red Cross knitters in Camden and across Australia supplied thousands of pairs of knitted socks to soldiers.
In Camden, the new Red Cross branch supplied ‘a large number of socks’ in the first weeks of the war’ including supplies to the Australian Light Horse regiment and the 4th Battalion of Infantry. By September 1915 Camden Red Cross workers had supplied 456 pairs of knitted socks to Red Cross headquarters in Sydney amongst a host of other hand-made items.
Annette, Lady Liverpool, the wife of New Zealand Governor Lord Liverpool,
Lady Liverpool instigated ‘Sock Day’, when the women of New Zealand were encouraged to knit enough socks to provide every soldier with two new pairs (around 30,000 pairs in total).
The First World War was not the first time that women volunteers had supplied knitted socks to Australian troops in wartime. In 1900 Camden women supplied 120 pairs of knitted socks to Camden troops in South Africa in the New South Wales Mounted Rifles. These were similar to the activities of British women.
Millions of socks
It has been estimated that Australian women knitted over 1.3 million pairs of socks for the Red Cross and Australian Comforts Fund for the war effort.
Often with a small personal note inside the sock informing the digger who had knitted the garment along with a brief message. (The Conversation 11 August 2014)
Knitting patterns were distributed and cheap wool was made available to knitters.
In 2012 volunteer knitter Janet Burningham from Wrap with Love found that it took about a day to knit each sock. She used a rare grey sock pattern and Paton’s 8-ply grey wool and needles. Socks were knitted in the round on double-pointed needles leaving no seams.
The iconic sock knitter
The solo woman sock knitter was one of the everlasting iconic images of the war at home in Australia.
The iconic image of The Sock Knitter is a 1915 painting by Grace Cossington Smith found at the Art Gallery of NSW. The gallery states
The subject of the painting is Madge, the artist’s sister, knitting socks for soldiers serving on the frontline in World War I. Distinctly modern in its outlook, ‘The sock knitter’ counterpoints the usual narratives of masculine heroism in wartime by focusing instead on the quiet steady efforts of the woman at home.
Knitting mediating grief
The action of Camden women and others who became wartime sock knitters was an act of patriotism. They were supporting their boys using one of their traditional domestic arts.
Knitting, sewing, and other domestic arts were unpaid war work and a form of patriotism when women in Australia did not replace men at home in the First World War, unlike the United Kingdom. Historian Bruce Scates has written that women invested a large amount of ‘emotional energy’ in their knitting and sewing.
Women were the mediators of wartime grief and bereavement and knitting and sewing groups were women-only spaces where they could comfort each other and ease the loneliness.
Suzanne Fischer writes that the sock problem and trench foot still existed in the Second World War for American troops stationed in Alaska. She states:
Characteristically, Americans finally reduced their trench foot casualties by throwing more technology at the problem. Thee Shoepac system, introduced in 1944, combined a rubber foot and an impermeable outer leather layer with a felt liner to keep feet dry. These boots were also stylish, which increased their use.
Updated 17 April 2020; original posted 10 March 2020.