Events can be set in motion by the most unlikely things. In the case of a play soon to premiere in the Redlands, it was a talk given by councillor Paul Bishop about the history of the Birkdale School of Arts Hall.
The Hall, currently home to various community groups, was the first Australian Women’s Land Army (AWLA) camp proclaimed in the Redlands. Paul’s talk opened the pages of an almost-forgotten history, the story of unknown, untrained city women who threw their energy and determination into feeding a nation when its able-bodied men were fighting a war.
Sharing something interesting and new always triggers reactions and for one member of the audience the immediate reaction was “there’s a play in that!”. Local actor, writer and co-principal of Theatre Redlands Jan Nary was inspired by Paul’s talk to put pen to paper and create The Other Diggers, a stage play that honours those women.
In 1942, wartime Australia was almost on the ropes. Singapore had fallen, Darwin, Katherine and Sydney had been attacked. Most able-bodied men who had worked in the rural sector had been drawn into the armed forces and the production of food and fibre became urgent.
The Australian Women’s Land Army was formed, an Australia-wide, state-based cohort of women who would take on the task of rural production and processing. Based on the land army formed in the UK in World War I, it had long been proposed by the Country Women’s Association, although ironically it was forbidden to women already working on the land. Consequently, most of the recruits were city women who had worked at such jobs as secretaries, shop assistants, waitresses, housekeepers and barmaids.
Organised by the government and paid by the farmers who employed them, they lived in permanent camps – such as Birkdale Hall – or in billets or temporary hostels. From a standing start and with basic training they took on tasks that included ploughing, planting, harvesting, milking, slaughtering, butchering, tractor driving, baling, shearing and crating and more. They fed the nation, Australian troops overseas, American troops stationed in Australia and even managed to supplement rations for the United Kingdom.
Theirs is the fascinating story re-imagined in The Other Diggers, opening at the Redland Museum on June 2, 2023.
More information is available at redlandmuseum.org.au/whats-on/events.
Read part two of this series in next week’s paper.