Doing our bit at home

Doing our bit at home


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The New England Soldiers' Club, a place for all members of the Australian Imperial Expeditionary Forces, camped at Armidale Showground in 1916.

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DIGGERS' QUEEN: Min Blaxland dresses up for a fancy costume fund-raiser to raise funds for the New England Soldiers' Club.

DIGGERS' QUEEN: Min Blaxland dresses up for a fancy costume fund-raiser to raise funds for the New England Soldiers' Club.

IT'S a hot evening in February, 1916, and residents are pouring into Armidale Town Hall to decide whether the school of arts building should be turned into a soldiers' club.

Mayor William Curtis, a draper by trade, presides over the meeting.

Min Blaxland, great granddaughter of the explorer Gregory Blaxland and known as “The Digger's Queen”, sits beside him.

She reads out the proposal for a New England Soldiers' Club.

It will be a place for all members of the Australian Imperial Expeditionary Forces, camped at Armidale Showground.

“The club shall provide members with rest, recreation and material comfort,” Min tells the gathered assembly.

“It will be open between 5pm and 10.30pm on weekdays”, there will be no alcohol served and gambling will be prohibited.

Similar meetings are being held in town halls across Australia throughout The Great War.

People on the home front are keen to do their bit for “our boys” fighting for The Empire.

Makeshift camps are set up on the outskirts of many other country towns, where men who have enlisted train and wait to be called to serve their country.

At the meeting in Armidale, the mayor rises and takes a vote on the club; the motion passes overwhelmingly.

Copious notes are taken at committees and sub-committees over the next few months, documenting rules and regulations for the club and fund-raising drives.

Mrs T Lambert from the Armidale Relief Society commits to baking three cakes and selling them at 10d each, or about $4.15 in today's currency; a plum pudding (1/5), two tins of fruit at a halfpenny each and one pudding at 1/5.

Notes show Mrs' Horton, Vane and Holden pledging to do their bit in the kitchen, even cooking herrings in sauce.

Their recipes, reports and expenses are meticulously recorded in diaries and notebooks catalogued at The University of New England's Heritage Centre.

They provide a window on to the everyday life of those left behind during World War I.

"While much has been documented from those serving during The Great War, comparatively less has been written about the everyday lives of those left in Australia," archivist Bill Oates says.

Min's diary, usually jotted with a pencil in modified cursive style, forms part of that collection.

It sits alongside newspapers and articles in the archives detailing the everyday lives of Australians during the war years.

Billy Hughes is prime minister. He's juggling the high cost of war (20 per cent of GDP in 1918, compared with 2 per cent in 2016) and a relentless drought which began in 1911 and has caused a crash in wool, meat and dairy production.

In country towns, people such as Min are trying to make ends meet on an average wage of £2 9s 3d for men ($285.45 in today's currency) and 19s 5d ($113.94) for women.

Life's tough for those left at home.

As with thousands of other women living in rural communities, Min's morning starts with her regular visit to Armidale Hospital, armed with bunches of fresh flowers picked from her garden.

“It's hard to believe now but picking flowers for recovering soldiers in war-time hospitals was a daily routine for thousands of women,” Oates says.

She's also preparing for the night's meal and will probably turn to a recipe from Mrs Beeton's All About Cookery book.

There's a special section on Australian cookery, with recipes such as Melbourne pancakes, parrot pie, Rosella jelly and jugged wallaby.

William Curtis, meanwhile, is trying to recruit young men to serve in his burgeoning store. It's a very difficult task, since a third of Australia's male population aged between 18 and 44 have enlisted to serve the country.

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Cinema becomes a good way to take people's minds off the war and most country towns now have their own moving picture house.

In Armidale, the old skating rink has been demolished to make way for the cinema.

Showing in 1916 is the silent fantasy drama film, A Daughter of the Gods, (approved and commended by the New York Board of Censorship), featuring Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman.

During the war years less than half of all Australians owned their own home (compared with nearly 70 per cent in 2017), however, there are bargains for those who can afford a home.

In a 1917 edition of The Sydney Morning Herald, a double-fronted brick cottage in Manly, "close to surf and boat" is advertised for £800 (terms may be arranged), or about $79,600 in today's currency.

But country people face different challenges.

Most still work on the land and talk in the bars and salons invariably turns to the drought.

It starts in 1911 and a series of what we now term “el Nino” events ravages the country until at least 1916.

Heavy rains reported in Tasmania, southern Victoria and western Queensland have failed to materialise in other parts of Australia.

It’s turned manicured-green tennis courts a baked brown, much to the annoyance of those young men and women left behind.

“Tennis was a big part of the social calendar in the war years,” Mr Oates says.

“Tennis parties and other social events, such as dances and fundraisers, would be advertised in advance and reported in full in the papers.”

In Armidale, a number of tennis parties are held to raise funds for the construction of the soldiers’ club.

Min lives up to her name as “The Diggers’ Queen” by taking part in a fancy costume fundraiser.

She dresses as a mock royal, resplendent in long gown, crown and orb.

It does the trick; money for the soldiers’ club pours in and by 1917 the hut is built.

But within a year The Great War will draw to an end.

About a fifth of the 331,780 Australians who served overseas never came home; a further 137,013 were wounded.

It’s the task of those left behind to erect memorials and cenotaphs to those who died, “Lest We Forget”.

New England Soldiers’ Club survived for a while after the war before the building was demolished and the club merged with the district RSL.

Min Blaxland lived to see another war.

She never married, but was a tireless worker for the Red Cross, dying in November, 1965 aged 88.

William Curtis served as an alderman for another 30 years.

He lived to see his two sons take over and expand the business.

One of his sons, A.B Curtis, returned from service in World War I as an amputee; he is commemorated on the Armidale World War I Memorial Fountain.

Countless other lives remain unrecorded, some committed to a long lost diary, or ledger, or journal, kept by the likes of Mr Oates.

They are kept for next generations, ready to be opened and poured over, their jottings, often incomplete, to be deciphered in new ways.

The story Doing our bit at home first appeared on The Land.

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