Irene Isabel DENTON (later DIXON) – Australian Women’s Land Army
The Australian Women’s Land Army (AWLA) was created in World War Two to combat Australia’s rising farm labour shortages. When Japan joined the Axis in 1941 further male agricultural labour was recruited into the Australian military to defend the country. Modelled on the British Women’s Land Army, the AWLA was formed on 27 July 1942.
Recruits were between 18 and 50 years of age with many women coming from urban areas and often unskilled in rural work. They were provided with uniforms and working clothes. At its peak in December 1943, the AWLA had 2,382 permanent members and 1,039 auxiliary members. Members worked an average 48-hour week with a minimum wage of 30 shillings a week, which in common with the period was much less than their male counterparts.
Their work varied depending where they were placed. It could include cereal, vegetable and fruit growing, raising pigs and poultry, as well as sheep and wool work. Members were moved to meet seasonal demands such as grape and fruit picking or vegetable canning. Country living conditions were often rudimentary with women living on farms or in nearby towns. While often their work was physically demanding, the women enjoyed the camaraderie and satisfaction of assisting the nation’s war effort.
The Australian Women’s Land Army was disbanded on 31 December 1945. In 1997 their service was formally recognised when they became eligible for the award of the Civilian Service Medal 1939 – 1945.
We know of one local resident who served in the Women’s Land Army during the war years – Irene Isabel DENTON (later DIXON) of Port Elliot was one such volunteer.
Irene, or Rene as she is known, was born on 24 November 1922 at Denial Bay, South Australia. She was one of eleven children of a west coast family who farmed at the locality of Charra, midway between Ceduna and Penong. Her parents were Ernest Albert DENTON and Catherine Margaret DENTON (nee LUTT).
Rene’s family rallied to Australia’s defence during World War Two with three of her brothers enlisting in the 2nd AIF. Ronald served with the 2/48 Infantry Battalion, Cyril with the 2/2 Pioneer Battalion, while Mervyn served with the 2/43 Infantry Battalion and was killed in action on 3 August 1941 defending Tobruk. Three cousins and two brothers in law also served with the Australian Army.
Following the death of her brother Mervyn, and a long period of drought, the DENTON family left the land and moved to Whyalla. By mid-1942, Rene was working in the Whyalla ammunition factory manufacturing 25-pounder artillery shells. When the Australian Women’s Land Army was established on 27 July 1942, she enlisted.
The AWLA provided women to replace the many male agricultural workers who had left to join the armed services. The Australian economy had been transformed to a war footing with many women working at factories manufacturing munitions and military equipment. Equally important, it was essential the country continue to produce food and fibres such as wool, flax and cotton for its own and its allies’ use.
Under the control of the Director General of Manpower, the AWLA was open to women of 18 to 50 years of age who enrolled for a minimum of 12 months or the duration of the war. Numbers peaked in October 1944 at 2,565 permanent and 503 auxiliary members with some 400 in South Australia. Officially they worked 48 hours a week and were paid between 30 to 50 shillings a week, depending upon whether their keep was supplied by the employer. These wages were usually lower than those of men doing the same work. While some of the women lived on their allocated farms others lived in towns and travelled to their daily tasks.
Rene’s first assignment was six weeks at a Pooraka dairy farm where she replaced the male worker who had enlisted. While the farmer was verbally abusive, his wife made Rene most welcome.
Next Rene travelled by train to a mixed farm at Hoyleton. Here again she replaced a former male worker and was expected to do a ‘man’s’ work. An Italian Prisoner-of-War was also allocated to the farm. Despite the Italian man and Rene not being able to speak each other’s language, they managed to communicate with each other. When the farmer was not present, the Italian would lift heavy things for Rene.
For the 1940s, the farm was well equipped with a tractor and mechanical harvester, but the slightly built Rene still had to move full bags of wheat on the header’s platform. Apart from general farm work and looking after the pig-sty, Rene often had to go Hoyleton to pick up the mail. One day she was given a difficult horse to ride the several miles to town. But on the return journey the horse, realising it was heading home, bolted with Rene grimly hanging on lest the horse stumbled and fell as it galloped along the road edged with rough ditches. As she rode into the home yard, the farmer and his son who knew the horse’s nature were laughing at having given her a scare. Although she had grown up on a farm with working horses, Rene flatly refused to ride that horse again.
This farmer was also a most unpleasant man who, paradoxically, took his family to the local church each Sunday where he was a lay-preacher. This provided Rene and the Italian POW a short respite. Fortunately the farmer’s wife was a lovely person who ensured Rene had comfortable accommodation and was otherwise well provided for. After ten months at Hoyleton Rene went to Adelaide during weekend leave and spoke with her Superintendent, Miss Dorothy Marshall, about her difficult situation and the heavy work she was required to perform.
Fortunately Rene’s concerns were received sympathetically, which soon resulted in her being transferred to seasonal work beginning at the Walter Reynell winery, Reynella, picking grapes during the 1943 vintage. Grape harvesting was hard on pickers’ backs as they continually bent to the low vines. There was some compensation as the girls lived downstairs in the Reynell Family two-storey stone “mansion,” with evening meals eaten in the upstairs dining room served by Mrs Reynell from silver service. Rene wondered what the lady of the house really thought about the sore but still noisy girls as they ate their meals.
Picking apricots at Mypolonga followed, before six months working at Berri picking both wine grapes and other grapes for drying. RAAF men from a nearby base then placed the sultanas and currants on the drying racks. Rene then worked at the processing plant, which dehydrated potatoes for Army rations. She could sympathise with the men who had would later have to eat this food.
A move to the Adelaide Hills followed, with Rene assigned to properties at Paracombe picking and packing both apples and pears then to Basket Range picking cherries. Rene continued with the Land Army until the Pacific war ended.
Rene remains disappointed women of the Women’s Land Army were treated shabbily at war’s end. Unlike the armed services, the women were not given a medical examination before discharge, which would have officially identified and recorded injuries incurred during their service. Consequently they were never able to claim any compensation for injuries.
While the AWLA girls were supplied a smart dress uniform and working uniforms, and made a vital contribution to Australia’s war effort, most women serving in the three armed services tended to look down on them.
A further disservice occurred, when the Australia Government failed to pass legislation drafted during the war, which would have recognised the AWLA as the fourth Women’s service. These hardworking women received only a standard letter at the conclusion of their service.
Rene was formally demobilised on 19 December 1945. She and John Dixon married on 25 February 1946, retiring to Encounter Bay in July 1987 and more recently moving to Port Elliot.
It took until 1994 when the considerable efforts of the Women’s Land Army were finally recognised with the issue of the Australian Civilian Service Medal 1939-1945.
While much of the work was physically demanding, Rene particularly enjoyed the companionship and camaraderie of the other women once she was transferred to seasonal work. She was also fortunate her accommodation at the various locations was comfortable when some girls had to make do with rough living quarters. Country living in Australia during the 1940s was often very basic. Rene remains proud of her contribution to Australia’s war effort.
SCOTT, Jean, Girls with Grit, Memories of the Australian Women’s Land Army, Allen & Unwin, Sydney (1986).
DENNIS, Peter, The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History, Oxford University Press, Melbourne (2008).
Australian War Memorial database.
Website of the State Library of South Australia – SA Memories.
Interviews with Mrs Irene Dixon (nee DENTON).
Compiled by the Victor Harbor RSL History Research Team, July 2012.