The Women’s Land Army was active in the Camden area between 1942 and 1945. They were located at camps in the local area and the largest was at Orangeville.
The role of the Australian Women’s Land Army was to fill the manpower shortages in the agricultural sector as Australia was tasked with supplying food and materials to the Allies in the Pacific. The women performed farming work, as well as working in canneries and packing houses. Girls as young as 16 years of age could join the land army with parental approval so long as they were not already engaged in farming work.
Farmers in the Camden area had contracts to supply food stuffs to military authorities and suffered from a general shortage of labour. One of the largest groups of land army women was at Orangeville.
Mrs Kath Took was the matron in-charge of the Orangeville camp from April 1943. She was 25 years old at the time recalls that Orangeville held ‘some of her favourite memories’ of the land army after joining in 1942.
During 1943 Orangeville camp had 18 young women and two staff billeted at the church and its associated halls. The staff were located in the cloak room and on the stage.
Nell Weir’s history of Orangeville states that in 1942 there were 40 land army girls at the camp. The young women worked a 48 hour week and wore green overalls. They picked peas, beans and fruit as well as pruning fruit trees, harvesting potatoes, chipping weeds in the orchards and working on the dairy farms.
Facilities were basic in the Orangeville camp. The kitchen and dining room were purpose-built with toilets at the back of the mess rooms. A young fellow would chop firewood for the women, whereas a lot of other camps the women had to chop their own firewood.
The local farmers who employed the girls at Orangeville were reportedly very good to the young women. They picked them up in the morning after breakfast and return them to the camp at the end of the day. Other land army camps were not so lucky. Mr Jim Kennedy was responsible for allocating the young women to various farms in the area.
If the young women wanted to go to Camden they had to go by mail car which ran three times a week. Mrs Took stated that the mail car brought ‘all goods to us’ on its regular mail run. If any of the girls wanted to go to town for anything in an emergency they could always get a lift with the coal trucks from The Oaks. Weir states that weekend leave was focused on Sydney and they travelled to Camden Railway Station after piling into a taxi or would ride on the back of Noake’s milk truck.
If any of the young women were injured or became sick they were taken into Camden for medical treatment. Some were treated by Dr Crookston, ‘a lovely old man up on the hill near the lovely old Church’, Mrs Took recalls.
The land army girls at Orangeville were a group of highly desirable attractive young women. They were a magnet for any young farmer and coalminer in the district who were in essential reserved occupations. They always had escorts to the movies in Camden at the Paramount Movie Theatre or to local dances that were regularly held at The Oaks’ School of Arts and Camden’s Royal Foresters’ Hall. Music was provided by the Mrs Minnie Kelloway and her band. Romance was in the air for some and Weir states that five of these young women married local farmers. In 1998 two of these young women, Mrs Kit Kelly and Mrs Barbara Small, were still living at Orangeville.
The service of these young women was finally recognised by the Federal authorities in 1994 when they were awarded a service medal. Mrs Took and a number other women decided that they needed to get together and hold a re-union. They decided on April 1996 at Orangeville.
Roundabout, the magazine of the Australian Women’s Land Army, reported that there was perfect weather for the re-union weekend. The Saturday lunch was an occasion for the formalities, speeches and lots of memories. There were 10 land army girls present and about 30 others who attended the lunch, with the key address given by Mr Allan Small.
There was a Sunday morning church service at Orangeville, followed by lunch at the Camden Valley Inn with music supplied by the Camden Rugby Big Band (now the Camden Community Band).
Mrs Took fondly remembers the ‘the warmth of hospitality that was extended to us by all and in particular the farmers. It was a very heart-warming experience for all present and a weekend of nostalgia and reminiscences from which we will all retain present memories’.