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How the mysteries of a pretty picture from yesteryear allows you to peel back the layers of the past

As I was scanning through my Facebook News feed this morning I came across a pretty little picture that jumped out at me.

The image had been posted on the Lost Wollongong and Yesterday Stories Facebook page and also appeared on its Instagram and Tumbler social media.

The image attracted a host of likes and shares and comments like: Phil HallWhat a delightful photo’ and Christine Mcmanus ‘It’s very charming’.

What is the appeal the picture?

The picture has an aesthetic quality partly produced from the soft sepia tones of the image, and partly from the subject, which together give the photograph a dreamy quality.  The ethereal presence of the image is hard to describe in words and the camera is kind to the subjects, who are well positioned in a nicely balanced frame.

Wollongong WCL Couple on Mount Pleasant Railway early 20th century near Stuart Park
A couple relaxing on the Mount Pleasant Colliery railway at Stuart Park, North Wollongong in the early 1900’s  (Lost Wollongong Facebook page 3 July 2016) The Royal Australian Historical Society caption says: ‘Photographer Aileen Ryan Lynch taking a photograph of M. Carey at Stuart Park Wollongong, March 1919’ (J Scott/RAHS)

The viewer of the picture is a time traveler into another world based on the New South Wales South Coast and is given a snapshot of a moment frozen in time. The observer has a glimpse of a world after the First World World in the present. For the viewer it as form of nostalgia, where they create a romanticised version of the past accompanied by feelings that the present is not quite as good as an earlier period.

The world in the picture, a mixture of pleasure and for others despair, apparently moved at a slower pace, yet in its own way no less complex than the present. The picture speaks to those who choose to listen and tells a nuance, multi-layered story about another time and place. It was 1919 in the coastal mining town of Wollongong.

The viewer is told a story about a setting that is full of meaning and emotional symbolism wrapped up in the post-First World Years. The picture grabs the viewers who pressed a Like on their Facebook pages. These social media participants found familiarity and comfort a the past that is an escape from the complicated present.

The picture provides an entry to a world that was apparently more authentic than the present.  As Harriet Richards from the University of Melbourne writes:

In response to today’s COVID-19 crisis, we are turning to old movies, letter writing and vintage fashion trends more than ever. Nostalgia is a defence mechanism against upheaval.

Escaping the Spanish flu pandemic?

The image is full of contrasts and unanswered questions. Why are the young couple in Wollongong? Why did they decide on Stuart Park for a photo-shoot? Are they escaping the outbreak of Spanish influenza at Randwick in January 1919? Does the NSW South Coast provide the safety of remoteness away from the evils of the pandemic in Sydney?

The female photographer is a city-girl and her male companion is a worldly reader of international news. They contrast with the semi-rural location in a coal mining area with its workman’s cottages and their dirt floors, and the hard-scrabble dairying represented by the post-and-rail fence in the distance.

The railway is a metaphor for the rest of a world outside Wollongong. The colliery railway is a link to the global transnational industrial complex of the British Empire at Wollongong Harbour where railway trucks disgorge their raw material.  Yet in contrast the female photographer provides an entry to a global fashion world of women’s magazines, newspapers and movies by her stylish outfit.

The elegantly dressed couple in their on-trend fashion contrast with the poverty of the working class mining villages of the Illawarra coast. Photographer Aileen is described by local historian Leone Flay as ‘dressed for town’, contrasts with the post-and-rail fence on the railway boundary projects the hard-graft of its construction in a landscape of marginal dairy farming.

The remnants of the Illawarra Rainforest that border the railway point to the environmental destruction brought by British imperial policy and its industrial machinery. This contrasts with a past where the Dharawal Indigenous people managed the lush coastal forests that once covered the area along the banks of the nearby Fairy Creek.

Peeling back the layers of past within the picture reveals a number of parts to the story:  the photographer Aileen Ryan; the coastal location of Stuart Park; and the commercial world of the Mount Pleasant Colliery Railway, and ecology of the Illawarra Rainforest.

 

Aileen Ryan, photographer

The young female photographer in the picture is Aileen Ryan, a 21 year old city-girl, who spent time in and around the Wollongong area in February and March 1919. Aileen was born in Waverley, Sydney, and was educated at St Clare’s Convent.

At 19 years of age Aileen gained paid work when most women were restricted to domestic duties. She joined the New South Wales Public Service in 1917 as a typist and shorthand writer. As an independent young working-women she was worldly-wise and expressed herself through her ability to fund her relatively-expensive hobby of photography. The young Aileen’s hand-held bellows camera hints her grasp of the latest technology.

In 1927 she marries FW Lynch at Clovelly and in 1942 during the Second World War she was seconded to the Directorate of Manpower. She was appointed superintendent of the New South Wales division of the Australian Women’s Land Army, which was disbanded in 1945. She died childless at Waverton in 1983.

Stuart Park, the location

The site of the photo-shoot was located on the colliery railway which skirted the southern boundary of Stuart Park. The park, which was declared in 1885 under the Public Parks Act 1884 (NSW), lies between the railway, Fairy Creek to the north and  North Wollongong Beach to the east. The area was originally purchased from James Anderson  and is an area of 22.27 hectares.

The park was named after colonial politician and Scotsman Sir Alexander Stuart who was the Member for Illawarra in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly at the time. The park was run by trust until 1920 when control passed to the Municipality of Wollongong.

The popularity of Stuart Park, including many families from Camden, owed much to the presence near North Wollongong Beach, which was popular for swimming and surfing from the 1920s. Unfortunately for patrons the caravan park was closed in 1964, re-opened in 1966 due to public pressure  and  eventually closed permanently in 1970. The park, which now has a sports oval, had a kiosk dating from the 1940s and was popular with day-trippers.

 

Illawarra Rainforest, the ecology

The site location of the photograph next to railway was once completely covered by Illawarra Rainforest, remnants of which can be seen along the railway line.

The forest type is  a rich rainforest community  characterised by bloodwoods, stinging trees, figs, flame tree, beech, cedar and other species. The more complex rainforest communities were located along the creek boundaries and on the southern face of escarpment gorges protected the from the prevailing north-easterly winds.

J Bywater from University of Wollongong describes the rainforest community as:

the most complex (species rich) forest type in the Illawarra. A broad definition of this forest is a “Dense community of moisture loving trees, mainly evergreen, broadleaved species, usually with the trees arranged in several layers, and containing vines, epiphytes, buttressed stems, stranglers, and other Iifeforms” (Saur, 1973, p.l.).

Wollongong Illawarra Rainforest Sublime Point Walking Track Bulli 2000 NCubbin
Illawarra Rainforest on the Sublime Point Walking Track below Bulli Tops lookout 2000 (N Cubbin)

 

The Illawarra Rainforest extended along the coastal and up into the escarpment from the northern parts of the Illawarra south to Kiama, the Shoalhaven River and west to Kangaroo Valley.

The primary threats to the rainforest ecology have been clearing for farming, mining, urban development and related activities.

 

Mount Pleasant Colliery Railway, conduit to the globe

The Mount Pleasant Colliery was opened by Patrick Lahiff in 1861 and was very successful. Two years later the company build a horse tramway with two inclines down the escarpment from the mine to Wollongong Harbour. They eventually upgraded the tramway to steel railway in the 1880s and to converted to standard gauge.

Wollongong Mount Kiera Mine Incline 1880 (WCL & IHS)
The Mount Pleasant Colliery Inclines were similar to the adjacent Mount Kiera Mine Incline of 1880 shown in this image (WCL & IHS)  The picture shows the remnant rainforest that was part of the ecology of the Illawarra escarpment.

 

The construction of the tramway raised the hackles of the locals and was only built after the state parliament passed the Mount Pleasant Tramroad Act 1862 (NSW).  The mining company went bankrupt in 1934 and the mine was taken over by Broken Hill Pty Ltd in 1937 and renamed the Kiera Pleasant Tunnels.

Wollongong Mount Pleasant Colliery Railway Workshop 1904 IHT
Locomotive shed at Mt Pleasant Colliery, 1904. Note the engine on the right, built in Sydney that year. (Courtesy of JLN Southern Collection & Illawarra Heritage Trail)

 

The coal mine eventually closed in 1955.

Wollongong Mount Pleasant Colliery Railway Belmore Basin 1900s WCL&IHS
Mount Pleasant Colliery Railway near Brighton Beach approaching Belmore Basin in Wollongong NSW 1900s (WCL & IHS) Mount Kiera is shown in the background behind the mining town of Wollongong.

 

The tramway was closed in 1954.

Wollongong Mount Pleasant Colliery Railway below cliff line 1900s WCL&IHS lowres

 

In 2017 the Mount Pleasant Tramway walk was upgraded and the seawall rebuilt and renamed the Blue Mile Tramway Pathway.

Wollongong Mural Wollongong Harbour Blue Mile Walk 2020 ICW (2) lowres
A mural illustrating the history of the Blue Mile Tramway walk showing the village of Wollongong, coal handling port facilities at Belmore Basin and Brighton Beach adjacent to it with Wollongong Lighthouse on the harbour breakwater. The Mount Pleasant Tramway is clearly seen going off to the north along the coastline. (I Willis 2020)

 

The Blue Mile Pathway and other attractions of the Wollongong coast have proved popular with Camden families. Local folk have been going to Wollongong and the South Coast for beach holidays for generations.

Updated 3 April 2020,  originally posted 1 April 2020.

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The patriotism of the wartime sock knitter

Fussing over socks

During the First World War there was considerable fuss over socks. Not just any ordinary socks but hand-knitted socks. Camden women hand-knitted hundreds of pairs of socks. So what was going on?

As it turns out there was a good reason for all the fuss.

Soldiers on the Western Front suffered in terrible conditions in the trenches. They were constantly wet and cold. In winter there were freezing temperatures.

First World War Freezing conditions soldier 1914-1918 NLS

Fungal feet

Under these conditions there was a constant danger of the soldiers getting trench foot. Jenny Raynor at Sydney Living Museum writes that this was

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 the how 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.

Military supply authorities  never really got to grips with the problem of shortages throughout the war. Even the vast US military machine could not supply sufficient numbers of socks to their troops  when the US government entered the war in 1917. The U.S. government Committee on Public Information sponsored the  ‘‘Knit Your Bit’’ campaign conducted by the American Red Cross.

Keep knitting

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.

First World War Sock knitting Cudgewa 1916 SLNSW

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.

First World War Sock knitting War Chest 1917 SLNSW

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.

First World War Cover Knitting Book Aust Comforts Fund Vic 1918 ARC
The cover of the sock knitting pattern book ‘Directions for Standard Socks for Our Men on Active Service’. It was issued by the Australian Comforts Fund in 1918 (ARC)

 

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 and needles. Socks were knitted in the round on double pointed needles leaving no seams.

First World War Knitted Socks reproduction 2012 Fairfax

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.

 

Art AGNSW The Sock Knitter Grace Cossington Smith 1915
‘The Sock Knitter’ painted by Grace Cossington Smith in 1915 (AGNSW)

 

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.

Sock solution

Suzanne Fischer writes that the sock problem and trenchfoot still existed in the Second World War for American troops stationed in Alaska. She states:

Characteristically, Americans finally reduced their trenchfoot 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.

 

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A little black ball dress

A little black dress at the hospital ball

This little black dress dating from the 1920s is an attractive item from the Camden Museum dress collection.

Camden Museum Mrs Wilsons black dress mid-1920s IW 2019
Mrs Wilson’s black dress from the mid-1920s on exhibition at the Camden Museum (IWillis 2019)

 

The 1920s was a period of cultural change after the First World War destroyed the old European orders and women discovered a new sense of freedom.

The 1920s were part of the age of modernity with jazz, the bob, and the flapper. It was a time of modern industrial design, movies and consumerism. Being ‘chic’ was made popular in Anita Loos book Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925).

Modernity expressed itself in Camden with the wireless, telephone, telegraph, motor car, newspapers, railway, refrigeration, electricity, electric light, gas, sewerage, reticulated water. All these developments came down the Great South Road (in 1923, the Hume Highway) on the way to Melbourne.

Everyone went to the movies and watch the world presented to them on the screen. Hollywood and fashion marketing gained attention and The Clamour Daze blogger says that

The rise of consumerism promoted the ideals of fulfillment and freedom.

Camden Museum Mrs Wilsons black dress beading on shoulder mid-1920s IW 2019
Mrs Wilson’s black dress showing the hand-sewn beading on the shoulder. The dress dates from the mid-1920s and is on exhibition at the Camden Museum (I Willis 2019)

 

The provenance of the little black dress

The little black dress illustrates the fashion style of the time and was owned by Mrs Mary Wilson, the maternal grandmother of the donor, Mrs Winifred Stuckey. Mrs Stuckey was the daughter of the Camden Methodist minister, and married into the Stuckey family of bakers. The Stuckey brothers ran a bakery in Argyle Street Camden for many years. Their story has been told  in Frank Stuckey’s Our daily bread: the story of Stuckey Bros, bakers and pastrycooks of Camden, NSW, 1912-1960. (1968)

 

The little black dress is a cocktail outfit and dates from the mid-to-late 1920s and drew its inspiration from the styles of the period including the chemis and flapper designs.

The Clamour Daze blogger says of the chemise dress style:

Costume Chemise Dress 1920s
1920’s fashion – Evolution of the 1920’s Chemise Dress

First appearing as an outerwear item in 1916 from designers such as Jeanne Lanvin , Callot Seours and Coco Chanel. By 1920, the chemise or shift dress, was to become the dominant line for day and evening wear. The dress hung from shoulder to just below the knee. Waists dropped to the hips. Back in the 1910’s, loose belts had often been worn over middy blouses and chemise dresses. It is quite possible the drop waist evolved from that style.

 

Mrs Wilson’s little black dress is black georgette with black glass or jet hand-beading on the front and back.

Georgette (from crêpe Georgette) is a sheer, lightweight, dull-finished crêpe fabric named after the early 20th century French dressmaker Georgette de la Plante. Originally made from silk, Georgette is made with highly twisted yarns. (Wikipedia)

The Vintage Dancer blog says that:

Solid colors were preferred over prints for most of the 20s. A solid color showed off beads, embroidery and ribbon decorations better than patterns.  

The Clamour Daze blogger says:

Costume Little Black Dress 1920
Little Black Dress by Coco Chanel

Published in Vogue on October 1st 1926 and immediately dubbed the ‘Ford Dress’ by Vogues editor – a suggestion that it would become as popular as the Ford car. Its flattering silhouette suited just about any shape of a woman and it heralded a new Parisian ‘economy style’ or ‘poverty de luxe‘ as Chanel herself described it; an expensive interpretation of a simple design made of modest materials.

 

Mrs Wilson’s dress has a rosette on the left hip and a sash from the lower hip on one side. There are hand-made tucks with machine stitching and the dress is cut on the bias.

 

The 1926 Camden District Hospital Ball

The Camden Museum’s little black dress was the type of fashion Camden women wore to the biggest social event of the year in 1926 – the Camden District Hospital Ball  attended by 750 people and held at the Camden AH&I Hall. It is fortunate for today’s budding fashion historians that the local press described the dress worn by every woman at the ball.

Camden AH&I Hall 1997 JKooyman Camden Images
Camden AH&I Hall in 1997 Photographer JKooyman (Camden Images)

 

Popular dresses at the ball included those made of georgette, velvet, satin, crepe-de-chene, moracain and mousseline. Colours varied from peach, to white, apricot and black with many featuring beading.

Those listed that were similar to the Camden Museum’s little black dress included one worn by Mrs RC Stuckey described as beaded morocain. Mrs S Rae wore a black crepe-de-chene dress with silver trimmings, while Miss D Holz wore a black morocain dress that was heavily beaded. Miss L Hemmens wore a dress of black chemille georgette while Miss Gladys Rae wore a black georgette dress with bead trimming and Miss Willmington wore a black georgette outfit.

So was the Camden Museum’s little black dress worn at the 1926 Camden District Hospital Ball?  No-one will really know but it exciting to speculate about it.

Check out the Camden Museum’s little black dress upstairs in the entertainment display section or on Instagram in the outfit of the day https://www.instagram.com/p/ByMGiF3BYfk/.

 

Things to note about Mrs Wilson’s little black dress

There is a tear on one cape sleeve. The dress may have been lengthened as the hem has been added. The dress was donated to the Camden Museum in 2003 donated by Mrs Winifred Stuckey.

Source: Object Record Camden Museum