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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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The trainee teacher mystery of 1924?

Trainee teachers Camden camp in 1924

Recently Rene at the Camden Museum posted an intriguing photograph taken at the Camden Showground on the Camden Museum Facebook page. It showed a large group of young men and women who were identified at trainee teachers from Sydney Teachers College.

Camden resident Peter Hammond asked on the Camden Museum Facebook page: Any idea why they were in Camden?

So what is the mystery?

The photograph is a bit of a mystery.

The photograph was contributed to the Camden Museum by John Donaldson and was taken in May 1924.  The photograph shows 48 women, 34 men and 2 children.

The photograph reveals more. You can see the spire of St Johns Church in the background and the absence of the 1938 brick front on the show hall. There are no brick and iron gates on the showground. The brick building at the corner of Argyle and Murray is yet to be built.

Photographs can tell so much about the past. They are a wonderful resource and this image provides much information about this mystery.

Mysterious journey

So I set off on a journey to solve the mystery of the question about the photograph .

Camden Trainee Teachers Camp Showground 1924 JDonaldson CIPP
The group photograph of the trainee teachers from Sydney Teachers College at Onslow Park adjacent to the Show Hall in 1924. This is the image that prompted the original question by Peter Hammond on the Camden Museum’s Facebook page. (John Donaldson/CIPP)

 

A quick search of the Camden News on Trove revealed that in May 1924 there was indeed a camp of trainee teachers who stayed at the Camden Agricultural  Hall in Onslow Park.  The report in the Camden News revealed more information.

There are 109 students and some ten lecturers and authorities gathering, from the University Teachers’ College. The students are obtaining practical knowledge by attending the different schools in the district, and much good should be the result. Those in charge are to be complimented on the excellent arrangements at the camp.  (Camden News 15 May 1924)

 

More to the story

So was this a one-off or is there more to the story?

Further digging reveals that the first camp was in 1921, there were two camps per year one in May and the second around August. There were between 70 and 100 trainee teachers at each camp and they attended a number of local schools during their stay. The camps seem to have been for about three weeks each. There appears to have lots of interaction between locals and the visitors with sporting events, dances, lectures, and lots of other activities.

Camden Trainee Teacher Camp 1924 Tennis MWatkins SLNSW bcp_01861h
Trainee teachers from Sydney Teachers College at the 1924 Camden camp have a game of tennis in the local area on their recreation time (SLNSW)

 

The first camp in May 1921 seems to have been a big deal not only for the town but also for the AH&I Society. Following the First World War the finances of the AH&I Society were in a parlous state and the hall hire was a welcome boost to finances.

Bright eyed and bushy tailed

Camden was first graced with the presence of these bright eyed and bushy tailed budding young teachers in 1921 when 64 of them settled in for a week at the show hall. The Camden camp provided for them an opportunity to practice their teaching theory and practice of the New South Wales New Syllabus that they learnt in the classroom at Sydney Teacher’s College. The 1921 trainees were all single and were made up of 49 women and 15 men and four weeks after the Camden camp were to be placed in schools. (Camden News, 12 May 1921)

The Sydney Teachers College trainees were allocated to schools across the local region and the list included: Camden Campbelltown, Campbelltown South, Cawdor, Cobbitty, Glenfield, Ingleburn,  Minto, Mount Hunter, Narellan and The Oaks. (Camden News, 12 May 1921)

The teaching practice visits  were organised on a group basis and transport was either by train or bus. By end of their training course the students had had at least three weeks of practice teaching in teaching at rural schools. (Sydney Mail, 8 June 1921)

In 1920 the STC students had been based at Glenbrook and the success of the experiment encouraged the college to extend it to Camden. The venture, according to the Sydney press, was a first in Australia for teacher training and it was believed at the time to be a world first for such a camp. During the week in Camden the camp was visited by the New South Wales Director of Education Peter Board and the chief inspector HD McLelland. (Sydney Mail, 8 June 1921)

 

Camden Trainee Teacher camp 1921 SydMail1921Jun8
The Camden trainee teacher camp was considered such an important occasion by the Sydney press that the Sydney Mail devoted a complete page to the trainee teacher camp at Camden. (Sydney Mail 8 June 1921)

 

A party of 89

In 1921 the party of 89, made up of students and lectures and their families, had arrived by train at Camden the previous Saturday afternoon. The group were put up the show hall with conversion to a dormitory and the construction of cubicles to accommodate the mixed sexes. The show pavilion was converted to a kitchen and dining area from 6am to 9am, and then again after 4pm. The Camden press reports stated that at these times ‘the show ground was a scene of great activity’. (Camden News, 12 May 1921)

The STA trainees had some time for recreation and in the evenings singing and games were organised between 7pm and 8pm by the music lecturer Miss Atkins, and the education lecturer Miss Wyse. Games and singing were held at the St Johns Parish Hall and sometimes the students organised tennis games. (Camden News, 12 May 1921)

Sydney Teachers College 2011 Flkr
Sydney Teachers College located in the grounds on the University of Sydney where the trainee teachers at the Camden camp attended their courses. (Flickr 2011)

 

More mysteries?

Do you have any mysterious photographs that tell a great story about our local area?

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Reflections on the Camden story

What does the Camden story mean to you?

What is the importance of the Camden story?

What is the relevance of the Camden story?

These appear to be simple questions. But are they really?

I have posed these questions in response to the theme of History Week 2020 which asks the question History: What is it good for?

Narellan Studley Park House 2015 IW
Studley Park House sits on the top of a prominent knoll above the Narellan Creek floodplain with view of Camden township (I Willis, 2015)

 

So, what is the Camden story?

What is the Camden story?

The Camden story is a collection of tales, memories, recollections, myths, legends, songs, poems and folklore about our local area. It is a history of Camden and its surrounding area. I have created one version of this in the form of a 1939 district map.

Camden storytelling is as old as humanity starting in the Dreamtime.

The latest version is the European story started with The Cowpastures in 1795.

The Camden story is about the Camden community.

The Camden story is made up of dreamtime stories, family stories, community stories, settler stories, local stories, business stories, personal stories and a host of others.

These stories are created by the people and events that they were involved with over centuries of time up the present.

Since its 1997 inception History Week has been an opportunity to tell the Camden story.

Cover  Pictorial History Camden District Ian Willis 2015
Front Cover of Ian Willis’s Pictorial History of Camden and District. This book covers an overview of the Camden story from the First Australians, the Cowpastures, gentry estates, the Camden township, Camden as a little England, the Interwar period, First and Second World Wars, voluntarism, mid-20th century modernism and the approach of Sydney’s rural-urban fringe. (Kingsclear, 2015)

 

What is the relevance of the Camden story?

The relevance of the Camden story explains who is the local community, what they stand for, what their values are, their attitudes, political allegiances, emotional preferences, desires, behaviour, and lots more.

The Camden story explains who we are, where we came from, what are we doing here, what are our values and attitudes, hopes and aspirations, dreams, losses and devastation, destruction, violence, mystery, emotions, feelings, and lots more. The Camden story allows us to understand ourselves and provide meaning to our existence.

Local businesses use the Camden story as one of their marketing tools to sell local residents lots of   stuff. There is the use of images, logos, branding, slogans, objects, window displays, songs, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines and other marketing tools.

Camelot House formerly known at Kirkham, Camden NSW
Camelot house, originally known as Kirkham, was designed by Canadian-born architect John Horbury Hunt for James White. The house was built in 1888 on the site of colonial identity John Oxley’s Kirkham Mill. Folklore says that James White financed the house from the winnings of the 1877 Melbourne Cup by his horse Chester. Under White’s ownership the property became a horse-racing stud and produced a number of notable horses. (Camden Images)

 

What is the use of the Camden story?

The Camden story allows us to see the past in a number of ways that can impact on our daily lives. They include:

  • the past is just as a series of events and people that do not impact on daily lives;
  • the past is the source of the values, attitudes and traditions by which we live our daily lives;
  • the past is a way of seeing the present and being critical of contemporary society that it is better or worse that the past;
  • the present is part of the patterns that have developed from the past over time – some things stay the same (continuity) and some things change.
Camden & Laura Jane & Debbie photoshoot epicure store History Videos CRET 2019[1] lowres
Storyteller Laura Jane ad-libing for a short tourist promo for Tiffin Cottage. Camera operate Debbie is issuing instructions and generally supervising the production crew. (I Willis)

History offers a different approach to a question.

Historical subjects often differ from our expectations, assumptions and hopes.

The Camden storyteller will decide which stories are considered important enough to tell. Which stories are marginalised or forgotten or ignored – silent stories from the past.

Aust Day 2018 Museum Open Frances&Harry
Australia Day 2018. The Camden Museum was open and here are two enthusiastic supporters and volunteers for the museum. They are Frances and Harry Warner. These two larger than life Camden identities have spent their life devoted to the Camden community. They have lived and worked on Camden Park Estate for decades. (I Willis)

 

The historian is well equipped to unpack and peel back the layers of  the Camden story.

The  tools used by the historian to unravel the Camden story might include: historical significance; continuity and change; progress and decline; evidence; historical empathy; and I will add hope and loss.

An understanding of this process is all called historical consciousness and has been examined in Anna Clark’s Private Lives Public History.

I feel that the themes of History Week 2020 provide convenient way to wrap up all of this.

The History Council of NSW has recast this in its  Value of History Statement  and its component parts and they are: identity; engaged citizens; strong communities; economic development; critical skills, leadership and legacy.

Just taking one of these component parts it is an interesting exercise to ask a question.

Camden Park House Country Road Photoshoot 2019
Country Road fashion shoot at Camden Park House. Have a peek at Camden Park House at the Country Road page and visit us on 21/22 Sept on our annual Open Weekend. (Camden Park House)

 

Does the Camden story contribute to making a strong community?

The Camden story assists building a strong and resilient community by providing stories about our community from past crises and disasters. These are examples that the community can draw on for examples and models of self-help.

A strong and resilient community is one that can bounce back and recover after a setback or disaster of some sort. It could be a natural disaster, market failure or social crisis.

The Camden story can tell citizens about past examples of active citizenship and volunteerism within Camden’s democratic processes from the past. There are stories about our local leaders from the past who helped shape today’s community in many ways.

The Camden story tells stories about family and social networks that criss-cross the district and are the glue that holds the Camden community together in a time of crisis – social capital.

Active citizenship contributes to community identity, a sense of belonging and stories about others who have contributed in their area contribute to placemaking  and strengthening community resilience.

Menangle Promo MilkShake UP
Menangle Milk Shake Up Community Festival organised by the Menangle Community Association in 2017 (MCA)
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The Camden district in 1939

The Camden District 1939

The Camden district can be hard to define and has changed over time. Dr Ian Willis conducted research in the mid-1990s to determine the extent of the Camden district at the outbreak of the Second World War. This was part of his post-graduate studies at the University of Wollongong on the effect of the Second World War in Camden.

Map Camden District 1939[2]
Map of the Camden district in 1939 showing the extent of the area with Camden in the east. The silver mining centre of Yerranderie is in the west. (I Willis, 1996)

The boundary of the Camden district could be: an arbitrary line on a map based on a political decision; a natural region; an idea in someone’s mind; the delivery round of a Camden business; the geographic circulation area of a Camden newspaper; the emotional attachment of a person to a general area called Camden; the catchment area of a special event in Camden; the membership of a Camden organisation; the social networks of people who live in the Camden area; or any combination of these.

 

From historical research I have conducted I have found the boundary of the Camden district to a moveable feast. By the 1930s it took in area of 1180 square kilometres and a population of around 5000. The result is on the attached map. It is a combination the factors outlined above.

 

Origins of the Camden district

The concept of the Camden district was set in motion by 1827 when the early pattern of the early land grants had determined the road network. This process was re-enforced by the arrival of the tramway in 1882, the road traffic along the Hume Highway going to Goulburn, and the movement of silver from Yerrandarie and coal from the Burragorang Valley to the Camden railhead. As a result the town became an important transport interchange and centre for economic activity for a district, which extended out to Burragorang Valley and Yerrandarie.

 

By the 1930s the growth of the town had attracted additional businesses and the town had become the centre for government services and community organisations. The town was a meeting place for local people and acted a stepping off point to the rest of the outside world.

Cover  Pictorial History Camden District Ian Willis 2015
Front Cover of Ian Willis’s Pictorial History of Camden and District (Kingsclear, 2015)

 

The district’s population came together on Sale Day (still Tuesdays) to meet and do business. The livestock sales were the town’s busiest day of the week  The annual Camden Show was (and still is) always a popular attraction and people came from a wide area to compete and exhibit their crafts, produce and livestock.

 

Daily life in the Camden district is recorded in the two local newspapers

District life was reported in detail in Camden’s two newspapers, the Camden News and the Camden Advertiser, which were widely circulated in the area. Camden businesses had customers from all over the local area. Some had regular delivery runs that reached to Burragorang Valley and beyond.

 

Since the 1930s many things have happened. The largest change has been the growth in population, and the town and district are now part of the Greater Metropolitan Area of Sydney. Despite this, the district still has a discernable identity in the minds of local people.

1973 New Cities Plan

The creation of the The new cities of Campbelltown, Camden, Appin : structure plan (1973) was one of the most profound changes to the Camden district. The New Cities proposal was part of the 1968 Sydney Region Outline Plan developed by the State Planning Authority of the Askin Liberal government and became a developers dream.

The New Cities Plan 1973[1]
The New Cities Plan 1973

Current planners, bureaucrats, businesses and residents need to have an understanding of this local identity and build on the opportunities that it presents.

Today the Camden district is part of the Macarthur region.

Macarthur regional tourist guide
Macarthur Regional Tourist Promotion by Camden and Campbelltown Councils
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What if? What might have been? What could have been?

What if? What might have been? What could have been?

These are interesting questions when considering the big questions about the past.

This area of history writing involves speculation about the past and the way history is interpreted and understood.  One young historian who has addressed these questions is Wollongong independent scholar Amy Penning. She has written a critique on counterfactual history. This is a controversial area of history theory and practice. Penning has written a lively discussion that analyses a contested area of historiography.  In deciding whether to publish this essay I considered editing the text and decided against it. I feel that the essay is worth reproducing here in full.

The aim of publishing the essay on this site is to give the essay and its author a wider audience. I hope you enjoy reading this very interesting and worthwhile contribution to history theory and practice.

Counterfactural Penning 2 2020
What if? (mega)

 

What if? What could have been? Counterfactual history

Amy Penning

 Counterfactual history is the historiographical method premised on hypothetical alternatives pertaining to outcomes of the past events and circumstances which actually occurred. Through questioning and speculating upon what could have happened, the past becomes reinvigorated.  As counterfactual history allows for a deeper understanding of the reconstruction of history; as not simply a set of predetermined contingencies but rather an examination of the causation of events and the role of human agency. However, counterfactual claims without historical evidence are simply fantasying and are thus frivolous to historical study. Therefore, historians who employ a counterfactual paradigm have a scholarly responsibility to distinguish the conditions under which these ‘what if’ events are probable with accurate evidence to make these claims plausible and valid for the reconstruction of history.

 

A contested debate

As with all historiographical philosophies, counterfactual history has been subject to great debate, especially in recent years. Scottish historian Niall Ferguson a foremost proponent of counterfactual history deems virtual history as a necessity for understanding the past. He contends that through using empirical evidence, counterfactual analysis can enable a holistic and rigorous understanding of the past. Conversely, traditionalist historians, including academic Sir Richard J. Evans maintain that because counterfactuals are imaginative reconstructions, questioning the past using ‘what if’ scenarios are futile. He argues that personal speculation and curiosity is not history; that truth is truth and fact is fact.  Evans is right to insist on the primacy of facts in any historical inquiry – to do otherwise would render historical works fictitious. This does not, however, invalidate the potential merits of a counterfactual approach. By examining the conflicting views of Ferguson and Evans (among other historians) the contentions but also potential regarding counterfactual history are clearly illustrated.

 

Reconstruction of history

Counterfactual history has significant value in the reconstruction of history as it allows for a re-examination of causation, however many historians have interpreted this as a disregard of the past.  It has thus been neglected among most academic historians across time and political ideologies ‘as having little epistemic value’. [1]

 

A definitive opponent to counterfactual history is E.H Carr (an English historian and opponent of empiricism) who in his famous book What is History? (1961) responded to Isaiah Berlin’s (British- Russian philosopher) criticism of those who do not give ‘priority to the role of the individual and accident[2], thus those who neglect counterfactual history, the role of human agency (humans action) and chance.  E.H Carr responded to this by the dismissive phrase that ‘counterfactual’ historyis a mere ‘parlour game’, a ‘red herring’.[3]  This was because for Carr, an investigation of causes and to suggest that something other than what did happen, might have occurred was a violation of the historical discipline. Strangely, ‘despite (Carr’s) denial of the value of counterfactual history in the book, it remains a landmark for understanding counterfactual history’. [4]  As What is History ‘became the most influential text to examine the role of the historian…in the 1960s and is still widely read today’. [5] This is supported by the sheer amount of historians who use his definition of counterfactuals. [6]

Counterfactural Penning 2020
What if I went this way or that way? (Shutterstock)

 

The issue is that Carr’s definition of counterfactualism is not conclusive nor does it provide a true understanding of what counterfactual history is: a deeper look into causes, effects and actors through questioning the past.  It can be argued, therefore, that ‘for a long time, Carr’s criticisms made ‘what-if-history’ suspect for serious scholars’. [7] That is not to say, all historians of recent times disagree with counterfactual history as a result of Carr.  However, his basic argument that reevaluating the past as more than predetermined contingencies poses a threat to the historical discipline, unfortunately sums up the attitude of generations of historians on the subject.

 

The validity of counterfactual inquiry

Further, many other influential historians have disregarded the validity of counterfactual inquiry in understanding history by dismissing it’s questioning into known historical events and causes as unhistorical practice. As counterfactual history ‘ambition to be consequential’ (aim to have important value in the historical discipline) is often misunderstood academic historians ‘(as a) distortion (of) scholarship‘. [8]

 

Therefore, questioning and reconstructing the past is threatening to some academic historians whose own study and understanding of history which have been cemented in traditional deterministic history (predestined nature of the past).[9] Historian Marxist E. P. Thompson once famously called counterfactuals ‘Geschichtswissenschlopff, unhistorical garbage’.  Furthermore, conservative philosopher and historian Michael Oakeshott ‘who rarely agreed with Thompson’ (Sustein, 2014) said that the ‘distinction between essential and incidental events does not belong to historical thought at all’.  This reveals the ignorance and unwillingness of many historians to understand what counterfactual history is actually is; the assigning of the importance of events, understanding the significance of human actors and a deeper look at causation of all which are important principles of historical study.

 

Further, this demonstrates that prominent and scholarly historians of varying ideologies and beliefs have labelled counterfactual history as a historical tool unworthy of study or use. The impact of this is significant on the study and use of counterfactualism in history, as Niall Ferguson reveals when he states ‘hostile views from such disparate figures’ could explain why counterfactual inquiry ‘has been provided by writers of fiction (rather than).. historians’.[10] Therefore, revealing that academic historians who simply denounce counterfactual history as unhistorical fantasy, have failed to understand the definition of counterfactuals (as counterfactual principles do align with historical practice) and consequently have been unable to see counterfactualism’s value and use in history.

 

Contentions

The contentions surrounding the worth of counterfactual inquiry in reconstructing history have been debated by the two leading historians Richard Evans and Niall Ferguson in recent years. Sir Richard Evans a widely renowned historian agrees with Thompson and Oakeshott, as he insists that counterfactual history is ‘speculation, not history.’ Evans laments that this fantasizing ‘threatens to overwhelm our perceptions of what really happened in the past, pushing aside our attempts to explain it.’[11]  However what Evans neglects is Ferguson’s point, that counterfactual hypotheses are ‘only legitimate if one can show if what if your discussing is one that contemporaries seriously contemplated’ by showing evidence.’ [12] Ferguson explains this through the example of ‘what would have happened in 1948 if the entire population of Paris had suddenly sprouted wings’[13] where he argues that this offers no historical insights, as this is not a realistic conjecture.[14]  Therefore, the basis for counterfactual arguments to be valid in reconstructing history must be provable plausibility through historical evidence.

 

Another counterfactual hypothesis which demonstrates the importance of historical evidence is provided by John Keegan a British military historian who contributed an essay to the military history journal[15]  about how Hitler could have won World War II ‘In 1941, Hitler controlled the world’s biggest tank fleet, and one of the biggest air fleets, and if he had decided to use them differently…he could have won’. Therefore, revealing how with factual evidence (the number of tank and fleets Hitler had), counterfactual hypothesis can provide a greater understanding of the past; as through this inquiry, Keegan highlights the significance of the human actor in historical outcomes, particularly in military history. This is because ‘outcomes of battles were so often determined by the actions and decisions of a single leader’[16]. Therefore, through providing historical evidence counterfactual claims are plausible and are useful as they provide a deeper understanding into the significance of causation and the role of human agency on historical outcomes.

Counterfactural Penning 2 2020
What if? (mega)

 

Predetermined nature

Additionally, the predetermined nature of the past or determinism is a controversial issue for Evans and Ferguson when evaluating counterfactuals use and value in history. Ferguson sees counterfactual history as the ‘necessary antidote’ to the close- mindedness of historical determinism.  In Ferguson’s words, ‘the past does not have a predetermined end. There is no author, divine, or otherwise only characters and a great deal too many of them’.[17] Therefore, Ferguson reveals the non-deterministic and true complex contingency of the past as a result of human agency (human action and ability to alter history).

 

However, Evans contends that the very idea of determinism is too broad, as in terms of history moving towards an end ‘counterfactuals can only cast doubt on theories of history’ but can’t ‘undermine history as a whole because we don’t know where that trajectory will end’.[18] Thus, he argues that since we already know the course of history, historical speculation on what might have occurred is pointless because it didn’t happen.  However, Evans ignores that the unpredictable nature of human actors and that chance itself can both be significant factors in historical outcomes. Therefore, although ‘what if’ questioning will always remain hypothetical, chance and human agency do play a significant role in history. Consequently, study into alternative outcomes will always remain important and relevant for deepening the reconstruction of history.

 

Reconstructed history

Furthermore, throughout time counterfactuals have been used and will be continued to be used reconstruct and understand history. This a result of the innate human desire to re-examine the past and to wonder ‘what if?’. In daily life, humans often speculate about what might have happened: ‘either grateful things worked out as they did or regretful that they did not occur differently’.[19] As Niall Ferguson explains ‘(counterfactuals) is a vital part of how we learn’, because ‘decisions about the future are usually based on weighing up consequences of alternative courses of action’.[20]  As a consequence, of counterfactual questioning being innately human, historians throughout time have employed counterfactualism in their historical inquiry: sometimes unknowingly.

 

The origins of posing counterfactual historical questions date back ‘to the beginning of Western historiography ‘when Thucydides and Livy wondered how their own societies would have been different ‘if Persians had defeated the Greeks or if Alexander the Great had waged war against Rome’.[21] In modern history, an anthology published in 1931 included an essay by Winston Churchill called ‘If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg’, which imagines a world in which the Confederacy had won the Civil War. [22]

 

A further recent example is Robert Cowley, the editor of the military history quarterly who in 1998 used the counterfactual of ‘the fog on the East River on the night of Aug. 29, 1776, which permitted Washington to escape unnoticed by the British and save the Revolution from a Dunkirk. What if no fog?’. [23]  Thus, as a consequence of counterfactual questioning being a part of human nature, it has been used and will be continued to be used throughout time, to better understand the complexity of the causation and events of the past.  The innate human quality and use of counterfactuals in history further reinforced by historian and author Aviezer Tucker specialist in philosophy of historiography and history. He reveals how to a certain extent, all historians use counterfactualism ‘when they assign cause, effects and the degree of importance to these causes’ because ‘The assignment of necessary causes assumes that had the cause not occurred, neither would the effects’.[24]  As all claims of causation, require the historian to give importance and necessity to events, people, and factors and their subsequent influence to the final outcome.  As Jon Elster (Norwegian social and political theorist) explains historians ‘have been talking counterfactually all the time without knowing it’.[25]

 

An interesting argument regarding the human quality of counterfactualism is put forward by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld a Professor of History, who uses examples of counterfactual history throughout time to reveal how ‘alternate history has consistently functioned as a means of using alternate pasts to expose the virtues and vices of the present.’ [26]  That is to say, the counterfactual questions asked throughout time reflect contemporaries fears, attitudes and beliefs.  Rosenfeld uses the example of American authors common use of the Nazis winning World War for to demonstrate this ‘For the first three decades of the postwar era most allo- historical (alternative) narratives.. depicted a Nazi wartime victory. This reflects the postwar history of the United States…(glorifying) the American decision to intervene in the war against, and ultimately defeat Nazi Germany’. Thus, (counterfactual history) ‘reflects its authors (current) hopes and fear.’ [27] This reveals that counterfactual history is extremely useful to the historical discipline, as counterfactuals are inherently presentist. Therefore, counterfactual history gives insight into the evolution of historiography which makes it very useful to historians as documents of attitudes, values, perspectives and belief systems of individuals from that particular time.

 

Utilising the pre-existing conditions

Further, counterfactual claims can be valid through utilising the pre-existing conditions of the event developed over time. An example which demonstrates this, is the Greeks defeat over the Persians at the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C. The battle ended with a Greek victory, in which the swifter and far more numerous fleet of the Persian emperor Xerxes was destroyed. ‘However, this victory was dependent a subtle manoeuvre by admiral Themistocles’. [28] A Persian win would have prevented the emerging Greek conceptions of freedom and the individual and thus ‘the great strengths of present-day Western culture is due to Themistocles September victory off Salamis’. [29] In approaching this ‘what if’ historical question one must neglect the ‘anything could follow anything’[30] mentality. As this kind of counterfactual narrative is based on speculation and is consequently problematic as to ‘extend counterfactual history speculation is to exhaust the connection between facts and realities’. [31]

Counterfactural Penning 2020
What if I went this way or that way? (Shutterstock)

 

A stronger counterfactual inquiry instead uses pre-existing conditions as it’s basis. ‘The Persians could not have been defeated in any other battle, Salamis was the Greeks only opportunity. Had Alexander not lived to build a Macedonian Empire, no one and nothing else could have replaced him. Consequently, the individualist culture that flowered in Greek city-states could not have emerged anywhere else.’[32]  In this version, the counterfactual questioning is a historical inquiry into contingency as it is grounded in the pre-existing conditions of the ‘event developing over diverse conditions across large expanses of geographical and social territory’ [33]. Thus, through the utilising existing circumstances and conditions, counterfactual hypothesis can be valid in historical practice.

 

A deeper understanding of the reconstruction of history

In conclusion, a deeper understanding of the reconstruction of history can be achieved through speculation into the ‘what if’ questions of the past. The contentions and potential regarding counterfactual history are illustrated by examining the conflicting views of historians Ferguson (argues is necessary for holistic understanding) and Evans (argues it is imaginary and thus futile). Furthermore, influential historians such as E.H Carr dismissal of counterfactualism as unhistorical fantasy makes evident that counterfactual history’s definition has been skewed; as assigning importance to cause and effect are important historical practices. Through Evans and Ferguson arguments, it can be deduced that although counterfactuals claims will always be hypothetical in nature, they can be valid with historical evidence. These plausible counterfactual scenarios can then provide a deeper understanding into history. Historian John Keegan demonstrates through the counterfactual that ‘Hitler could have won World War II by acting differently’ the significance of human agency on historical outcomes. Moreover, counterfactual questioning and has been used by historians throughout time (e.g Thucydides, Livy, and Churchill) as it is inherently human. Consequently, counterfactual claims give insight into the memory and belief systems of individuals throughout time.  Finally, through utilising existing circumstances and conditions counterfactual hypothesis can be valid historical practice.  Therefore, counterfactual history has important value in the reconstruction of history, as questioning and rethinking the past reinvigorates and opens history; to not simply a set of predetermined contingencies but rather an examination of the causation of events and the role of human agency.

 

Author Biography

Amy Penning is an independent scholar based in Wollongong, NSW. She is interested in the philosophical nature of history.

Amy Penning can be contacted by email amypenning@y7mail.com

Counterfactual Amy Penning Portrait 2020
Amy Penning, Independent Scholar

 

References

[1] Maar, A., 2014, ‘Possible Uses of counterfactual thought experiments in History’, Principia vol.18, no.1, pp. 103-103, accessed 25 March 2019, State Library of New South Wales.

[2] Talbot, A., 2009, ‘Chance and Necessity in History: E.H. Carr and Leon Trotsky Compared’, Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung, vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 88-96 accessed 10 May 2019, JSTOR.

[3] Ferguson, N., 1997, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals p.4

[4] Rodwell, G., 2013, ‘Counterfactual Histories and the Nature of History’, Whose History?: Engaging History Students through Historical Fiction, pp. 83, accessed 29 Jun. 2019 University of Adelaide Press, South Australia, JSTOR.

[5] Godfrey, K ‘BBC Radio 3 – The Essay’, What Is History, Today?, Episode 1, BBC, 2011, accessed 29 June 2019  <https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b017575t&gt;.

[6] For example, Martin Bunzl a professor of philosophy article ‘Counterfactual History: A User’s Guide’, Richard Evans in his book Altered Pasts and Professor of history Peter J Beck in Presenting History: Past and Present all refer to and use Carr’s definition.

[7] Hekster. O., 2016, ‘The Size of History: Coincidence, Counterfactuality and Questions of Scale in History The Challenge of Chance Springer’, pp. 215-232, accessed 28 June 2019, Springer, Cham.

[8]  Gallagher, C., 2018, Telling It Like it Wasn’t, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

[9] Ferguson, N., 1997, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals

[10] Ferguson, N., 1997, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals p.7

[11]  Sustein, CR., ‘What If Counterfactuals Never Existed?’, The New Republic, 21 September 2014, accessed 27 February 2019, <https://newrepublic.com/article/119357/altered-pasts-reviewed-cass-r-sunstein&gt; .

[12]  University of California Television (UCTV) 2004, Conversations with History: Niall Ferguson, online video, 15 February 2008, accessed 10 November 2018, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DtEwupxygBo&gt;.

[13] Ferguson, N., Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals1997 p.83

[14] B FitzSimons., ‘How do Ned Kelly’s murderous intentions at the Siege of Glenrowan support this statement?’, Teaching History, pp.37

[15] Cowley, R., (ed.) 2001, What If Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been?, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York.

[16] Honan, H.W., ‘Historians Warming To Games Of What If’, The New York Times, 7 Jan 1998, accessed 13 June 2019, <https://www.nytimes.com/1998/01/07/us/historians-warming-to-games-of-what-if.html >.

[17] Ferguson, N., 1997, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, p.68

[18] Evans, R., 2014, Altered Pasts Counterfactuals in History, p.58

[19] Gavriel, R., 2002, ‘Why Do We Ask ‘What If?’ Reflections on the Function of Alternate History’, History and Theory, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 90-103, accessed 1 March 2019, Wesleyan University, JSTOR.

[20] Ferguson, N., 1997, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, p.68

[21]  Gavriel, R., 2002, ‘Why Do We Ask ‘What If?’ Reflections on the Function of Alternate History’, History and Theory, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 90-103, accessed 1 March 2019, Wesleyan University, JSTOR.

[22] Sustein, CR., ‘What If Counterfactuals Never Existed?’, The New Republic, 21 September 2014, accessed 27 February 2019, <https://newrepublic.com/article/119357/altered-pasts-reviewed-cass-r-sunstein&gt; .

[23] Honan, H.W., ‘Historians Warming To Games Of What If’, The New York Times, 7 Jan 1998, accessed 13 June 2019, <https://www.nytimes.com/1998/01/07/us/historians-warming-to-games-of-what-if.html >.

[24]  Tucker, A., 1999, ‘Historiographical Counterfactuals and Historical Contingency’, History and Theory, vol. 38, no. 2, pp. 264-276, accessed 3 March 2019, Wesleyan University, JSTOR.

[25] Sustein, CR., ‘What If Counterfactuals Never Existed?’, The New Republic, 21 September 2014, accessed 27 February 2019, <https://newrepublic.com/article/119357/altered-pasts-reviewed-cass-r-sunstein&gt; .

[26] Gavriel, R., 2002, ‘Why Do We Ask ‘What If?’ Reflections on the Function of Alternate History’, History and Theory, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 90-103, accessed 1 March 2019, Wesleyan University, JSTOR.

[27]Gavriel, R., 2002, ‘Why Do We Ask ‘What If?’ Reflections on the Function of Alternate History’, History and Theory, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 90-103, accessed 1 March 2019, Wesleyan University, JSTOR.

[28]  Laibman, D., 2008, ‘What if? The Pleasures and Perils of Counterfactural History’, Science & Society, vol.72, no. 2, pp.131-135 accessed 12 November 2018, ProQuest, State Library New South Wales.

[29] Cowley, R., (ed.) 2001, What If Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been?, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York.

[30]  Robinson, R., 2002, The Years of Rice and Salt, Bantam Books, United States.

[31] Woolf, D., 2016, ‘Concerning Altered Pasts: Reflections of an Early Modern Historian’, Journal of Philosophy of History, vol. 10, no.3, pp. 418-428, accessed on 18 February 2019, JSTOR.

[32]  Laibman, D., 2008, ‘What if? The Pleasures and Perils of Counterfactural History’, Science & Society, vol.72, no.2, pp.131-135, accessed 12 November 2018, ProQuest, State Library New South Wales.

[33] Laibman, D., 2008, ‘What if? The Pleasures and Perils of Counterfactural History’, Science & Society, vol.72, no.2, pp.131-135, accessed 12 November 2018, ProQuest, State Library New South Wales.

 

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Wartime volunteers and The War Workers’ Gazette

The War Workers’ Gazette

Ever wondered who volunteered across New South Wales to support the soldiers overseas in the First World War? Two hard working volunteers from the War Chest Fund, Eleanor Mackinnon and Constance Sly, organised a book that lists thousands of names of these war workers.

Mackinnon and Sly called their project The War Workers’ Gazette. It is a treasure trove for family historians and others interested in the First World War.  Two Macarthur region organisations and their volunteers are listed in the book.

War Workers Gazette Cover 1918 nla.obj-38842598-1 lowres

Wartime fundraising

The War Workers’ Gazette was a fundraiser for the Citizens’ War Chest Patriotic Fund in 1918. The full title of the gazette was The War Workers’ Gazette, A Record of the Organised Civilian War Effort in New South Wales and published by Sydney printer Winn & Co.

Wartime fundraising in New South Wales between 1914 and 1918 was carried in a host of ways by patriotic funds and voluntary organisations and included a host of activities from cash donations, to fetes, fairs, door-knocking and the list goes on.

The use of publications as wartime fundraising projects was not as common. In Great Britain there was The Way of the Red Cross with stories of wartime activities and in Australia there was the ‘trench publication’, the Anzac Book.

Project brief

Eleanor Mackinnon and Constance Sly envisaged that their project would be a complete list of names of all volunteers of patriotic funds and other organisations that operated in New South Wales during the war. It was to include a short description of the activities of the organisation and their war work.

War Workers Gazette Title Page 1918 nla.obj-38842598-5 lowres

 

The gazette was also to include a list of Australian hospitals, field ambulances, and overseas depots. The authors wanted to include the colours of different battalions, regiments, AAMC and artillery. The organisers sent out over 10,000 letters seeking list of volunteers. There was extensive publicity with articles about the gazette in a host of country and city newspapers.

The print run of 10,000 was planned for the first edition and were to be sold at 1/- each for paper back 2/6 for hardback. Volunteers had to contribute 1d to have their names listed in the gazette. On publication the gazette was initially sold for 1/-, and then sold for 2/- and posted to purchasers for 2/3d.  It was hoped that the gazette would be published for the 1918 War Chest Day.

Scope of gazette

Amongst the voluntary organisations listed in the Workers’ Gazette included the War Chest, YMCA,  Red Cross, St John Ambulance, Repatriation Committee, Universal Service League, War Savings Committee, Lord Mayor’s , Patriotic Fund, Australia Day Committee, Belgian Relief Committee, Italian Red Cross, Patriotic Activities of the Churches, American- Australian League of Help, League off Honor, University Patriotic  Committees, Polish Relief Committees, Hospital Entertainment Committees, Chamber of Commerce War Food Fund, Belgian Clothing Committees, Patriotic Musical Societies, VADs Battalions, Baby Kits, French-Australian League, Women’s Clerical War-workers’ League, Salvation Army, Soldiers’ Wives arid Mothers’ Centre, Recruits’ Comforts Fund, Win-the-War League, Sailors Wives’ League, Sock Fund (Mrs. Jopp), Queen Mary’s Sock Fund (Miss Jay), Old Gold and Silver Fund, Blue. Cross Fund. Soldiers’ Club.

Press reports of project

Reports in the Sydney press stated that the gazette served the dual purpose of firstly ‘a comprehensive record of war work’ which was mostly performed by women, and secondly, a fundraiser. The report stated that ‘an enormous amount of trouble’ had been taken in collating the information. (SMH, 14 Feb 1918)

More than this a Brisbane press report stated that the gazette was a permanent record of civilian war work ‘through their organisations’. The editors, Mrs McKinnon and Mrs Sly, observed that a number of wartime organisations had already fulfilled their aims by early 1918, and wound up their operations. Their volunteers moved onto other activities and their voluntary efforts had already been forgotten by the wider community. They noted that as the war effort wound down many other voluntary organisations would cease to exist and the efforts of their volunteers would suffer a similar fate. (Daily Std, 23 Feb 1918)

Shortcomings of publication

The Workers’ Gazette is an important publication from the war period, yet should not be taken at face value. The end result was exclusive to the better off who could pay the 1d to have their name registered, then the cost of buying the published book.

The editors list over 200 Red Cross brancheswho did not supply any names of their volunteers and members (p. 262). The branches who did supply names tended to be those from the more affluent Sydney suburbs and country towns.

Even for the Red Cross branches that were listed only those who could afford the Workers’ Gazette supplied their names and many branches are understated in their membership. For example, the membership list for the Camden Red Cross branch is under-stated by around 20 per cent (p. 160).   The are no entries for the Campbelltown area.

Value of Workers Gazette

The Workers’ Gazette is a valuable publication for the war period, despite its shortcomings. It is treasure trove of names for family historians and anyone interested in local history and particularly the First World War.

Publications of this type are rare and its significance has not declined over the years. It is a valuable addition to the historiography of the First World War.

Even the advertisements, which help fund it, are an interesting insight into the war period and particularly 1918.

Read

Read The War Workers’ Gazette Click here


The War Workers Gazette

The Macarthur region

Camden Red Cross (pp159-160)

Picton Australia Day Fund Amelioration Committee  (p.209)

 

 

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Crisis relief in wartime and the peace

Book Review

Ministering Angels, the Camden District Red Cross, 1914-1945.

Author Ian Willis

Publisher: Camden Historical Society

ISBN 978-0-9803039-6-4

Ministering Angels  ‘is an example of innovative and groundbreaking work in local history, and succeeds in demonstrating a new way of linking detailed local studies to larger themes in Australian history’.  Dr Emma Grahame (Editor, Australian Feminism: A Companion, OUP, 1998. Editor, Dictionary of Sydney http://www.dictionaryofsydney.org, 2007-2012)

Ministering Angels, the Camden District Red Cross, 1914-1945 Ian Willis Camden Historical Society Inc ISBN 978-0-9803039-6-4
Book Cover for Ministering Angels (2014)

 

Ministering Angels is a peer-review publication that tells the story of conservative country women doing their patriotic duty in an outpost of the British Empire. From 1914 Camden district women joined local Red Cross branches and their affiliates in the towns and villages around the colonial estate of the Macarthur family at Camden Park.

They sewed, knitted and cooked for God, King and Country throughout the First and Second World Wars, and during the years in-between. They ran stalls and raffles, and received considerable community support through cash donations from individuals and community organisations for Red Cross activities.

 

Using the themes of soldier and civilian welfare, patriotism, duty, sacrifice, motherhood, class and religion, the narrative explores how the placed-based nature of the Red Cross branch network provided an opportunity for the organisation to harness parochialism and localism for national patriotic purposes.

The work shows how a local study links the Camden district Red Cross with the broader issues within Australian history and debates involving local history, philanthropy, feminism, conservatism, religion and other areas, while at the same time illustrating the multi-layered nature of the issues that shape global, national and regional history that can impact rural volunteering.

 

The book delves into the story of how Camden’s Edwardian women, the Macarthur Onslows and others of their ilk, provided leadership at a local, state and national level and created ground-breaking opportunities that empowered women to exercise their agency by undertaking patriotic activities for the first time.

In their wake Camden women created the most important voluntary organisation in district history, a small part of the narrative of the Australian Red Cross, arguably the country’s most important not-for-profit organisation. Their stories were the essence of place, and the success of the district branches meant that over time homefront volunteering became synonymous with the Red Cross.

 

Ministering Angels is a local Red Cross study of volunteering in war and peace that provides a small window into the national and transnational perspectives of one of the world’s most important humanitarian organisations.

Read the book here (free)

For more information contact the publisher:

secretary@camdenhistory.org.au

Secretary, Camden Historical Society Inc. PO Box 566, 40 John St, Camden NSW 2570