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Champions of the home front

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Woollahra Red Cross page from the minutes

Woollahra Local History Centre is fortunate to hold a variety of records which provide a glimpse of the work of the champions of the home front. One of these is the minutes of a branch of the Australian Red Cross (PDF, 17.9 MB) which formed on 26 August 1914 at the Ocean Street chambers of Woollahra Council, and under its auspices.

Another revealing document held in the collection is the report of the Vaucluse Red Cross branch (PDF, 3.4 MB). This report outlined the activities of the branch during the war years and it was presented to Vaucluse Council in February 1920.

At home

Despite living so far from the scenes of battle, the residents of the municipalities of Paddington, Vaucluse and Woollahra received constant reminders of the conflict abroad from the sights and sounds of their local neighborhoods. Soldiers enlisted at Victoria Barracks and encamped at Moore Park, the harbour was the focus of heightened war-related maritime activity, and the military installations within the local area were now installed with new defences and active with servicemen in training.

New demands were made of the civilian population, and from the first days of the war the daily life of most citizens was shaped by both general wartime stringency and the many calls made on their time and energy to support the war effort. The "home front" experience had a powerful personal impact upon many civilians, and the war years a powerful social impact on the local area.

Community efforts

Much of the Australian fundraising undertaken at community level was a spontaneous, patriotic expression of concerted support for the allied forces, and Woollahra and Vaucluse proved no exception to the national trend. Women were at the heart of this movement, much of their contribution being effort in kind – making goods to send to the front or to sell for the cause at home, packing and distributing supplies, manning the various depots and the many fundraising stalls.

Returns from War Chest Day
Returns from "War Chest Day", a fundraising day held on 28 September 1917, entered in the "Woollahra Branch Australia Day Fund Cash Book".

The impression of many women knitting socks in sewing circles falls far short of the reality. Socks were certainly knitted but a glance at the lists of home-made items sent abroad by the Red Cross Society - as just one example - indicates the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the home front industry, and suggests something of the saving which this labour achieved for the authorities. Nothing was wasted; the remnant textiles from the sewing work of the Vaucluse branch of the Red Cross were made up into cot quilts and given to the Babies Kit Society, a Sydney-based organisation dedicated to manufacturing supplies for infants in Belgium and Britain.

Vaucluse patriotic evening

A major feature of life on the home front was the frequent fundraising events held, all of which had a social dimension and morale-boosting function beyond the proceeds netted for the war effort. Concerts, benefit evenings, stalls to support special appeals, or themed "Days" earmarked for intensive fundraising drives all helped to keep a community focused and cohesive. The Rose Bay Hall on New South Head Road was a well-booked function venue during the war years, regularly used for concerts and other social evenings. At Watsons Bay, the Vaucluse Town Hall was a hub of public meetings and social activity. Commercial entertainment venues such as cinemas were also used for the larger and more ambitious events staged by local committees.

Local Red Cross branches

Many specialised wartime organisations were formed at local level in response to specific wartime needs, but the body most pervasively associated with the war effort in Australia is the Australian Red Cross, formed at Government House Melbourne on 13 August 1914, as the Australian Branch of the British Red Cross. In Sydney, at the instigation of an appeal by the Lady Mayoress, suburban sub-branches were quick to form.

Vaucluse red cross logo

The day after the Australian Branch of the Red Cross officially came into being, meetings were held at Darling Point, from which grew the Darling Point branch of the organisation, with Lady Barton - wife of Australia's first Prime Minister and a resident of Darling Point Road - voted to the chair. Before the end of August, the Herald was noting the 'good progress' of 11 suburban branches of the Red Cross, one of which named was the Darling Point-based group, and soon after Lady Barton was able to report the despatch of 50 hospital bags and four medical bags to the Red Cross central depot in Elizabeth Street - the first of many such consignments from this branch.

Woollahra branch lists

This early local effort is representative of the overall workings of the Red Cross. The 'bags' referred to by Lady Barton were clean pillow cases, stocked according to their type with specified provisions. Medical bags contained specified medical equipment and first-aid supplies, and were to be provided at a ratio of one to every 50 soldiers' bags. Soldiers' bags met needs beyond those supplied by the military - items of non-uniform clothing, mending kits and writing materials.

As well as considering practicalities and essentials, the Red Cross looked towards the serviceman's morale. Among its public appeals for donations of flannel shirts and pyjamas came requests for donations of books, magazines and playing-cards, and tobacco in all its formats. Amidst embarkation preparations in early September 1914, a call was made through the press for 'at least forty gramophones in good working order' for use on the troopships. 'Bright and cheery records by the hundreds are needed', it was added.

Tobacco card
Red Cross tobacco card issued to Leo Whitby Robinson

Nor did the Society's concerns for the soldier end with his return, with a number of convalescent facilities established throughout Sydney. In November 1915, wool broker and Darling Point resident Harry Holt allowed the Red Cross to take over his house, The Octagon (now part of Ascham School) as a Red Cross convalescent home for sick and wounded soldiers known as the Woolgrower's Convalescent Home.

Soldier's handbook

Also formed during the first month of the war was the Vaucluse Branch of the Red Cross, an energetic sub-branch which raised a total of £9490.2s.1d between August 1914 and May 1919. The Vaucluse membership adopted a variety of initiatives ranging from the routine to the spectacular. The routine was represented by efforts such as the tireless canvassing of the locality for subscriptions, an exercise carried out consistently from July 1916 to March 1919, and the operation from May 1918 of a regular tea-room for visitors to Vaucluse House.

The spectacular included a Children's Christmas Revel held at Rose Bay's Continental Gardens - an open air cinema and general entertainment venue set above Tivoli Beach, dominated for this occasion by an "enormous" Christmas Tree, and with many children's entertainments provided. The evening concluded with a procession of lantern carrying children in fancy dress, and a children's pageant enacting the Dominions coming to the aid of Britannia. Even more ambitious in scope was a program of entertainments held at the Stadium. The branch was fortunate in its friendship with Marion McIntosh (nee Backhouse) wife of entrepreneur Hugh D McIntosh, who provided both of these major venues.

Red Cross goods
Reproduced from the report 'Vaucluse Red Cross Branch five years of service 1914-1919'

The cooperation between local government and community initiatives is well illustrated in the workings of the Vaucluse Red Cross, which began operations at Kainga, the home of Mrs E D Gray, founder and Hon President of the branch. However, early in its history, the branch was granted the use of rooms in the Vaucluse Town Hall in Military Road, Watsons Bay. This led to a close involvement on the part of aldermen and council officers with the work of the local branch.

Financing the war

It was recognised early in the course of the war that national revenue could never accommodate the financial drain of the war effort. Various means were employed by the Federal government throughout the four year engagement to raise the necessary funds. External funding was sought via loans from Britain, but the ultimate source relied upon was the financial capacity of the Australian people.

A War Census taken in 1915 set out to establish both the national numbers of fit, military-aged males available for service, and also the extent of the nation's wealth that was tied up in private hands, both corporate and individual. The challenge was then to encourage the necessary flow of private funds towards the war coffers. The War Precautions Act (1914) gave scope for extraordinary powers to be exercised by the wartime government, under which the government tightened its control over many elements of the economy and applied a number of coercive revenue-raising measures. Nevertheless, there was a reluctance to take steps beyond these actions when it came to the personal assets of individual Australians, and therefore a reliance on the will of the people to voluntarily support the cause.

War Census book
The Woollahra War Census returns register, 1915

While certain aspects of the war effort proved contentious and divisive at home, there was sufficient popular agreement about the urgency of the situation to see the government's war loan targets easily met without the need for compulsion. Moreover, there was a plentiful supply of goodwill towards the serviceman and a concerted desire to support and supply the needs and comforts of those at the front. This gave rise to myriad resourceful initiatives carried out at community level.

War loans

The War Precautions Act (1914) provided for a scheme of "War Loans" under which citizens were asked to pledge a percentage of their wealth to the war effort through the purchase of war bonds, ultimately repayable with interest. The Federal government floated a total of seven war loans between 1915 and 1918, followed by three "Peace Loans" after the war had ended. The total amount raised by these initiatives - a sum of £250,172, 440.00 - has been historically considered an impressive display of loyalty on the part of the small population of early 20th century Australia.

Peace loan
Advertisement for a public meeting concerning the Peace Loan placed in the Sydney press and saved in the Woollahra Council scrapbook, 1919

Notwithstanding the success of the first six war loans, all of which had been oversubscribed and had raised in total £144,000,000, there was a growing sense by 1918 that not all Australians were pulling their weight through the scheme. As the subscription period for the Seventh War Loan neared, there appears to have been growing doubt on the part of the authorities that the target sum of £40,000,000 would be met. Public statements were made to the effect that a shortfall in subscriptions would trigger the resort of compulsion, and legislation to enable this action had been drafted and introduced into parliament.

The second reading of the War Loans Subscription Bill fell a week prior to the opening of the Seventh War Loan. The proposed terms of the compulsory subscription, using a rate based an an individual's previous income tax returns, were considered unduly harsh, and the influence of this spectre upon the results of the Seventh War Loan was likely to have been considerable. The Bill itself lapsed with the end of the war, which intervened less than a month after the books closed on the Seventh War Loan, and with compulsion unneeded. The Seventh War Loan was, like its forerunners, oversubscribed, with 242,210 Australians making a voluntary commitment to purchase bonds and stock, and raising through their pledges £44,056,500.

Woollahra and the Seventh War Loan

The threat of compulsion was not the only weapon of persuasion deployed as the Seventh War Loan opened on 16th September 1918. Along with promotional gimmickry such as dropping leaflets from low-flying aircraft, the Central War Loans Committee shrewdly drew on the power of local pride, allocating quotas to every municipal and shire area, with the promise of an "Honour Flag" for each local government area which met its allocation. The term "honour" in this instance referred to the character required for a citizen to voluntarily pledge the loan of their personal funds to an uncertain outcome.

Seventh War Loan ad
Advertisement for a meeting to discuss the Seventh War Loan placed in the Sydney press and saved in the Woollahra Council scrapbook, 1918.

With the floating of the Seventh War Loan, Woollahra was allocated a quota of £100,000 which the district handsomely exceeded, subscribing £275,000 in total. The municipality was among many local government areas presented with this award, the citizens of neighbouring Vaucluse proudly unfurling the district's Honour Flag on 26th October 1918, when the Fitzwilliam Road war memorial - appropriately centred on a flag pole - was officially unveiled.

The quotas set for municipalities by the War Loans Committee were based on information provided by the Commonwealth Statistician. Vaucluse was allocated a quota of £25,000 and Paddington £70,000.

Woollahra Council Ocean St chambers
Woollahra Council Ocean Street chambers in the 1910s

The Honour Flag received by Woollahra was embellished with three bars and a star. Each bar represented a 25% excess raised above the quota, while the seven-pointed star indicated a doubling of the target. The flag was presented to the municipality on 4 November 1918 by Darling Point resident and MLC, the Honourable Alfred William Meeks, a member of the Central War Loan Committee, and a Woollahra local with numerous war-time responsibilities on the "home front".

Honour Flag

The Honour Flag displayed at Council Chambers today is a replacement, presented to Woollahra in August 1999 by Councillor Christopher Dawson.

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