Over 100 years of Women in Trades and counting

Supporting And Linking Tradeswomen (S.A.L.T)

The very early days 800 years ago

Apprenticeships started over 800 years ago in Europe during the Middle Ages. Young people were indentured to Master Craftsmen from the ages of ten years, normally for seven years. The apprentices were mostly boys but records exist of girls indentured as well. The evidence includes information about tradeswomen and apprentices working as a steel merchant, builder, mason, plasterer, cartwright, wood turner, clay and lime worker, glazier, ore miner and silver miner.

During those early times apprentice basically belonged to their Master and they only received board and lodging for their training. At the end of their training they qualified as Journeymen which meant they were qualified in their trade and could charge for their work but could not take on apprentices until they qualified as a Master.

A bit further along…..only 250 years ago

Later on during the mid1700’s there was the industrial revolution when manufacturing changed completely after the invention of the steam engine, people moved away from farming and towards working in factories. Women and children became the original version of cheap labour and worked extensively in horrific conditions in mines and factories. The work they were employed to do was heavy industrial labour but then there was a major shift in employment laws and from1832 in Britain,  it became illegal to employ women and children.

The reasoning for this was twofold;

  1. The women and children were paid very poorly and were value for money for the employers, which prevented men from gaining employment.
  2. Secondly the conditions they worked in were inhuman and people became aware of this.

Whilst this change of law was successful in removing women from trade it was less successful in improving the conditions the men worked in. The changes in law meant that men became the only employees in these areas and lead to the belief that women were incapable of working in the industrial areas.

But women have pushed these boundaries across the world since then including in Australia. Women have been as much a part of forming Australia as their male counterparts but Australian women are far less acknowledged and honoured than their American or European counterparts and SALT is trying to change that.

alice andersonThe 1900’s and onwards

The story of Alice Anderson

written by Georgine Clarsen



Alice Elizabeth Foley Anderson (1897-1926), garage proprietor, was born on 8 June 1897 in Melbourne, third of five children of Irish-born parents Joshua Thomas Noble Anderson (Anderton), engineer, and his wife Ellen Mary, née White-Spunner. Joshua, sometime partner of (Sir) John Monash, was an inept businessman.

Alice’s childhood was spent in relative poverty in the family’s bush house near Narbethong, outside Melbourne. Hers was an unconventional upbringing for a middle-class girl. She wore utilitarian clothing such as bloomers and men’s boots, was an excellent horsewoman, became skilled at hunting and fishing and learned to drive and repair charabancs at the local co-operative bus service. After five terms as a day pupil at the Church of England Girls’ Grammar School (Merton Hall), Melbourne, she left in 1914, family finances preventing her finishing secondary school or entering university.

Anderson developed her own business in the newly emerging field of motor-vehicle service and repair. She began part time, as an 18-year-old clerical worker with one touring car, and soon developed an after-hours business taking parties on picnics into the Dandenong Ranges. By 1918 she was working full time from the backyard of a house in Kew. By next year she had raised the finance for a block of land in Cotham Road, and had a brick garage built to her own design.

The Alice Anderson Motor Service offered everything then expected from motor garages—petrol sales, vehicle repairs, a driving school, a 24-hour chauffeur service, either with the garage’s cars or the client’s vehicles stored on the premises—and organized chauffeured tourist parties on interstate trips. It also provided services to educate women in the new technology. Driving classes included mechanical instruction on demonstration engines; for an extra fee women could work alongside mechanics on their own cars; a programme enabled women to work as pupil-mechanics to learn the mechanical side of motoring.

Anderson was a member of the Lyceum Club, Melbourne. Her all-women business, though it struggled financially, became famous throughout the city’s eastern suburbs and employed as many as eight khaki-uniformed chauffeusses and mechanics in the early 1920s. Short and energetic, with shingled hair, Anderson usually dressed in uniform and peaked cap.

Press articles were written about her and she contributed motoring columns to Woman’s World. Attempting to build on ideas of female independence expressed during World War I, she declared that her ambition was to turn garage work into a profession suitable for women. That ambition was not to be tested. In August 1926 she visited Alice Springs with her friend Jessie Webb. On their return Anderson died of a gunshot wound to the forehead on 17 September in hospital at Kew after having accidentally injured herself while cleaning firearms.

Extract from Australian Dictionary of Biography

Times of war

A major area where women contributed to Australian history is the amount of work they did in industry during times of war. Women were called upon to fill the gap in the manual trades when men enlisted and then at the end of each period of crisis they have been told that it was then their duty to leave the work force and return to the home.  Even during the First World War women worked in munitions such as Colonial Ammunition Company's Works in Melbourne and this was hugely extended in the Second World War. These were also times that enabled women to work extensively, contribute to the Australian war effort and earn a decent wage. ‘By June 1943 39,400 women where working in munitions, ship and aeroplane building’ (Australian Women at War, P. Adam- Smith pg. 140).

Wollongong, as an industrial city, was a major part of the war effort and women where employed by a couple of companies in the Port Kembla area. One company is Metal Manufacturing Industries (MM) which was founded in Wollongong in 1916 and which celebrates its centenary this year. Lysaghts is another Wollongong company (now part of BHP/Bluescope) which employed women during war and was the company which also initially championed the manufacture of the Owen gun. The Diggers Darling as it became called was designed by Evelyn Owen and manufacture extended from Wollongong across to many parts of Australia.

This was the start of large scale manufacture in Australia, when it was recognised that supplies from the rest of the world were going to be cut off and Australia had to become self-sufficient. Munitions factories which already existed were extended and feeder factories built or created, often from scratch or even in small garages. It was a reflection of the extraordinary requirements of the time that Australia, which had never built a Beaufort Bomber not only developed the capability to build but also to manufacture all the parts.

Men’s work in the trade occupations required by the war effort became restricted and they had to remain in their jobs. This decree, however, did not stop them leaving their jobs and enlisting. An organisation called Manpower took over organising the remaining available workforce and initially reluctantly drafted women in to take over the trade work. A stumbling point was giving women equal pay, a few achieved this but generally the women where paid less.

As people were ordered to work a number of social issues arose including lack of accommodation and absenteeism. Often people were expected to travel two hours each way (normally by train), work long hours and do shift work so it is not surprising that people became exhausted especially if they were coping with family life as well. Another ‘social issue’ recorded in Lithgow was the fact that women were seen drunk and disorderly on the streets, most unacceptable at the time!

Women had no difficulty with taking on the skilled demands of the trade work but as the war drew to a close they were again told that their duty was to return to the home. Some women managed to remain working in trade areas such as the women of the D Mill at Metal Manufacturing (MM) in Port Kembla.

140520 SALE Vic
141254.AWM watching first beaufort bomber flyjpg

The D Mill Girls, MM Newsletter, Winter 1965

These are the operatives of a factory at the port Kembla works which occupies a unique place in the industrial history of Australia. As far as we know, it is the only tube manufacturing mill in Australia operated entirely by women.

The D Mill, which is the name we call it at Port Kembla, has been worked by women since it first opened in 1942. Its original purpose was to produce a special type of tube, .195" x .005" 70/30 brass, for the radiator cores of the Beaufort bombers.

Because of the manpower shortage at the time, the Department of Labour and Industry granted the Company permission to employ female labour. The then Tube Mill Foreman, Fred Walls, was given the task of getting the new mill under way and he recalls this was "a very trying time ". " We started with about ten girls," he remembers, "and most of them hadn't even seen the inside of a factory before, let alone operate a drawbench or a swager!" Three of the original group of girls who signed on in 1942 are still with us today. They are: Margaret Kidd, Forewoman Jot Randle and Forewoman Dorothy Jarvis.

Those early stages in the life of D Mill were difficult times, but the girls stuck at their jobs and encouraged other newcomers to do the same, until the factory was fully staffed.

At the height of its wartime efficiency, D Mill employed 60 girls in two shifts and produced a quarter of a million feet of bomber tube per week. A number of girls were also employed on the testing and inspection of these tubes.

At the end of the war the machines in D Mill were modified to undertake merchant production of straight tube under 1/2" diameter, which has continued until the present day.

The Mill's main production lines are capillary tube for refrigeration, 26 gauge copper tube for air conditioning and many small sizes and shapes of commercial copper and copper alloys tube of 18 gauge and lighter.

DMill photo1

SALT’s Fi Shewring is continuing to research into the history of Australian Tradeswomen and sees this work as her opus – to honour the women who have gone before and give current tradeswomen a sense of their history.