Edith Edwards

Edith Edwards (née Cox) was born at Brisbane, Queensland on 25 November 1926. She grew up in Brisbane and joined the Australian Women’s Land Army in 1942. Her service number was P449. She worked on country farms as part of the war effort to ensure the supply of food. Since the war ended, she has been a tireless campaigner to have the Land Army formally recognised as the “fourth” Service. This is her story:

Edith was 16 years old when she followed her sister into the Land Army.

“I said to Dad “Well you wouldn’t let me be a nurse, like I wanted to be.” He said, “I think you’re going to be too skinny for that sort of hard work.” And I said, “Oh, no I’ll like it.” and so anyway he said “Well, you can try it. If you don’t like it, let me know.” My father would have killed anybody to get me out of anything. So, then I went. You go for a medical and you sign up. They give you two pair of overalls, bib and brace overalls, two work shirts, boots and a couple of pair of long socks and you got a winter uniform which was quite smart, like the other ones. We had a brown hat and brown tie, brown shoes. So I thought I was made.

“My first job was to go to Palmwoods, a pineapple farm. And I never knew pineapples grew above the ground until I got there. A man and his wife, another girl there – Ann Crawford. And I thought to myself “How can she work so hard when she’s so old.” Poor thing was 30. Isn’t it awful – typical of the day. She looked after me and taught me everything. We had to wear the big gloves of course. She was a very churchy person so I went to church with her, didn’t do any harm. I was in a church play in Palmwoods, a small town. It’s much bigger now – there was only one shop there and once a month, we’d ride on the horse down to the shops and it was heaven to go into a shop to hear what was going on. This man had two daughters and they both worked in offices near the City. And I used to think, that was funny. Why didn’t they work on the farm! Must’ve been too good.

“Once Ann went away for her weekend and it was raining when she left. She was on the horse and off she went. So we were making cases. When it rained, you made cases in the shed. They didn’t have cardboard, it was all wooden boxes. So the farmer came up behind me, tried to kiss me from behind. Oh God he frightened me! I ran for my life and he kept chasing me and I didn’t know what to do, so I ran up to the house. And his wife was deaf, poor thing. So I sat there and she said “What’s wrong with you.” I said, “I’m sick.” Why didn’t I tell her, see I didn’t, “I’m sick. I feel sick.” He came up after me and I didn’t say anything, it was all right. So I went into the bedroom, I got pads and he came after me. “What are you doing?” I raced out again, so I took my pad and pen and sat there writing letters. I don’t know who I was writing to. His wife got real cranky with me and she said “Go to bed, you never sit there writing letters other days.” And I thought “Oh, God.” I said, “I didn’t want to go just yet.” “Go on, you go to bed, you’ve got to work hard tomorrow, go on.” I couldn’t do anything else. I remember, I put something in the doorway, you didn’t have a door, you’re only out on the veranda with a space between with the floor between. We did have a bit of a door, just a half door. And I said “You come in and I’m going to run in the bedroom to your wife.” I sat in the corner, I can remember that, I sat on the corner of the bed all night, frightened to go to sleep, 16 year old. Anyway, when Ann came back on the Sunday, I told her. She immediately went and rang Superintendent Beryl Pender. And do you know what, within two hours, she had driven up. I’ll never know what they said to him or why I left. Ann helped me pack my port and took it out and went into the car and I never saw them again. So she was very good, Mrs Pender, so I said “Don’t tell my father, he’ll make me leave.”

“They took me to another farm, still in Palmwoods but it was beans, as well as pineapples and that. Beans – oh God, have you ever seen beans grow? They always grow them on hills so that you’ve got one leg up there and the other one down there. Oh, God it’s hard. I thought my back was going to break but the daughter there, she was the daughter, the mother and daughter and the son was going to Scott’s College at Warwick, I think it was. You know, farming place. I didn’t know why she was so agro but somebody told me, she was in the WAAAF and she got away from home and the farm, enjoying life, when her father died suddenly, so she was brought home, she had to work. She was cranky cause she had to come home and work on the farm, but she didn’t have to take it out on me. Anyway, work, work and went back to the house and they had another son, an older son and he used to run the dairy and they had a house up on the house and they had a baby and that was a big attraction for me. I spent a lot of time with them and the baby and – “What are you always going up there for?” And they didn’t like the daughter-in-law apparently but I did, I thought they were lovely people.

“Anyway, finished the season there and then you had to go on to – you’re not allowed to be idle, you go on to another one. So then I was sent to Gympie – more beans, oh God. And there, there was only the husband and the wife and myself and they had two little girls and they had the dray like the sledge thing to go on. We’d be sitting on the thing waiting for daylight to start so we could start picking. And I used to pick 82 tins of beans a day and I didn’t know at the time, but they told me later that was a record. He used to go out and tell it – nobody picks that many. You just keep going because if you don’t, your back will break in half. But it was no effort, you know. He showed me how to do it. I think when you’re young, you’re quick with your hands. You fill up your tin, you take it over. I still visit the wife, the husband has died, but they’d shifted down to Brisbane. They treated me like one of the family. They even took me on their holiday, Tin Can Bay they went, and I went with them. It was just so lovely and he said, “Well, nobody works harder than you. You deserve it.” When they went to a dance, I’d go, and that’s where I learned to dance. They taught me up there, but you either danced with young boys or old men.

“My brother Bill was being transferred somewhere and he rang and asked if he could come and visit me before he went and they said “Oh yes, love to have you.” And with beans, in winter they use smoke pots all around so the frost doesn’t get the beans, lot of mucking around. Anyway, I used to take my turn at that, sat there all night, sleep if you could. And Bill sat with Cliff Groundwater this night and the next week, I’m being shifted off to another place and I said, “Why am I going?” I was 18 months with them and pretty unheard of. I was sent off, I had to go and it wasn’t until the end of the war that Bill admitted that he had put these poor people in “She’s 16 year old and she’s working like a navvy and sitting around with smoke pots, and no sleep, like you sleep outside wrapped up in the rain.” And he thought that was terrible so I finally found out. I never told my boss of course why I was shifted.

“I then went down to Redland Bay, the first camp I was ever in my life. We had a good time though. There was so many in the camp, but you still only had a camp stretcher and you had to fill your own straw pallet to make your bed up. All this was new to me. There’d be about 15 girls and you all had KP duties, the same as- like you had to do the potatoes one day and be in the kitchen and you had to cut your own lunch before you left. There was a Matron Dean, who was in charge and they had a cook. I working for Bloomers in Redland Bay – They were Bloomers Street, they were well established old people. There was a real old lady – well to me at 17, maybe she wasn’t so old. She was an old lady, used to wear long dresses and there was one daughter that did all the housework and the cooking and the other daughter drove for the Americans. Again my silly head of mine thought “Why isn’t she home working on the farm?” But anyway I was the only one they had and they had salad vegetables down there. I remember they had huge cabbages. On market morning I had to be up there at five. The young man, the son stood up on the truck. I had to cut these cabbages off and throw them up to him on the truck. No wonder I’m nearly dead today with back troubles – and he packed them. I used to think, “That should have been reversed, that role.”

“But anyway, they were very nice to me and of course it wasn’t very far and you walked back to camp for tea. And we had Sunday off – that was lovely. I used to go home, lived close enough to go home. I used to take Beryl cause she came from Bundaberg and a couple of other girls used to come cause we had a big house at Venner Road. Dad used to work on the lawn and we used to go to a dance on the Saturday afternoon, we had off too, off to a dance. It was quite nice and back to work, back on the bus ready for work on the Monday. But that I enjoyed because you had the company at night. The Matron was very very nice. She was strict but good. You could go to the shop. There was one shop not far away at night after you’d had your bath or your shower and your tea. You had to be in by nine so you weren’t on it long. But anyway, we’d go round, have a malted milk, you know, real good fun. Of course, the boys would come there too. So off we’d go.

“From there, and one of the girls that was in that camp, Esme Pennell, of course she was called Penny. We were both sent to Wyberba, and you won’t know where it is because we missed it going down there in the train too and had to go right through to Wallangarra. The new boss was not a bit happy about this. It was late of course, we saw it in daylight. The station was only a little shed thing, had Wyberba on the thing though, and pitch dark – how were we to see it. And we thought we were never going to get there. We got to Wallangarra – I think that the guard came around “Weren’t you girls for Wyberba?” “Yes, are we nearly there?” “We’ve passed it.” Penny said, “Why didn’t you come and tell us.” He said, “I just looked and saw somebody got out and I thought it was you lot.” Anyway, we had to find out the man’s name and everything to get there and he came and picked us up. It wasn’t a very good start. We were miles away at Wallangarra.

“When we got to Wyberba it was lovely having company and there was an orchard and you had big sack on your front and you had to climb the ladder with this and then get the peaches and I remember saying “Look at this beautiful peach! I’m going to save that.” Penny said, “No you don’t eat rubbish.” She had this gorgeous peach, biggest one of the bunch, gosh it was lovely. Anyway, this was very very hard. This again is – I don’t have a lot of respect for farmers. You had to get down and get over to the ute and undo the strap at the base and be careful you didn’t bruise the fruit into the ute, where the boss sorted to see if we had bruised any. That’s all he did and took our pickings away while we went up and got another load, and then apples. This was another strange thing. Apples had a mark on the skin, they were thrown in a barrel. I don’t know where they went, but they weren’t sold. But today I buy them, and I think “We used to throw them in a barrel.” But anyway, that was very hard. In the end, they had grapes and they showed me how to bridge them, you tie them all along the wire. Well, I did this for the whole day, I kept going. And when he came and had a look, he came to me and said “Don’t you know anything except a bloody granny knot?” I said, “I don’t know, you just said to tie it.” I was supposed to tie it – do you know he made me do that, then and there and it was nearly pitch black and he yelled out from the house “You can come in now and finish it tomorrow.”

“One day Penny asked the boss, “Is there any dances around this area?” He said “Only at Wallangarra.” So he said “The Gable boys over the road go every Saturday night to sell wood. See them.” “How do we get to the Gable boys?” “Catch the horse.” One white horse. I don’t know if you’ve ever been down there, it’s the Girraween National Park now. All the big white rocks, well that’s where we were and down this big paddock and that’s where the horse was, the white horse. It was smarter than us two. All it had to do was hide behind the white rock. Some days we’d find it and some days we wouldn’t. The boss rang the Gable boys and said how are we going to get to Gables to go to the dance. Right you catch the horse. So we go down early, as soon as we knocked off on Saturday afternoon to get the horse and as I say, sometimes we caught it and sometimes we didn’t but the first time we got it, we all went into the town, we bought ourselves a new outfit. And I can still remember it. Mine was pink, with big blue buttons and Penny’s was a navy blue. We bought shoes, because we didn’t have any. So we were ready to go and we were all dressed up. Oh dear we have to – two of us get up on the horse, don’t we. Here we are in our lovely finery. I couldn’t tell you the laughing we did at ourselves in those days. Anyway, plenty of rocks to climb on. You had to hitch your skirt up round your waist, and then somebody had to get off to open gates, didn’t they. I said to Penny “Let’s go home, it’s not worth it.” She said “My oath it is, get away from them for a while.” But anyway, we’d never met any of these Gables, opened the gate, had to close the gate of course. And I had to hop off all the time because they gave us a pair of reins at least. Over the road, pitch black of course, no street lights. He said, “The horse will take you.” The horse wandered on and then over the road, it must have been two miles up through the bush lights and we found the Gables. Well that was hilarious. Mrs Gable I remember her, she had seven sons and one daughter and she was whacking them all with the knife, you know, keeping them all in order. The boys, three boys were going to sell the wood. So it was lovely meeting us. When they got out, they all hopped in the front. “Where do we sit?” “Get out on top of the wood.” Still in our lovely finery. Even today I can see us, getting up on this bloody wood. Got up the top, if we’d have known, we’d have taken something to sit on. So you sat on there, big lot of wood, black and burnt stuff. We finally got there. We climbed down and they sold the wood to the army camp there. “There’s the hall, girls.” In we went, everybody stopped and stared at us. Then comes this matron. Penny said “I didn’t know they had Land Army out here.” She came up “What are you girls doing in civilian clothes?” Stupid honest person said, “Well, we didn’t know there’d be any Land Army people here.” And she said “You must still be in uniform at all times. Anyway, by the way, get to the toilet and have a look at yourselves.”

“Anyway when we got there, we were black, we were filthy and our beautiful dresses were yuk. That’s what everybody was looking at and were laughing at. Anyway, we got out there and we never had such a good time, we never missed a dance I tell you. Everybody laughed, it was so hilarious. When it was time to go home, they’d sold the wood, we thought this was going to be good. Oh no, it wasn’t – all the dust and the bark. We had to sit like this all the way home with our hands over our eyes. Dear oh dear.

“But the next time we went, we used to put an old coat on and stay in our uniforms of course. Penny met Lenny Cox too, [not my relation] she’d known him for years before. She said “I don’t suppose you’d have some spare food.” He said “Come out, there’s a lovely water hole down there.” We used to go there and have a swim. He said “Come and have a swim one day.” She said, “If you can scrounge anything, bring some food.” Oh God you were hungry, you’d pick peaches, fruit all day and that’s all you got to eat. Anyway they came out, they brought us a stack of food and we’d have a really good feed. They used to ride their bikes and then off they’d go. And anyway, our employers were suspicious people [our employers], like two girls couldn’t be enjoying themselves without hanky-panky, you know. We were brought up different to that in those days. We were having a good time, it was just so nice.

“This went on and off going to the dances. But if you weren’t there, Gables would still go and sell their wood. His mother, Mrs Gable took a great shine to me. I said to Dad in a letter “I think she’s trying to tee me up with one of her sons, Dad.” Even I could see that. Dad used to write back and said, “You’d better make sure which one, first, the oldest or the youngest.” We kept in touch for years.

“That was my last job because my father was very ill. That’s why I had to go home in the first place, before we were finished. Dad was taken to hospital he was only 58. Anyway, got down there and he rallied through, but he died so I never went back of course. That was the end of my service but I’d done the three years, bar one week. That was my effort, big effort I tell you. And that’s why I’ve got skin like I have today. I was so fair with blotchy skin. I’ve had so many skin cancers cut out of me. All because you’re too young and stupid – but always wore a hat. We always wore a hat and had our sleeves but it was so hot I think sometimes we rolled our sleeves up. Some of them wore shorts and all on some of the places. They probably had better skin than I did. I knew how to look after mine. Dad always said “Must have a hat.” We had an army sort of a hat, like a khaki hat, slouch hat. Not with the slouch up but that type of hat. The uniform was very smart. I was sort of sorry it was over. But the first few years were so terrible, on your own. But when I went to the camp at Redland Bay. And they had a piano there too. We had a singsong at night and going around to the shop. Oh it was a big deal.

“Of course we got up to Wyberba. They were only a young couple and they had three sons, young sons. She used to yell at them. As I said we picked peaches all day and that’s mostly all we got to eat and she was a young person but she had three young children I suppose and they went to town once a fortnight or something. So they used to leave our lunch, sandwiches outside the door and a flask of tea. We never got inside the house. Anyway, it was Penny’s birthday. She said “Well, I’m not sitting out here on my birthday.” And she knew where the key was, we all knew where the key was, opened the door and in we went. “We’ll eat something that she won’t miss.” She made bacon, scrambled eggs and toast. Oh, it was lovely and never left a crumb. We cleaned everything up to perfection. They had a piano. Penny taught me how to play chopsticks. She was a good pianist and we had a good time. So she said “Well, we’ve had a good lunch out of this. We may as well go back to work.” I said, “We’d better before they get home.” Anyway, we locked everything. And she said “these rotten sandwiches, we’ll take them into the shack for afternoon tea or something.” The next time they went, the door, everything was locked and the key was gone. So she must have missed what we ate. Oh, they were mean people. Cause you worked hard and you were hungry. We used to eat the stewed peaches, we were so hungry. But that was our one and only, but that was Penny’s birthday. And we were friends till the day she died.”

When the war ended, Edith was no longer in the Land Army.

“Dad had died just before then and we were sort of busy and we were in a house with five bedrooms at the top of Venner Road. Just after Dad died his best friend Mick Morris, the butcher bought it over our head and we had to find somewhere and there was nowhere to go.

So we ended up at the Army camp up along Toohey Road. There right down to next street and right up to the end was the American Army Hospital and that’s what people had squatted in, you know. And when Mum found out where we were, well she was upset. But it was like a hut, but we were all right because there was a kitchen, in fact we made it quite nice. And by that time they were paying rent, like the Government had come and you paid so much for water and gas. And they had put in a bathroom, tin baths and showers. A copper so if you wanted a hot bath you went up and lit the copper. But it was very very good because, the people sort of worked together there. They were lovely people and if one lit the copper, they’d fill it up again and leave it going for the next one. We weren’t in each other’s place all the time but I always remember the lady over in the hut over the road, she had never been to my place. She came later and she looked in, we only had the lounge, the kitchen and two bedrooms. And she said, “That’s an ice chest.” And I said, “Yes.” She said, “From my place, it’s so highly polished, I thought it was some beautiful piece of furniture.” I said “There’s no room for it in the kitchen.” My sister can’t help polishing things. It wasn’t as bad as what it sounded. Mum quite enjoyed it then because there was a lot of people. They held all the meetings and dances. So she was sort of “Johnny on the spot” and she loved talking.

“At the end of the war Mum was very upset because she said “What a shame, Dad died before we found out Jimmy was a POW.” He was the thinnest man to live from Changi, 28 pound. Big my brothers were. My father was a big man. Jimmy was in the Independent Company attached to 26th, I don’t know if you’ve heard of Captain Burke’s Commandos. They hit ships and they blew up bridges. He was one of those so when they were finally caught, as he said “by a Malay friend” they give them hell. All he ever wanted to show you was his appendix scar because he had the operation on the table with no anaesthetic and they gave him a piece of wood to chew on and they held him down, and he was operated on by Weary Dunlop. He got his appendix out, and why he wanted you to have a look at the scar, it was only an inch long. What a wonderful doctor he was. He’d said, “You’d never believe that was an appendix operation, would you?”

“Mum was so excited and when they were coming, they were kept back, these that couldn’t walk. When he come home, I was taller than him. But he was only bones, you see and the Red Cross fattened them up for three months or something before they allowed them to come home and they were going along Ipswich Road. We must have still been in Venner Road, yes, along from Archerfield. They must have come by plane and they were coming by truck and they were stopping at all places where they had family and Mum and I were looking through the crowd, “I don’t know how to tell him, his father’s dead.” I said “Mum, don’t worry about it yet.” And we were looking through and this old man on two walking sticks, 24 year old, come around the corner “Mum, Edith, don’t you know me.” I shouldn’t tell you cause I want to cry every time I see it, think of it. He was a mess and that was months after the war was finished, you know. And Mum told him about Dad and he said “I’m sorry Mum, I can’t cry, I’ve seen too much death.” And that hurt Mum then. She thought he’d be so upset, you know. But later on she realised what he’d been through, but what hell they went through, we’ll never know, will we. And the skinny little arms, belt on pants done up, and my brother – I’ve got a photo of the two of them, great big men, next to him and Mum was in the centre. That was something, the saddest day of my life. He didn’t make old bones. He was only 55 when he died.”

In 1995 the Land Army was able to participate in the ANZAC Day march for the first time.

“Yes, that was the 50th anniversary. Yes I did march with them but we weren’t behind the school kids and we weren’t behind the ethnic groups. We were behind the AWAS or something. We did march for a while. And then it got to be only three of us turned up, Beryl Price, Barbara Carusi and myself. So we thought we’d give this away.

“The Land Army was good for me. It taught me to mix with people. I was always very shy. You wouldn’t believe that now. It taught me to work and keep quiet, never whinge when you’re on your own. And when you get into the company of those girls, that was the most wonderful thing for me. But I come from a big family so it was nice. Well, it put a patriotic feeling that I’ll never forget. Like I have pushed for the Land Army, and Australia Day I have my flag out. I love pomp and pageantry of anything I’m invited to, at Government House or Parliament. I love that. I love VP Day, Victory in the Pacific for all the men in New Guinea who beat the Japs from our shores. That was our war so I worked harder for that than ANZAC Day. That’s the RSL puts on ANZAC Day, the Australian Legion of Ex-Servicemen and Women put on the VP Day Victory in the Pacific, and I’ve worked for the Legion ever since. I was only in my 20s then and I’m 78 now so, over 50 years. I was spokesperson for the Queensland AWLA for 16 years and at least put the AWLA “on the map”.

(Edith Edwards was interviewed in February 2005).