Muriel Bath

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Muriel Bath (nee Beresford) was born in England on 24 August 1908. She migrated to Australia with her family at a very young age. She trained as a stenographer, joined the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS) during World War II and was one of the first policewomen in the Queensland Police Force, joining in 1947. This is her story:

“I trained as a shorthand typist in Sydney after I left school. My father had recently left my mother. So my mother had to keep the family together, which she did. She was a wonderful woman, but she didn’t go out to work so we all had to work and we gave our mother some of our money for board. That’s how she paid the rent and the bills and bought the food. So when I left school, I had to get a job. I hadn’t been trained for anything. My mother got a job for me in a copying company for nothing, for nothing! The business was owned by a woman, she called it “the Copying Company”. She had a big Gestetner, a copying machine and to make copies she used to put ink over this machine and it had this big roller on it. She put all these pages on to it and then you turned the handle and this cylinder went around and the copies went up and you got all these copies. You could turn out hundreds that way.

“She taught me typing and I did everything around the office. She paid for me to have one hour of shorthand per day. When she became pregnant she found me another job in a warehouse, Sargood Brothers in Sydney and in what they called the waiting lines. People would come into the warehouse and they would select things and they could take them away with them. But they would come down to the waiting lines, where I was. I had to wrap the things up, make an invoice and get the money from them. I’d put it in to a cylinder and put it on a chain thing on the wall and pulled a bit of wire and the thing went round and up, right up to the top where there was a woman sitting at a desk and she’d collect it and take the invoice and the money out and then she’d put the change in and the receipted invoice, put it in the cylinder and send it back down to me and I’d get it and I’d give them their change and their parcel, which I had wrapped up in brown paper. Well this drove me mad, it was an awful job. I’d been there a few months but I was getting paid a pound a week whereas I wasn’t getting anything in the other place.

“Anyway, a neighbour came in one day who lived opposite us and I never knew what he did for a living. But he used to travel selling office things. He told me about a job going in a solicitor’s office paying 25 shillings a week so after an interview I went to work for him. I changed jobs a few times to improve my situation.”

Muriel joined the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Services in December 1942, leaving it on 26th August 1946.

“I had been working with this big firm for 15 years and I was secretary to a doctor of laws there. The war came and they were calling for women and the man I was going to marry was an officer on a ship. He was in the Malta convoy. There were about 54 ships in the Atlantic and Malta was under blockade. It was 13th August 1942, and this convoy was going to Malta taking supplies for the people there and they were dive-bombed and he went down with the ship. Soon after that, it appeared in the paper that they were forming the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service and they wanted women. So I applied and I discussed it with my mother and I discussed with my boss, the doctor of laws and they were reluctant to let me go. After an interview and a medical, I got notification that I was to appear at HMAS Penguin which was Balmoral Naval Depot, Sydney on a certain date, on a Monday to enrol for duty. So then I had to go and tell the staff manager. One of the principles, Mr Simpson, was very upset that I was joining. I said to him “Mr Simpson, I want to do my bit for the war effort.” He said “You are doing your bit for the war effort because we handle war contracts.” “Oh no Mr Simpson, that is not enough for me.” “Well you will be wasted in the WRANS. They’ll have you filling ink wells.”

“So I went into the WRANS and after I’d been there over a year, I was sent down to Flinders Naval Depot to do an officers training course and in due course I became an officer and I was sent up to Brisbane to HMAS Moreton. On my first leave I went down to Sydney and I went into the office wearing my uniform. Everybody came to see me. Mr Simpson asked to see me. I went in and he made me walk up and down. He admired the uniform, he said how well it suited me and I sat down. I knew what he was up to. He said to me “And what work are you doing there?” And I suppose I was a cat but I said “Mr Simpson, I am not filling ink wells. I am handling top secret material. I am a cipher officer.” “I should think so too,” he said. He was quite happy then. So he said “Of course you know you’re coming back to us when the War is over.” I said “Yes Mr Simpson.” But of course I didn’t go back. I went into the police force instead.

“I came out of the Navy at the end of August 1946 and I worked for a few weeks in Brisbane for a law firm and then my mother got ill and I went back to Sydney. Before I heard of my mother’s illness, I had been approached to apply for a position with the women police here and I applied and then my mother became ill. So I told the chief policewoman, Miss Elizabeth Boyle, that I would not be able to proceed with my application because I was going to Sydney and I didn’t think I’d be coming back to Brisbane. My mother died and I was not going to come back to Brisbane but I became very ill because I adored my mother and my doctor persuaded me to enquire of the police position was still available. So I contacted Miss Boyle and she said she’d kept the position open for me and when would I like to start. So that’s how I came to join the women police.

“When I joined there was a chief policewoman and there were six policewomen there and there was one policewoman at Roma Street, Eileen O’Donnell. There was Mary Spence, Eileen Taylor, Laura Frisch, Joan McKenna and Dulcie Bock. Six women police there and Miss Boyle made the seventh at the Branch and then Eileen O’Donnell at Roma Street.”

Muriel started work with the police on 3 February 1947 and left in May 1948, just before she married. When she started, she didn’t think she’d last a month.

“I found the work rather harrowing. I think I had led a sheltered life up till then because I came from an ordered family and everything worked like clockwork. I was always busy and my working life was ordered and went along calmly. But when I joined the police force, I couldn’t get used to the harrowing stories I heard and, it used to sort of weigh on me and I thought, “I won’t be able to last a month out. There’s no way I can last out a month.” But anyway I thought, “I’ll keep on.” And then at the end of the month, I suppose I had got used to it. And it didn’t worry me after that. But that first month was terrible. I had never experienced anything like it.

“I’d hear about people being murdered and violence among people and things that happened to girls and women. And in those days, a lot of young girls had babies. And that really shook me up. But apparently I had a flair for that because I think I got more than my share of being involved with young girls who had babies.

“I was kind to them. I remember one in particular. She was only 14 and she lived on a dairy farm up the north coast somewhere. I was working with the detectives and they took me out to interview her and she’d had this baby. We went to the dairy farm and we saw her and her mother and grandmother. Grandmother had an enormous safety pin across there and her hair was all long and matted and she was trying to make out that she didn’t know Betty was pregnant. I said to her “But you must have known Betty was pregnant. Couldn’t you see that she was getting fat?” And she said “Oh yes, but I thought that was because she was drinking so much condensed milk.” Which tickled me, on a dairy farm! Condensed milk! But that was grandma’s story and she stuck to it.

“I saw Betty when she was in hospital, just after she had the baby – poor downtrodden girl she was. I said to her, “You know, Betty, you have beautiful hair. If you were to wash and brush it, it would be simply glorious.” She burst into tears and said “That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.” That poor girl. She went to a shelter at Toowong, I think it was called St Mary’s, where they sent girls and from there they disposed of the baby. Some time after, I had actually left the police force, I was married, I was walking down Adelaide Street one day and this young woman walked toward me and I was taken by her hair. It was fair, and I thought – isn’t that hair beautiful and she was beautifully dressed. When she got close to me, she came up and spoke to me and she said “Oh, Miss Beresford,” and I looked at her and I said “Oh, it’s Betty isn’t it?” and she said “Yes.” “Oh Betty you look simply beautiful. I was struck by your hair but you’re beautifully dressed. Are you working?” And she said “Oh yes I have a job atShingle Inn.” I said “You really look beautiful” and she said “Well I have you to thank for that.” I felt quite pleased when I walked away that in my own small way I had accomplished something.

“They couldn’t get out of Betty who was responsible. She told the detectives all sorts of fibs. She tried it on with me and at last I said to her “Now look Betty, forget all the fibs you’re telling,” I said “It was the dairy farmer, wasn’t it?” And she said “How did you know?” Yes it was the damn dairy farmer and he was married with a family. When we were going up to court, the detectives said to me “Be sure you get Betty to say that the farmer had ‘sexual intercourse’ with her.” I’ll never forget it. It was the first time I’d heard the expression myself. So I got to work on Betty going up to the court and when we got there the proceedings are going on and the barrister for the other side said “Betty, who told you to say ‘sexual intercourse’?” and she pipes up “Miss Beresford.” So I said to the detectives after, “Oh I felt terrible when Betty told them that I’d told her to say it.” And they said “We were very pleased because it showed she was speaking the truth.”

“I was working with the CI Branch in Elizabeth Street near Queens Park. The men were very good toward the women because they appreciated what we did. We girls all did shorthand and typing. Some of the men couldn’t make out proper statements themselves and we always worked with them and we would arrange it so that it, it was grammatical and read well. Otherwise some of it was inclined to be not proper English. We also went with them when they had to interview a woman or a girl and we’d go with them when women had to be searched at the watch house and things like that and we’d go on jobs with them.

“On one occasion they had been trying for a long long time to get a sly grog seller and they knew this fellow and they knew he was as guilty as could be but they had never been able to catch him. So this night they took me out with them. There were several of them and one of the detectives was told to look after me whatever happened. I was dressed casually and one of the young detectives was dressed casually and we were passing ourselves off as a young couple. He had his arm around me and giving me a squeeze as we got near this place. Of course this was before mobile phones and we had to go in and see if there was any sly grog and see if we could buy any. If we were successful, when we got outside I was to stand under the nearest lamp and powder my nose. So we went into this awful place and the fellow sold us this stuff. Then we got outside, we went under the light which was quite near and I brought out a powder puff and was dabbing my nose like that and then the detectives closed in. One detective grabbed me and took me and put me in a car right away from the business and the others went and they got him.

“Well, they were so elated at their success they got a bit over themselves I think. They decided to go after another fellow they had been after for a long time, using me and my “boyfriend” as a decoy. But I had a strange feeling. I said to them “I have a feeling this won’t come off. Please don’t do it tonight. I’m sure it will not be successful.” “Oh, yes it will,” they said. “You’ve done so well, we’ve been after this fellow for ages and you’ve got him etc. No we’ll try this fellow.” “Well I still have great misgivings.” However, they proceeded and the “boyfriend” and I went along, cuddling each other again. We got to this awful place and the fellow appeared. He walked around us and he gave us such a thump in the back and he said “Coppers! Both of you” so it didn’t come off.

“When I first started there, they brought out their “rogue’s gallery”, albums with photographs of women and girls who’d been naughty. They said to me “Now try and remember some of these pictures because when we go out on patrol, keep an eye open, you might see some of them.” So I’m looking through all of these in all my innocence and there’s a photograph there of an elderly woman and I said “Oh, hasn’t she a lovely face.” I said “She just looks like somebody’s dear old grandmother.” And they went into fits of laughter and said “She’s about the slickest a shoplifter in Brisbane.” There were some really funny people. And I tell you what used to go on quite a bit – incest. It was absolutely incredible. There was one case where the man was in the Air Force. He wasn’t a flyer. I think he worked on the ground. He had a wife and several daughters and when he came on leave, he interfered with a daughter until in the end the wife got so upset about it, she reported him to the police. I never heard what happened to him but I was told that that was quite common.

“I had no training. The only training I had was being shown these photographs and they told me the work I’d have to do with the detectives and that was all, if you can call that training. That’s all I ever did and I think that’s all any of the others ever did. We wore plain clothes and we used to dress beautifully. We wore hats. We carried very nice handbags and we always wore gloves. And we were paid the same as the men. We got a plain clothes allowance. It was a very good job.

“We patrolled the shops and the cinemas and the cafes. We walked around the streets and we had our eyes open all the time for people shoplifting or doing something else that they shouldn’t be doing. We also had our eyes open for anyone whose photograph we had seen in the “rogues gallery”. The time went very quickly. We went out on patrol every day and we only went out two at a time. There were always policewomen left at the Branch to help the detectives take statements or go with detectives somewhere. I got to like the work quite well and they were a very nice lot of men and they treated us all with great respect.

“I became a firm friend of one of the policewomen in particular, Dulcie Bock because she was like me. She was an ex-service girl. She had recently come out of the Army. So she and I had a lot in common. We remained firm friends until she died a few years ago. She married a very nice fellow who was in the motor cycle squad there. Another of the policewomen Eileen Taylor married a detective named Todhunter and Mary Spence married an inspector. Norma Frisch was the daughter of an inspector. I don’t think she ever married. And the other one, Joan McKenna went to Sydney and I don’t know what happened to Eileen O’Donnell from Roma Street.

“We used to come across some peculiar women and on one occasion I went with detectives. They were going to take an old woman, who simply could not look after herself and had no one to look after her, to Eventide. Her place was filthy and she was filthy. She had several cats and she had saucers set out for the cats with mince on them and those saucers were as white as snow. She looked after things for the cats, but she was so dirty herself. She refused to leave the place and they had to take her to Eventide. The detectives were just about desperate and she threw her arms around a post there and she would not let go and the detectives couldn’t get her away from that. But I did it. I tickled her under the arms. She brought both her arms down. The men grabbed her and put her in a car and took her to Eventide. When we got there the matron said to me “You deserve the George medal.” She said “My hat, doesn’t she smell.” And she put the woman in a carbolic bath. Terrible isn’t it.

“I went to the watch house on very many occasions to search women. We had to make sure that they didn’t have anything that they could damage themselves with. We always took a belt or shoelaces or anything like that. I never used to touch their clothes because some of them were filthy. I used to just make them undress. I used to start from the top, make them take the frock off and shake it well, let me see the inside of it and do that with every garment. Then I’d allow them to put the garments back on. But there was no way I would touch them. They were so dirty.

“A lot of them came in drunk and a lot of them pursuing men. There were a lot of palms growing up not very far from the CI Branch and in the gardens and they used to say – “It was behind the palms for two shillings.”

“Each policewoman had to be on call. We had a roster, one night a week so that if the detectives had a case concerning a female at some ungodly hour, they could call on whoever was on roster to go with them. They called me out on a number of occasions but fortunately I didn’t live far from the CI Branch at that time. I lived in a private hotel in Melbourne Street, South Brisbane so I just used to walk over the Melbourne Street bridge and along to Elizabeth Street and there was the CI Branch so they didn’t have to go far to get me. They’d come and call me out in the early hours. I’d go with them to whatever was happening with a female.”

“I would have hung on to the job but my husband came along and I had a whirlwind courtship. We arranged for our wedding at St Johns Cathedral and it was going to be a night wedding. There’s a rhyme that goes ‘Monday for wealth, Tuesday for health, Wednesday the best day of all, Thursday for losses, Friday for crosses, Saturday no day at all.’ So Jim chose Wednesday, being the ‘best day of all’. The wedding was timed for 7 o’clock that evening and the cars didn’t turn up. We found out later they had us down for June instead of May. So my brother-in-law with a neighbour ran all around Annerley until they found two black & white cabs. So I went to St Johns Cathedral in a black & white cab. It was not legal to be married after 8 o’clock at night. And we were declared ‘man and wife’ at five to eight. So that’s how our photograph came to be on the front page of The Courier-Mail the next day.”

When Muriel married she had to resign from the police force, which she didn’t mind.

“It didn’t trouble me because it was the accepted thing everywhere that a married woman did not work. In fact people would not have employed a married woman. See it’s so different today but in those days, when a girl married, that was it. She was out of the paid work force.”

(Muriel Bath was interviewed in October 2007).

Muriel Bath died 3 March 2010.