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‘Remembering the Women’ – The wives of soldier settlers in New South Wales after World War One

Selena Williams is an Archivist and Research Assistant working on the Australian Research Council Linkage Project Soldier Settlement: ‘A Land fit for Heroes’?

The Woman in Red

Australian rural history has essentially been the history of men. Yet the economic survival of farms and particularly those settled by returned soldiers after World War One was dependent on the work on the farm being undertaken by both husband and wife.  A wife’s contribution to the farm was vital, not only inside the home but outside as well.  Nevertheless this was in many ways seen as secondary to the work undertaken by their husbands.

Invisible women

State Records NSW holds thousands of files generated by the Department of Lands and the Returned Soldiers Settlement Board after World War One.  Yet, with only a few exceptions, these files do not mention how the women in the family contributed to the economic survival of the farm and the general well-being of the family, albeit as wife, mother or daughter.  This has been due in some part to farming being traditionally defined as typically Australian with the farmer tough and strong – a bushman and country man. This patriarchal definition of farming therefore places a divide between the public one of the farm and the private one of the home and family, contributing to the stories of women married to soldier settlers being unwritten, undisclosed and unacknowledged.

Shadows on Frost

Searches through many hundreds of boxes of archival documents tell of the difficult circumstances of the husband on his block … his struggles with debt, the death of stock, floods, drought or pests, with limited reference to the women in the family or what they did on the farm, day by day.  Occasionally, requests for financial support were directed to the Department of Lands by the settler himself – asking for financial support for his wife and children.  Only occasionally, are the individual voices of wives or mothers of soldier settlers heard in the files. This may have occurred when they wrote to the Department on behalf of a husband or son who was working away from the block, who was ill, or illiterate.

Finding their voices

Life was not easy for most women living on a soldier settlement block and this is exemplified in the following brief accounts.  The wife of William John Rutledge (who was judged to be lazy by the Closer Settlement Board) was ‘the mainstay of the block – without her help they would be in dire circumstances’.[1]  Jessie Robertson was another, she intended continuing on their block alone after her husband died from war wounds in 1926.  In 1927 when money was short, she said,

‘I (am) compelled to meet pressing accounts out of my own slender private resources’.[2]

Amy, the wife of Benjamin Sweetland whose health was far from normal due to his war injuries, had power of attorney so that she could handle their farming affairs.[3] Another wife of a soldier settler, Jessie Sheldon wrote in 1924 while her husband was in hospital receiving treatment for war wounds,

‘I, with my little baby am keeping the home fires burning’.[4]

So, while the number of these voices are limited, with much of the detail of their life and stories remaining undisclosed, it is clear that these women were strong, resilient and resourceful and that their contribution to the running of the farm vital to its survival.

Soldiers' Settlement - Kentucky

These stories are a few of the many thousands, but they indicate so much about the contribution of women on a soldier settlement block.  It is hoped that now as there is more access to archival documentation about soldier settlement created after World War One that more similar stories will be revealed about the contribution of these women to soldier settlement blocks.  Their lives in the years after World War One as the wives of returned soldiers was also at times difficult due to the ongoing and long term physical and mental injuries suffered by many of their husbands during the war.  This created for many women an added burden.  The work by these women on soldier settlement blocks will therefore be continually recognised and acknowledged as a vital part of Australian rural history.

[1] SRNSW: Returned Soldiers Settlement Loan Files, NRS 8058, William John Rutledge, [12/6971 No. 3918]

[2] Ibid, Loan file, Edye Robertson, [12/6876 No. 2514]

[3] Ibid, Loan file Benjamin Sweetland, [12/6968 No. 3862]

[4] Ibid, Loan file Lionel Sheldon, [12/6889 No. 2866]