Australian Women’s Land Army worker relished outdoor life
It said in a front page story: “Though the Australian Women’s Land Army was disbanded at the end of last year, there are still plenty of girls who like life down on the farm well enough to want to keep their wartime jobs.”
At Batlow in the Australian Alps, a fruit-growing centre, eight hostels housed 250 girls it said.
One of the Batlow girls pictured was Necia Emily Engdahl. Born in Narromine, 40 kilometres west of Dubbo, on November 6, 1919 she was the daughter of Swedish carpenter, Oscar Manfred Engdahl and his English wife, Susanah Hartley.
Her father came to Australia in 1912 to escape from appalling conditions at home in Sweden – four of his siblings died from TB. Susie Hartley came with her family from Manchester arriving in 1907 – her father had been offered a job as a compositor working with his cousin, who was a proprietor of the Farmer and Settler newspaper in Blackfriars.
After primary school, Necia attended Penshurst Domestic Science School for two years. She had been offered a place at St George High School, which her father refused to let her take up, saying “What’s the use of education – you’ll only get married.”
Family finances meant her schooling ended at the age of 14. Her first job was as a shop assistant and a variety of jobs followed through the Depression. At the outbreak of the Second World War she was working for the Egg Marketing Board as an egg candler – holding eggs up to the light to see if they were bad or spoiled.
The Australian Land Army, founded in 1942, seemed to offer the chance of adventure and she joined up in 1944. Letters home to her parents provide an insight into the nature of work the young women were to undertake.
From 1944 to 1946 she picked corn, tomatoes, peas and grapes. She dug potatoes and carrots, cut millet, hoed weeds out of a tennis court and burnt tree stumps to clear 20 acres of land.
In a letter of July 24, 1944 from Tharbogang Hostel, west of Griffith, to wish her “Dearest Dad” birthday wishes, she writes to say she seems to be working harder and harder every week.
She tells of spraying peaches in a rig-out of an old boiler suit stiff with oil, grease and spray with her hair in an old piece of cloth and an old felt hat. She says the hoses were thick and heavy and the spray pumped at 500 pounds pressure from an engine.
“Young Alf [apparently one of the few males around] is dressed similarly and we both look like a couple of hoboes. The horse that pulls this infernal machine is a B.M (translated that means a bloody marvel) … he trots down every alternate row with hardly a word having to be said to him.”
She writes of an occasion when they spilt the component of the spray, made by the Shell oil company, before it was mixed with water and scraping it up with kero tins before the farmer returned.
In another letter from Batlow she asks her dad to go to the 4th floor of David Jones to buy her a pair of bib and brace overalls.
“They advertise them in their catalogue as “glamouralls”- navy blue 21/9 [21 shillings and ninepence] … I’m sick of looking like a bag of chaff in these O.S [oversize] overalls I’ve got up here now,” she wrote.
She talks in another undated letter of a heavy fall of snow. “We have really seen snow now, it snowed all day last Wednesday and was quite deep everywhere and the Herald says we had 5 inches. We really had some fun with it too – we had snow fights, the men against the girls, and we got rolled in it and we were so wet we had to change our overalls at lunch time.”
From Batlow she wrote: “We’ve been picking Jonathan apples for three days and we’ve eaten all the profits – they are such luscious big apples – you never see the like in Sydney.”
As her father predicted, she did get married – to Clem Combe on June 30, 1947 at Hurstville Registry Office. He worked at the University of Sydney in the Department of Electrical Engineering as a senior laboratory technician for more than 15 years. They had five children in the seven years from 1949 to 1956
Daughter Linda Combe said: “When I was home from school sick I would hear Mum singing the songs she had danced to in her youth, including If You Were the Only Girl in the World, while she did her housework. On those mornings, I discovered that Mum had moved the dial from the serious ABC radio station, 2FC, to 2UE to hear Andrea.”
“Andrea” was considered to be the first lady of the airwaves and became probably Australia’s first woman talkback presenter in 1967. She dispensed a mixture of worldly wisdom and horse sense. “Hello, Mums and Dads”, uttered in her trademark deep, resonant voice — a result of rupturing a vocal cord while a prisoner of war and of years of smoking.
Necia Combe loved poetry and history, and like many of her generation she could recite word perfect reams of poetry. Necia stayed in her own home at Randwick until the age of 90. Her husband had died in 1970. He was nearly a generation older than her.
Her name was included in a booklet published by the Australian War Memorial in 2012 to mark the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the Australian Women’s Land Army. It listed 237 surviving members who registered to receive the commemorative brooch produced by the government to honour their service.
Necia Combe 1919 – 2019.
Tim Barlass is a Senior Writer for The Sydney Morning Herald