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Marrickville women at war

1943 and Australia is at war. Service men and women from all over Sydney and NSW transit through Addison Road Army Depot in Marrickville. Local women, men and children are subject to nightly ‘black-outs’ and food rationing. Their loved ones are fighting around the world and on our doorstep in Papua New Guinea. 

But there is another war being fought in our garage – Carrington Road, Marrickville.

It would lead to the longest industrial strike of the WW2. It would threaten a Government and strain the rule of law. It would also expose the divide between rich and poor in a country seemingly united in the fight for democracy.

This war was between a group of working-class women, many of whom were conscripted factory workers, and Gwynneth Cassidy and nine other ‘volunteer workers’. Ostensibly this war was over compulsion to join a union but underlying this was the fight for a living wage and equal pay for women.

Historically, working class women had worked inside and outside the home to support their families. Some had earned a reasonable income but this was rare and most had not.  (See our story ‘A hidden life’ about Charlotte (Meek) Fairbairn, Marrickville’s first Post Office Manager.) 

Middle-class women often didn’t need to work outside the home for financial reasons and may even have had other women doing the work inside their home. 

Women, in general, were seen as being unable to do the work that men could. This was either because it was thought they did not have the physical attributes or because it was not socially acceptable. If women did non-domestic work they were expected to do simple work because they would certainly leave to marry and have children and so could not be relied upon. Marrying and having children, the domestic realm, was seen as the true vocation of women.

Industrialisation changed this situation in many ways. More women entered the paid workforce, working in non-traditional roles, and acquiring skills needed to operate complex machinery.  By 1911 just over 28% of Australia’s industrial workforce was made up of women. Marrickville had many factories such as Vicars Woollen Mills, which employed hundreds of women.

However, the domestic realm still ruled supreme and at the end of WW1 many women were encouraged back to traditional female roles so society could get back to ‘normal’. But following on from the suffrage movement many women who wanted or needed to continue in their occupations began to assert themselves in the industrial union movement and sought a living wage and equal pay with men.

The Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW, 1902. Kate Dwyer seated front row far right, her sisters Annie and Belle Golding are in the centre of the picture with arms linked, Freeman Studio, Sydney.
Photo: State Library of NSW ON 219 (96)

One such woman was Kate Dwyer who lived in Annandale Street, Annandale. Kate had grown up in Broken Hill but moved to Sydney with her husband in 1894 when he took a job as headmaster of Marrickville West Public School.  

Kate was a leader in the fight for female suffrage as a member of the Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW. Then with Elizabeth Flanagan she formed the Women Workers Union to organise and represent women working as ‘sweated’ labour. These women were terribly exploited, working very long hours for low pay, often in their own homes or in small enterprises. It should be noted that sweat shops have been a feature of working life in the Inner West right up to the present time. 

In 1918 a Board of Trade was established to enquire into workers’ lives and then set a minimum wage. The Board set a “living wage” of 30 shillings (7½ pence per hour) for women compared to 60 shillings for men. Their enquiry had been thorough, deciding that women should spend 16s on board and lodging, 8s and 6 pence on clothing, boots, and toilet requisites and 5s and 4p on everything else. There was universal dissatisfaction on the workers’ side and a belief that the wage should be less from the employers.

Kate Dwyer explains the difference between a living wage and a minimum wage.
Image: The Tweed Daily 19/12/1918, Page 3. https://trove.nla.gov.au

Fast forward to 1943. Australia was again at war and again a board was determining women’s wages. Almost 25 years after the Board of Trade decision its successor, the Commonwealth Arbitration Court, was setting women’s wage rates at around 54% of the minimum male rate.

But, the Curtin government had established the Women’s Employment Board (WEB) to ensure that women workers who were replacing men in service would receive a wage that wouldn’t undermine the rates set for men.

The WEB could set wage rates between 60% and 90% of men’s rates depending on the industry. However, the application of these rates often depended on a willing employer or a strong union to try and enforce them. 

The Marrickville company Duly & Hansford (D&H) on Carrington Road had expanded from the production of nuts and bolts and car parts to munitions at the beginning of the war. By 1942 the munitions section, known as the annexe, was working three 8-hour shifts per day seven days a week. The majority of the workers were female and had been conscripted to work in the factory under special government provisions.

Young women workers at Duly & Hansford 1942. We have very little information about these women other than Patricia Cunningham O’Harte, at the back on the right. There is no evidence that they were among the strikers.
If you have details of any of them please let us know.
Photo: Copyright Peter Woodley. No copying without permission.

Besides the odd hours (i.e. 3pm to 11pm or 11pm to 7am) the work was dirty. D&H did not provide suitable clothing, so the women needed to buy their own. On top of this they were not being paid the rate of 90% of the men’s rate that had been determined by the WEB. Tensions were simmering.   

Added to this situation were ten volunteers. Nine women and one man had volunteered via the National Service Office to work in support of the war effort and had been assigned to D&H. Almost immediately Gwynneth Cassidy became their leader and spokesperson. 

Mrs Cassidy could not have been more different from the women she mixed with at D&H. She had attended Kambala Girls School and in 1925, aged 20, toured the USA and Europe. In England she had been presented at court during the king’s birthday celebrations. On returning to Australia she had married barrister Jack Cassidy, KC and set about a life of domesticity, golf and charity work. Her chauffeur drove her to work at D&H each day.

Also in the group were two women known to Mrs Cassidy and the woman they shared as their ‘casual domestic’, Peggy Barnes. Besides this happy coincidence, the Cassidy’s lived on the same street as Arthur Duly in Darling Point. Both Jack and Arthur were in the same lodge and Jack Cassidy had represented Arthur Duly in court.

In February 1943, 89 unionised women workers at D&H went on strike to claim the 90% rate. D&H were only paying them 66%.  At the Arbitration Court they won their case. D&H were told to pay but did not do so immediately, saying it was hard to figure out who was eligible as the legislation was complicated. The company finally deciding to pay 300 women workers about 30 pounds each as back pay.

The final straw came in April when the ten volunteers were asked or ordered to join their related union. They refused and on 3 May women workers in the munitions annexe went on strike. The volunteers stated they did not support compulsion to join a union and particularly opposed strikes as unpatriotic in a time of war. The workers said that it was wrong for them to reap the benefits of union activity without contributing to it by membership. In the Arbitration Court proceedings that were to follow, Mrs Cassidy would say that she thought the workers (including herself) were overpaid.

The strike escalated so that by the first of June 1000 D&H workers had gone out and the women had established a picket line which the volunteers crossed each day. 

When the case went to the Arbitration Court the judge declared the strike illegal under the National Security Act. However, instead of forcing all workers back to work as expected, the judge referred the matter to the Prime Minister.

The strike had now entered the national arena and become a political issue. The government got a grilling in parliament from the opposition United Australia Party and was accused of being supportive of the strikers and ignoring their own laws. The major newspapers, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Daily Telegraph took the side of the volunteers and condemned the strikers and the government.

The end finally came when the government advised D&H that unless they could find a resolution all war contracts would be cancelled and they would close down the munitions annexe.

Duly & Hansford asked the volunteers to leave, which they did. They requested release from their contracts saying that they were “putting production before principle”. On the 22 July 1943 the striking women and their supporters returned to work. They would all lose their jobs in December 1945 with the end of government contracts and the closure of the munitions annexe. 

“Down With Strikes” The Daily Telegraph 20/7/1943 Page 7. Gwynneth is recorded as Mrs J(ack) E(velyn) Cassidy. https://trove.nla.gov.au

The strike had lasted more than 10 weeks and cost over 300,000 work hours, almost as many as the 387,000 hours lost in the entire country in 1942. The federal election in August 1943 saw the return of the Curtin government. 

We don’t have any information on the later lives of women who took part in the strike, they remain hidden.

But in 1944 Gwynneth Cassidy and her husband, Jack, were involved in the establishment of the Liberal Party of Australia and took roles as executive officers of the NSW Division.  

Mrs Cassidy also continued her charity work, especially with the Red Cross and in 1964 was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire for community service. In 1968 she became Lady Cassidy after her husband, Jack, was knighted. This was ironic as the women workers at D&H had called her “Lady Cassidy” during her time with the company.  

Today it is difficult to decipher all the information available to find what is now called the gender pay gap. However, the Australian Government Workplace Gender Equality Agency calculates that the gap currently sits at 13.4%.

Rod Aanensen


Download an e-book on Carrington Road’s industrial past written by Louisa King and Ali Wright from the Inner West Council website.

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