• Tairāwhiti WW2 Memories: work on the home front

Tairāwhiti WW2 Memories: work on the home front

7 May, 2020     SHARE:

Tairāwhiti WW2 Memories: work on the home front

Although all communities faced the issues of maintaining essential services, rural districts like Gisborne also faced the problem of supply of farm labour.  An editorial in 1939 summarised this dilemma, which continued throughout the war.

With possibly a few minor exemptions, the most essential occupation at the present time is on the land, yet a majority of the recruits who have so far offered their services are farm workers; the army is vying with public works in competition for labour that should be left on the farms. Bound up with the question of recruiting, therefore, is the whole organisation of man-power and this should be taken in hand without further delay.[1]

It was not just the large stations which faced a manpower problem, but smaller family farms. A typical situation was that of a widow who appealed against her son’s call up on the grounds that otherwise her farm could not be carried on.  The work included milking a herd of 34 cows and miscellaneous farming. The reservist stated on his own behalf that he was anxious to serve, but he did not see how the farm could be carried on without his aid.[2]

Towards the end of 1941 it was decided to form a Women’s Land Corps to help meet the shortage of male workers.[3] But in Gisborne district the idea of farmers employing land girls during the war has not “taken on,” and so far no applications have been received from farmers for the few girls who have offered their services with the Women’s War Service Auxiliary.  This may have been because women had not waited to join the Corps, but were already at work – It is known that many women and girls throughout the Gisborne and East Coast districts are doing valuable work on farms and stations. Two girls in the upper part of the East Coast are engaged as shepherds and with their own teams of dogs, while in other parts women are doing work that their menfolk did before they were absorbed in the armed forces.[4] During a recruiting drive for the Women’s Land Service later that year it was pointed out that at least 40 girls … were engaged on the land by their parents, but as they were not part of the service they were not eligible for the clothing allowance.[5]

In November 1942 the Gisborne District Council of Primary Production advised that high school boys, male teachers and students would be available for farm labour, freezing works, woolstores and canneries.  Boy scouts could also be employed if conditions were suitable.[6]

A supply of skilled shearers was an ongoing seasonal issue, and in 1942 the release of men from military camps during the shearing season was suggested.[7] After an application by the district man-power officer, 23 men who were required for work during the. shearing season in the Gisborne district were recommended for release from camp until January 15, 1943.[8]

Territorials were also mobilised to assist with farm work.  In December 1943 it was reported that 20 have been mobilised so far, and all are fully employed on farms, mainly with the hay harvest, which is particularly heavy, and with maize weeding, while from now on the grass-seed harvest will require men in increasing numbers as the first of the operations take place. A further batch of 25 men will be mobilised for harvest work next month, 10 on January 4 and 15 on January 11, the purpose of calling the men up in small numbers being to maintain a continual supply of men. Sixty school teachers and students so far have been directed into industry, farming and other essential undertakings by the man-power office in Gisborne for the holiday period, while consideration also is being given to a further number known to be available.[9]

Although workers in reserved occupations were exempt from service not all workers regarded by their employers as essential were regarded in the same way by the government.  Of a total of 1610 enrolments in August 1940, only 105 were considered to be in reserved occupations.[10] Evidence of the struggles of firms to retain skilled workers can be seen in the appeals lodged with the Gisborne Armed Forces Appeal Board..

Sometimes it was the war time situation which had made the job more important, as was the case in the appeal for the release from camp of a vulcanizer to assist in a tyre-retreading business application. Due to the acute shortage of tyres in the district, retreading had greatly increased. There were so many tyres to be retreaded that he was 80 tyres behind. A trained man was necessary for the job, as faulty workmanship would ruin a tyre, and consequently would cause a wastage of rubber.[11]

Apart from the person concerned or his employer, appeals could also be lodged by others – for instance, parents –  on the grounds of personal hardship.  In addition, the Director of National Service had the right of appeal if he considered  that calling up for se the reservist for service was contrary to the public interest.  This was the case in a hearing in Gisborne in 1944 when the Director of National Service appealed the call-up of eleven men – two shearers, five shepherds, a farm labourer, a dairy farm hand, a carpenter, and a fish-hand.  The Primary Production Council was also given the right to sponsor appeals for the retention of skilled station workers.  This right was exercised in the case of a young farmer from Hicks Bay, who was appealed for by the Primary Production Council against his own wishes. The Armed Forces Appeal Board granted the council’s appeal, and the reservist accordingly is obliged to stay in. his present job.[12]

It was not uncommon for workers to object to appeals against their service – in 1942 four appeals were lodged by the Kia Ora Co-operative Dairy Company, but two of the men they were trying to retain objected, saying that they wished to serve.  One of them thought women workers could be employed in his job during wartime.  However the company secretary said he did not consider it possible for women to do the work of men.[13] The manager of the Red Bus Service did think it was possible, and he stated that he was training women to take the place of men in driving the buses. He did not intend to appeal for any of his drivers, but he did not think a woman could replace his only mechanic.[14]

Gisborne women also trained as drivers for the Red Cross Transport Service, set up to assist the army.[15]In June 1943 the Corps made 102 trips in their cars, carrying 186 soldiers for a mileage of 929, making a total of 435 trips carrying 684 soldiers with a mileage of 4361.[16] After five years of operation, the section has made an aggregate of 5332 trips, carrying a total of 9352 service personnel over a total distance of 50,859 miles.[17]

The increased importance of women in the Gisborne workforce was demonstrated when a deputation representing the Retailers’ Association sought the co-operation of the Chamber of Commerce in protesting to the Government against the calling up of women. The position regarding the call-up of women by the man-power authorities for work in a tobacco factory, was outlined ….. 25 young women were to leave the district in the course of the next few weeks. Strong opposition was taken by employers to the further drain on their staffs, which, through the loss of male employees, already had been taxed to the limit. With the loss of women who had been trained to fill the positions vacated by men and women, to the services, and the prospect of others being called for essential work, employers were faced with relying upon young and inexperienced boys and girls to replace trained and experienced workers who had been filling the already strained staffs…..The man-power authorities were calling up women between the ages of 21 and 31, which made the position worse as these were the women most fitted to carry on the work previously done by men.[18]

By 1946 the employment situation for women had changed yet again.  In the Gisborne Post Office, women who during the war replaced many of the men called up for service in the various branches of the Post and Telegraph Department, have now almost entirely disappeared from the public view in the Chief Post Office, Gisborne. Employed in practically every branch of the post office during the mid-years of the war, when the department’s man-power had been almost bled white, women proved that they could do many of the jobs which previously had been looked upon solely as a man’s sphere of activity….. The mail room was one of the most affected branches in Gisborne, and April, 1942, saw the first women postman on the rounds in Gisborne. From then, until early this year they became familiar figures, doing their rounds in all types of weather. Four women “posties” were employed in Gisborne during the war, but when men returned they resigned from the service, the last leaving early this year to get married.[19]

– Christine Page, Museum Archivist

[1] The Gisborne Herald 24 November 1939

[2] The Gisborne Herald 28 November 1940

[3] The Gisborne Herald 10 November 1941

[4] The Gisborne Herald 9 May 1942

[5] The Gisborne Herald 7 November 1942

[6] The Gisborne Herald 13 November 1942

[7] The Gisborne Herald 29 June 1942

[8] The Gisborne Herald 24 October 1942

[9] The Gisborne Herald 23 December 1943

[10] The Gisborne Herald 22 August 1940

[11] The Gisborne Herald 15 July 1942

[12] The Gisborne Herald 22 November 1944

[13] The Gisborne Herald 4 June 1942

[14] The Gisborne Herald 17 July 1942

[15] The Gisborne Herald 17 May 1941

[16] The Gisborne Herald 12 July 1943

[17] The Gisborne Herald 5 April 1947

[18] The Gisborne Herald 20 October 1943

[19] The Gisborne Herald 11 October 1946


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