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Think Piece – The War Widows Guild SA turns 70

Thursday 7 January, 2016

GE DIGITAL CAMERAThis year marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of The War Widows’ Guild of South Australia. There are some low level events planned to mark this milestone.

Many may not be aware of the history of the Guild and the place it has in South Australia’s, and indeed Australia’s, military history.

I became aware of the Guild a few years after my husband died in 2001. I attended General Meetings at the Guild for a while, and then was asked if I would like to join the Committee, later becoming President; a role I really enjoy.

The War Widows’ Guild was formed across Australia through the leadership of Mrs Jessie Vasey. Her husband General George A. Vasey, cared not only about his men, but also about the widows and orphans of his soldiers. When he was killed in an air accident in 1946, Jessie was determined to carry on the work her husband had begun.

The broad aims of the Guild were “to watch over and protect the interest of war widows”. Mrs Vasey believed that the surest way to help the widows maintain a dignified standard of living was by rehabilitation through the formation of craft groups. Here was a twofold purpose; there was the company of women who were grappling with the same issues of loss, meeting together regularly, and the prospect of these ladies supplementing their meagre compensatory pension through their craft works.

Hence, the original title of the organisation: The War Widows’ Craft Guild of Australia.

In South Australia, in September 1946, Mrs Jefferson Walker was contacted by Mrs Vasey, to begin the War Widows’ Craft Guild in this state. Many hurdles had to be overcome, as initially there was some opposition to the organisation being established here.

Help arrived from a number of different areas, including Adelaide’s Lord Mayor of the time, Mr Jack McLeay, who made a room at the town hall available for Guild meetings.

The first committee of the South Australian branch was subsequently held in the Lady Mayoress’ Room, at Adelaide Town Hall on 20th October, 1946. The first General Meeting of the Guild was held at the Women’s Auxiliary National Service (WANS) Headquarters, on North Terrace, on 8th November, 1946.
The Guild maintained its momentum and the first office for the organisation was set up at Kingsway House, at 89 Flinders Street, Adelaide. This became the Guild’s State headquarters for the next 13 years, with the first committee meeting held on 11th December, 1946.

Things continued to improve and help continued to come from various areas and in different forms. The SA Branch of the Returned Sailor’s, Soldier’s, Airmen’s Imperial League of Australia (RSSAILA) now RSL-SA, helped sponsor a public meeting at the Town Hall to raise awareness of the Guild and its activities and needs. John Martin & Co Ltd held an exhibition and sale of selected handcrafts in the shop’s gallery, and Wholesale Furniture Manufacturer Pty Ltd, supplied furniture for the Flinders Street office.

In April 1947, the first Annual General Meeting of the Guild was held at the Adelaide Cheer-Up Hut.  This same year, the RSL-SA made their Music Room available for monthly general meetings, which took place on the first Friday of each month.

With the activities of the Guild busily moving along, a Council of up to 20 members was formed in the 1950’s.  These members undertook to organise the social side of Guild activities. One of these is the now famous bus trip outings held on the third Friday of each month, which are still being enjoyed by Guild members today.

In February 1955, a small shop was acquired in the suburb of Unley. This became an outlet for the sale of member’s handcrafts.

In 1957, a ‘For Sale’ sign went up at Kingsway House and the Committee began looking for a more serviceable venue. As well as an office for their headquarters, they needed accommodation for some of the more elderly members of the Guild. A house was found on the corner of Fullarton Road and Hewitt Avenue in Rose Park; later named Vasey House in honour of the Guild’s founders.

Acting Guild members at the time, recorded in the Guild minutes as President, Mrs Lorna Hosking and Honorary Treasurer, Mrs Mobsby, attended the auction for this residence on 23rd August, 1957. They had been advised that they could bid up to ten thousand pounds. Their bidding proved successful, with some money still to be raised. This was achieved via a public appeal and by a request for a ‘Commonwealth Homes for the Aged’ subsidy; both of which were also successful, enabling the property to be fully secured.

In the backyard of the property stood a large, very old, iron building – originally the stables and coach house. It was this area that was subsequently used for the Guild’s monthly trading tables – a market area selling handcrafted items made by Guild members.

It was decided that more accommodation was needed, and plans were developed. In 1959, the iron building came down, replaced by a 2 storey structure consisting of 12 self-contained flats. In 1966, another building was erected on the site resulting in an additional 6 flats, along with a very large meeting room where up to 100 members met once a month. Named Lorna Hosking House, in honour of the Guild’s President Lorna Hosking who had worked so tirelessly to secure the buildings, an office and kitchen were also included.

Over the years, much has been done behind the scenes to better the life of the war widow. Politicians became aware that Mrs Vasey would not accept less than what she deemed was a reasonable request for improvements for Australia’s war widows. This steadfast attitude was replicated throughout Australia, with the War Widows’ Guild of South Australia echoing her calls for ongoing improvements and additional support.

In this period of the Anzac Centenary, it is important we remember the wives and children of those soldiers who do not return. Seventy years ago, when the Guild was first founded, the promise of the government of the day was that “if the husband died for their country, their widows and orphans would not want.”

The women and children who are left to continue their lives without their loved ones at their side bear the true cost of war. A cost which often goes unseen and unheard, as women in particular, try to pick up the pieces of their lives and care for the children they are now required to raise on their own.

The work of The Womens’ War Guild has done much to alleviate the pressure of this burden, and to ensure war widows are not forgotten. We continue to advocate on behalf of war widows to achieve the best outcomes and improvement to conditions where possible.

Their common suffering is not something any of us would wish to endure, and the least we can do is continue to endeavour to realise the original vision of General Vasey, carried on so tenaciously and courageously by his wife Jessie; a war widow herself.

Helen Adamson is a member of the Veterans Advisory Council of South Australia. She is President of the War Widows’ Guild of South Australia, Vice President of the Partners of Veterans’ Association, President of the Marion Legacy Widows’ Club and is actively involved with Meals on Wheels and with the Army Museum of South Australia where she is Curator of Uniforms. Helen enlisted in the Women’s Royal Australian Army Corps in 1973 and served in the Royal Australian Corps of Signals until 1977. From there she transferred to the Australian Intelligence Corps where she continued to serve until 1994. A passionate advocate for South Australia’s defence force service personnel, veterans, their families and their partners Helen continues to devote her time and energy to improving outcomes and conditions for South Australia’s war widows and their families.

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