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Country Women's Association
Helen Chandler, born 1922
Date of Interview: 15 Feb 2008
Transcription: Glenys Murray, April 2008
As a young woman during the war years what was the CWA involved with and you in particular?
Well as far as I was concerned the main thing that we did was knit baby clothes to send to England. It was called Bundles for Britain. I think wool was probably as scarce in England as food was. The baby clothes were necessary but I don’t know that we did anything else as far as CWA was concerned. When I was doing the history of the Castle Hill Branch or the CWA in general we wrote a book for our fiftieth for the group. One of the things that they did do the CWA at least in the city was make camouflage nets. As well as packing the food parcels and sending the food parcels to England. We made camouflage nets I know that.
I’ll continue with you Wendy. Tell me a little bit about the CWA for those people who don’t know much about it? How did it all start and where?
Well it actually started in Canada with a lady by the name of Hoodless whose son died of milk fever. In those days of course milk wasn’t pasteurised, homogenised and generally steam cleaned. So with the help of her doctor she started classes in domestic hygiene more or less. In domestic science as it became known and they started a women’s institute. It was the end of the nineteenth century and that started and it spread very quickly to England and came back to Australia. Mrs Grace Munro was the first president of the Country Women’s Association of NSW which is what we belong to. It started in April 1922. Its general aims are the welfare of women and their children. So everything is part of their portfolio. It means anything from potholes in the local road to war in wherever it happens to be. Generally it started off as a lifeline in the country because women had no outlets at all. When it was the Country Women “oh yeah we’ll let you go down to that as long as you’re home to cook me tea” sort of thing. That’s virtually how it started in the country.
Castle Hill, it’s not exactly in the country. There was a branch there though wasn’t there?
Yes it started in 1946, October 1946 and Helen knows more about the early history of Castle Hill than I do, I think.
Helen: Well when I joined in 1967 we had the old room in Castle Street. We did much the same things that we do now. We did the International work and the cultural work. We had the Baby Health Centre in our rooms at that time. It was before the Council opened the centre that they have now. The rooms were also opened. We had a lady that went down from the retirement villages every day and opened the rooms up and she was there to make cups of tea for anyone who was shopping. We were fairly central and anyone that was shopping or wanted somewhere to sit they could call in and have a cuppa. We also had our library open too during the weekdays. A few people that weren’t members of CWA used to read our books. They could go in while they were doing their shopping and borrow a book from the library.
So was Castle Hill regarded as the country then?
Yes I joined it because the Nepean group is looked on as a country group. It goes out as far as Kurrajong and Galston and places like that. If I joined say Hornsby or Eastwood I would have been in the metropolitan group. Because I came from the country I wished to join Castle Hill being a country group.
We are here to work for the women in the country. As I once told Wendy you don’t have to live in the country to join CWA because we’re working for the people in the country not only in Australia but all through the Third World.
Helen what’s been your promotion path within the CWA? What sort of positions have you held?
When I joined I looked at the three ladies at the top table wearing their hats and I thought the president and the secretary were a bit busy so I spoke to the treasurer. I said “well I’m a member of Kelso branch and I’ve arranged to have my membership transferred here and I just wanted to tell you that I was a financial member because this is the first time I’ve been. She started asking me what I did and when I said I’d worked in a bank. She said “oh you’d make a good treasurer wouldn’t you”? She said I’m eighty and I want to retire” I said “perhaps at the next elections I could stand in your place”. So that was happily settled and time went on a bit. Then of course it came to the election time and the president had been in office for four years. Whereas we’re only supposed to hold office for three she decided I’d better be the president not the treasurer. So I became the president. I got the job for four years before I could find anyone else to take my place. I was lucky I had a very good secretary and we worked very well together. We were involved when we moved to this new building from the old one. We had a lot of work to do then. Both our husbands used to help us and it made a big difference.
Now Wendy what about you? Tell me about your progression within the organisation?
Before I do Helen became treasurer and stayed treasurer for the next twenty seven years.
Helen: twenty six. After I finished my four years as president I sat in the back row with my secretary who’d retired too and we pretended that we weren’t there. But the next year I became treasurer.
This is all at the Castle Hill branch isn’t it?
Helen: This branch yes here. They tell me I was treasurer for twenty six years I never worked it out. I just waited until someone young enough to handle the money joined. Because most of the women were older and they were only used to handling their housekeeping money. They didn’t like the large figures that appeared on our balance sheet.
Wendy: Well I joined in October and the first meeting after the meeting I joined was the elections and by the skin of my teeth I avoided being elected secretary. But I ended up as vice president at the second meeting that I’d ever been to. I stayed vice president for some years but then I was elected president for which I was president for something like six years. I’ve done my stints as international officer and as cultural officer which is what I am now. Then I went into group as group president, group representative to executive, group international officer and group cultural officer. At the moment I’m nothing but branch cultural officer which is rather fun. The most important parts were group president and group representative to executive. Group president runs the group which at the moment is fourteen branches. Our latest branch is at Greystanes and it only started in October 2007. Representative to executive that meant that I had to go into head office for a week at a time four times a year and we ran the state. Considering the turnover in the CWA in monetary terms it’s quite a big job.
The Castle Hill branch was formed in 1946 right, is that correct?
Yes it was originally started off to start the Baby Health Centres. Most CWA branches in NSW anyway were the original ones. They were initiated to start Baby Health Centres and started with the social side as well.
What does the CWA do in its many activities? Give me an overview, you’ve already explained how it began but we don’t know much about what it actually does?
Well basically as I say we’re interested in anything to do with women and their family. We raise money most of the money we raise is catering of some sort or other. For instance Castle Hill works on Thursdays to make morning tea and lunches for the Baulkham Hills Leisure Learning Centre. We have a kiosk at the Castle Hill Show for three days selling tea and coffee and breakfast all day and it’s really hard work for those three days. But that’s the money that we raise. With that money we put some in towards scholarships, some to support things like The Flying Doctor. Medical research is very important each year at State Conference we vote to support a specific medical research for that year. Most years we raise, this is the state of NSW, raises something like forty thousand dollars each year for medical research and just for medical research. Now scholarships, medical research, we do the international work we have a lot of fun doing it.
So you’ve been in this cottage here since 1970?
Now what were some of the challenges that the CWA Castle Hill Branch had to face in those early establishing years?
Helen: Well I think we’ve been fairly lucky in Castle Hill. We’ve got our hut at the showground.
Helen: Kiosk I beg its pardon. It was a hut a tin hut to start with. One of the member’s husbands gave us the money to buy and erect a tin hut. We had a tarpaulin that we used to put up at the back and we served our morning teas and lunches. Whatever we had sandwiches under the tarpaulin. Then another member gave us some more money and with the help of the council we built the present kiosk. We have a verandah at the back with tables and chairs, tables and forms for people to sit on. They can sit and have their breakfast or their lunch there. That is one of our main money making things. That and the work at the Baulkham Hills Leisure Centre.
Where is the kiosk situated?
It’s in the showground opposite the ring, next to the farm nursery.
Wendy: And opposite the horticulture.
Helen: Yes the horticulture is just…..
Wendy: There’s a road there and the horticulture's there and we’re there.
Now Wendy you were group president at one stage? Now tell me how many groups does the CWA have in the state?
There are thirty groups in NSW which is an interesting number. Some are bigger than others some have a lot more people than others. For instance the one that is farthest west the one that takes in Broken Hill has I think a membership of probably about fifty all together. Whereas ours is a couple of hundred anyway. Our branches go from Kurrajong down to Ingleburn, places like Galston. But the ones that always amuse me are Blacktown, Guildford, Granville and we’re still counted as a country group which we think is hilarious. Phillip group is the city proper but Hornsby actually belongs to Northumberland which goes up past Gosford and Gosford is its centre point. There are various competitions that are involved between groups. Group meetings which are four times a year are now held in Blacktown because Toongabbie’s rooms got burnt down. They discuss all sorts of things. Anything that they want to bring up at State Conference, they have something on international work, they have something on cultural work. Ag and environmental which is very important these days. It’s like a larger branch meeting so that all those sort of things are discussed as well.
Which is your particular group that you’re involved with?
I’m in Nepean, Nepean group or we’re in Nepean group.
What geographic area does that cover?
That’s the one that goes from Ingleburn up to Kurrajong. The newest branch is Greystanes, the second newest one, which meets on a Sunday incidentally Greystanes because they’re nearly all working women. So they’re all younger which is rather nice and then the Hawkesbury evening one which started in 2006 they’re younger ones too. They have a night meeting. But all the rest of us have day meetings which makes it a little more difficult to get members. Women that are inclined towards this sort of work volunteering, belong to their first of all to their children’s school groups. Then they go off back to work. It isn’t until they get to around forty five or whatever and they decide that they’re going to leave work and they’re looking for something to give them some pay back to the community that they join us.
Does the CWA aid in any sort of disasters like the tsunami? Do they do any work for that?
Yes certainly through our international side. We belong to what’s called the Associated Country Women of the World which is the biggest women’s organisation going. In fact CWA of NSW, we’re the biggest, CWA is the biggest lobby group in Australia as well. The Associated Country Women of the World headquarters are in London. The world is divided up into, I can’t remember, six I think areas. We belong to the South Pacific area and we assist with day to day running things like that. Working parties of women go into the villages and ask the women what they want not what somebody thinks they want. Sometimes it will be a new craft sometimes it will be something else sometimes it’s a rain water tank because they haven’t got fresh water. In India they often dig wells that are closer to the village. In Africa one of the interesting ones is they give the woman a cow that’s in calf with another calf sort of thing so that they’ve got the milk to sell. But before they get that cow and calf they have to build the shed and they have to make sure that they’ve got a properly fenced in area before they get the cow. In the case of the tsunami that’s a special appeal. That comes from what they call the emergency funds. In Australia there is also an emergency fund but it belongs to CWA of NSW not the international side. So there is two emergency funds. In the case of the tsunami we certainly spent I’ve forgotten how much. I know in the case of the fires in NSW a few years back a couple of individual grants of ten thousand dollars. It’s quite good money but this is from the whole of NSW of course.
So the Castle Hill branch would also contribute to that?
Yes we would certainly contribute to that. Each year we make what they call what is it called when we make the money?
Wendy: Allocations make allocations and so much of the money that we’ve earnt and we can afford to…. We have to first of all keep the money to run our rooms. Then the rest of it is profit and allocated. So much will go to Papua New Guinea for the scholarships so much will go to ordinary scholarships. So much will go to the Flying Doctor, medical research which is cord blood at the moment. We’re doing cord blood we’re supporting that. From our profits we work out an amount. We also have to give the same amount that we give to outside organisations to our head office to run the organisation. If we give a thousand dollars then five hundred has to go to.
CWA I believe supports Saroy Nalindat Clinic(?) what is that?
That’s in India and it’s for eye problems. I think its cataracts isn’t it?
Helen: I think so.
Which there is a lot of in India and they go into the hospital and we pay for the treatment so that the people it’s usually for children I think that particular one. Their mothers go in with them into the hospital and they’re given the medications and things like that to cure them. That’s just the one in India.
For blindness in children?
Does the CWA give any money for any cultural pursuits or work, music or whatever?
Well not specifically but one of the things that the international body has done. In places like Serbia where they’re still fighting after the break up of the USSR (Yugoslavia)? Women had some fairly hard times they started up things like choirs and things like that. So money was put into something like that so that they had an outlet without feeling as though they were being patronised. The cultural things that we do are basically things that we do in our own branches and groups. We don’t support the Australian Ballet or something like that. Individuals might do that but not the CWA. We tend to only support things like Flying Doctors.
What sort of activities at the CWA are either of you involved with on a regular basis at the moment?
Well the Leisure Learning I suppose it’s considered a community service.
When we were asked to do it by the council they said “consider it as a community
service” and we keep the prices reasonably low. The women that come for
it and a few men the women that come to the classes at the Leisure Learning
are usually pensioners or young mothers who can’t afford the fees at TAFE.
They do have to pay a fee but it is a bit less than TAFE. We keep our prices
fairly low we don’t overcharge for anything. We do morning tea and then
for lunch we do sandwiches if anyone is staying for a second class or wants
to have a sandwich before she goes shopping or something like that.
Where is that being held, those classes?
In the old Masonic School on Seven Hills Road.
The Balcombe Heights Estate?
Wendy: Well I suppose you can count my knitted village out there as something I’m involved in at the moment. It was an accident I found this book called The Knitted Farmyard” and I said to the girls “what did they think” and they said “ooh yes please, we’ll do that”. So I suddenly ended up with eight figures and these lovely buildings that they’d made of a church and a pub. Well I thought this is a bit more than I expected so we ended up. They take up two trestle tables and they’ll be on show at the Castle Hill Show for three days. The Castle Hill people are delighted cause they’ve got something to show. We’ve also got the fantasy cakes.
What other things do you do at the Castle Hill Show, either of you?
Helen: well there’s the catering but Wendy’s fantasy cakes, they’re not real cakes. If it’s a rock cake it’s a rock out of the garden with a bit of icing on the top. If it’s a marble cake or a swiss roll it’s a kitchen sponge rolled up. There’s a nut cake that’s made of bolts and nuts that one of the girls got out of her husband’s workroom. The marble cake is all covered with marbles the mud cake’s made of mud.
Wendy: We got twenty four this year, there’s twenty four cakes going on display and we’re going to have a viewer’s choice. You know how they have a viewer’s choice for quilts so we’re going to have a viewer’s choice for the fantasy cakes. But basically we’re both involved in the craft and the cooking and whatever. In fact you got two firsts didn’t you? We’ve just had our cookery competition.
Helen: we’ve just had our cookery competition every year. The schedule is put out in the journal and each branch in the state is supposed to have a cooking competition. The people who win first and second prizes for their cakes or jam at the branch they then exhibit those things at the group semi finals. Anything that wins a first prize at the group goes to state. When you get to state there’ll be thirty pots of jam and thirty pots of pickle and thirty sponge cakes. Hopefully thirty, thirty of everything because each group is entitled to put the things that won first prize on display.
Wendy: and I’m quite sure that my lime and buttermilk cake which did get to state last year which I couldn’t believe is the one that held up on the news saying “this is how it shouldn’t look”. I’m sure it was mine but of course they didn’t say what the name was.
Now the CWA are purely a volunteer organisation but does anyone at all get paid for their services?
Wendy: Yes certainly we have what’s called an executive officer and she has a staff of seven people and a couple of casuals as well and they work out of our head office in Greenknowe Avenue Pott’s Point. Besides which there is also a staff of about twenty two like maids and cooks and a manager that run the residential hotel that we own as well.
Helen: No members get paid
Wendy: No members get paid you can’t be a member and a paid staff. The president gets a certain amount of travelling money considering that she spends the whole three years that she’s in travelling the state. She now gets a car but that was a donation. That’s the state president only.
What’s the membership of the Castle Hill Branch of the CWA?
Helen: At the moment we have thirty nine members with two juniors and one life.
Wendy: Our life member.
Is there much ethnic and cultural diversity among the members?
Wendy: Basically we’re mostly Europeans of European origin. Of course Rupa’s not. She’s an Indian from Fiji. Anybody’s allowed as I say we don’t discriminate against anybody.
Do the CWA have any involvement or connection with the Orange Blossom Festival?
Wendy: Only in as much as a couple of years we’ve done….once or twice we’ve actually been in a parade. Because our rooms are this side of the road and the things are the other. We don’t open our rooms for it because it is too dangerous crossing Old Northern Road.
Helen: Once we used to when they finished the parade on the park opposite we could open our rooms for cups of tea. Because people could walk across the Old Northern Road in those days but you can’t now it’s just not practical.
Is there any connection that the CWA has with St Gabriel’s School for hearing Impaired Children?
Yes in as much the Doris Hirst Scholarship, education grant, used to be
given to a primary school child leaving primary school and going onto high
school. But most of the schools in our area are very well to do. St Gabriel’s
gets no money at all or government assistance. So we started a good many
years ago and that particular year as international officer I asked them
if they’d like to do project sheets on the country of study. They’ve been
doing that ever since. Now it’s good for them because it gives them an opportunity
to do research which is something that they do lack. There’s only one class
of them that does it but they really go to town. They actually get more
speakers than we do sometimes. Then their prize winning one the one that
wins the prize from us goes onto be judged against their peers at other
schools at a group judging competition. Then when they come back they all
get hung up either in the library which is the last few years. Or last year
it was in Castle Grand in the foyer part down there. Then there’s the Doris
Hirst Scholarship education grant on top of that.
What sort of influence does the CWA have in terms of government boards and so on?
Wendy: Very, very strong influence. What is it fourteen thousand of us in NSW and they listen when we talk. This is at all levels of government. Quite often state executive members are on boards ranging from Integral (Energy) to all sorts of things. They are there having their say. Because we speak for such a lot of people quite often on some of the boards we’re the only….like one of the hospital boards we’re the only non medical people there. But we’re the contact with the world as it were. Usually and I think this is one of the best things about the CWA. It’s practical it’s not going to come up with something airy fairy like whatever. It’s going to come up with some sort of suggestion that is something that they can do that is practical and not necessarily going to cost them a lot or money. Quite often our ex state president kept saying that “the government members said has the CWA taken this up yet”? “If they haven’t we don’t need to worry but if they have we have to do something about it now”.
Does the Castle Hill branch of the CWA do anything differently from any other branch?
Wendy: We work very hard, we play very hard too. We get accused of being too enthusiastic by some of the other branches. We try to take part in everything that’s going on. If the group is putting on a day we take part like the cooking competitions and the handicraft competitions. The fun and frolic we always put on some sort of skit. We’ve put on some very interesting ones like “Worst Homes and Gardens”. It usually has a theme and I remember one I ended up going to walking across the car park in Blacktown of all places, dressed up to go to Elizabeth Taylor’s seventh wedding and all the plastic beads and what have you, yes.
Ladies I believe that you sold a great deal of scones at Easter Shows tell me about that?
Oh yes, at the kiosk at Homebush they actually make the scones on the premises. Mostly they make about twenty two thousand scones. Which is a rather lot of scones. Last year there was a show called Not just tea and scones which was four half hour programmes on the Country Women’s Association or the CWA. Because a lot of the city people had actually seen this thing they all came to eat our scones and we sold thirty three thousand scones last year so that was something.
It was absolutely.
Helen: We used to make scones at the Castle Hill Show too. But it got too much for us we couldn’t cope but we still do serve Devonshire morning and afternoon teas. We were serving hot dogs and things but now we’ve gone onto breakfast haven’t we?
Wendy: Thank goodness for that I used to have to do the hot dogs. I hate hot dogs.
Helen: None of us ever ate hot dogs I don’t think. We’d go out and buy something.
Wendy: The crepes.
Is there anything the CWA can’t do?
Wendy: As I say this is one of the things that they do in executive is when there’s something like the genes cloning the cattle and with the canola.
Genetic engineering actually there is a committee that do research into things like that. They make presentations to whoever’s doing the...
Wendy: Well not the research so much as the government bodies that are interested in things like that. They will do research into anything like that. As I say there isn’t anything that doesn’t really impact on women and the family.
What do you think is the biggest challenge that the CWA have faced up till now?
Wendy: I think like everybody else it’s ageing population and the fact that women have to keep working these days to make ends meet. As I say we’re starting to get more evening branches and Sunday afternoon branches for working women. Basically for ours it’s a daytime meeting, it’s a morning meeting. So it’s very difficult if you’re working.
Helen: It’s been a morning meeting…
Wendy: Except for the one year I made it an afternoon meeting and even the president went to sleep and that was me. Don’t like afternoon meetings they’re not good.
Helen: Having the meeting in the morning means you are home in plenty of time to cook your husband’s tea or wait for the kids to come home from school. Yes that’s right.
Wendy: I think it’s like everywhere else there are more women’s organisations now too. There’s the Soroptimists and Quota and things like that. I don’t know of any other organisation be it men's or women’s that has such a wide variety of things that they do. Most of them are just plain in the business of raising money for something. Usually a single thing the Red Cross is only interested in raising money for the Red Cross etc.
Helen: But they do support a lot of organisations.
Wendy: They do support yes but basically they don’t do the international work, they don’t do the cultural work. We’ve got Ag and Environmental nowadays too we have a report at each meeting on some conservation thing. We’re more on the conservation side rather than the agricultural side. There’s not a lot of agriculture done around Castle Hill.
Helen: Not now.
Wendy: Not now, except in the garden.
So how do you see the future of the CWA and especially the Castle Hill branch?
Wendy: Well I think that while there’s still a need for women’s networks I can’t see that we’re going to fail. We are decreasing in numbers like everything and they get worried about that from time to time. But I don’t know.
Helen: I think we’ve still got the same number of active members but we’ve got less of what you might call sleeping members who have been active in the past and retired.
Helen: We haven’t said much about handicrafts but we do quite a lot of handicrafts. Most branches meet once a month for handicraft and we teach each other different things. We do a lot of knitting and crochet for things like Camp Quality and the Children’s Hospital and places like that. But we also enter….there’s a list of things eight items. We have to collect our eight items from the members that do knitting and sewing and fancy work and things like that patchwork. Those things go to group to be judged. There’s also a section four people make something that’s laid down. This year it was for… people had to make a potholder. Last year I think it was purses. We’ve done eyeglass …and one year we won at state with our four mirrors. But they were coordinated they all had the same colours and they all had the little angel on them didn’t they? We won first prize at state with our four items.
Wendy: We get very excited when we beat the country cousins.
Helen: We’re very proud of that too. Usually we have two or three items out of our eight items. The group then sends eight to state quite item our items go and quite often our four items go don’t they?
Wendy: Oh yes.
Thank you both very much for this interview I’ve really enjoyed listening to the work of the CWA.
Helen: Hope you can sort us out.
Wendy: The only thing will add is... one of our unofficial mottos is "pride in our past and faith in our future".
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