Flax was an important agricultural product during World War II. It was used to make coats and parachute harnesses, ropes and tarpaulins. With shipping disruption in 1939, Britain’s flax supply vanished and Australia increased production to compensate.
Sixteen receiving depots and mills were built by the government in many country centres of Victoria to handle the crops, and the Flax Production Committee headquarters was in Melbourne.
Many land girls worked on flax farms. The work was physically tiring and there were mice in the stacks and snakes in the straw. Fire was a constant danger, as Victorian land girl, Mary White remembers:
At Riddell’s Creek, about 30 miles from Melbourne, we were working on the flax, and on a fine, sunny afternoon one of the girls called my attention to smoke in the distance. FIRE – The greatest enemy of the flax! As a gang leader I’d been instructed what to do in case of an outbreak so I alerted the foreman, who made his way to the rise. He raced to the utility, and at the continual sounding of the horn the other men in the field began running in the direction of the mill. The girls went on working until the van returned to pick them up as everyone was needed to help; on the way we gathered green branches to use as beaters against the flames.
In the mill yard at least 60 stacks of tinder-dry flax were standing and tarpaulins were being stretched across them and drenched with water. Melbourne’s fire chief was directing operations as water was being pumped from a pool about a quarter of a mile away. Stack after stack was bursting into flame and it was feared the township could be in danger. The woman chauffeur of the fire chief, in her immaculate uniform, asked who was in charge of the land girls; she seemed rather taken aback when I, in my work and blackened overalls, said that I was. The girls were put to work where the fibre-made hoses crossed the roadways, placing boards each side to protect the old and worn hoses against loss of water pressure. Also we were instructed to halt traffic that might be travelling into the danger area, and as darkness was approaching we obtained lamps from the railway station. There were three road crossings; each was manned by two girls in the first shift, then two in the second, from 6 pm until 6 am. During the night about 80 stacks were lost, and to save further destruction two men mounted on motor cycles with a wire stretched between them, rode either side of the burning stacks, bringing them down. In the pale light of morning almost all the fires were out, charred flax smouldered in black heaps, and weary workers trudged home. We too, made our way to the hostel for breakfast, only to find not a soul was up! One of the girls asked, ‘There won’t be any work today, will there?’ But there was! There were still paddocks of flax to be picked up.
Phyllis Davis (nee Ramsay) had a similar experience in Victoria, as told in Jean Scott's Girls with Grit:
I had already been employed as a vineyard hand and in the dried-potato processing, at Irymple, before joining the AWLA in 1942, so had some knowledge of what was expected of us. Flax was a most important crop needing urgent attention, and a number of land girls were sent to Wendouree; some were billeted and others moved into flats. My friend and I had the luck to stay with a delightful couple who enjoyed having us there, laughing and chattering around the house, as they had no family of their own.
One group went to the mills but we were assigned to the fields. These varied in size, but all were an impressive sight, with rows lying about four inches apart, each disappearing into the horizon whichever way we looked. On frosty mornings we’d gather by the fire trying to warm ourselves before we started spreading the frozen stalks. Over a period of six weeks we regularly turned the leaves with special shaped jarrah sticks so the flax would be evenly retted (exposed to moisture), and this was very hard on our backs. When it was time to gather the flax, small bundles were arranged in a wigwam style known as ‘gaiters’; later, having become grey in colour, they were tied into sheaves, eventually forming stacks. I loved driving the tractor to pick up the trailers, laden with sheaves, for the scrutching process at the mill. It reminded me of the posters I had seen inviting girls to join the AWLA.
Eight of our group were transferred to Bolac, and more flax, and I really felt we’d come to the end of the earth. We arrived late at night and had to hike a mile with our loaded kitbags in the rain and cold of May. That was bad enough, but the summer was decidedly worse. We almost roasted. I was made leading hand over ten others and we worked long hours, from 6:30 a, until 8 pm at harvest time. Flax was handled many times before the finished fibre went to Melbourne for manufacture into the webbed articles required for the armed services.
One morning, just below where we were working, a spark from an elevator ignited and within minutes flames were raging fiercely. Suddenly, the fire drill we’d taken so lightly before now became a reality! It was a dreadful time. The damage didn’t stop at the loss of the flax, but stock and farms also suffered as the fire spread from Bolac almost to the coast. Our hostel fortunately escaped, though our belongings were moved to the lake’s edge at midday as a precaution. We were kept busy providing tea and sandwiches for the firefighters throughout the night, and then we heard another fire was approaching us from the north. Eventually this one was brought under control within a few yards of our mills; the total cost was estimated to be between £60,000 and £70,000.
Sometime afterwards I was proud to receive a highly commended reference from Miss McEwan, Victorian superintendent of the AWLA. After this disaster at Lake Bolac, the Victorian commandant of the AWLA, Lady Duggan, visited the hostel and while there several girls were brought into camp suffering from heat stroke. Lady Duggan was greatly concerned to find that the only cool water for drinking was from the waterbags. A few days later a large refrigerator was delivered, through her urgent request, from the AWLA amenities fund.