The story of the extraordinary Mrs Mac, pioneering engineer and wartime legend
By David Dufty
RRP $29.99 in paperback
Published by Allen & Unwin
This little known story grabbed David Dufty’s attention from the moment he discovered Mrs Mac aka Florence Violet McKenzie (nee Wallace) during his research for an earlier book The Secret Code Breakers of Central Bureau.
What emerges is the amazing true story of an indomitable woman who, despite the trenchant opposition of senior officers, succeeded in getting her girls into the navy. It’s no stretch of the imagination to believe the initial response from Sydney naval command following Mrs Mac’s approach: ‘women in the navy! – never’.
Imagine how this modest woman would feel to know that a chair at the Australian National University (ANU) has been named in her honour and to know that her singular achievements have not gone unnoticed. The Florence McKenzie Chair is part of the university’s agenda to reimagine engineering and computing in society in the 21st century.
It was no easy road for the young Violet Wallace. There were many obstacles in her way, not the least of which was having to overcome the restrictions placed on women. But she persevered to become the first woman to enrol in an engineering course in Australia, at a technical college, having overcome the requirement to be apprenticed by buying her brother’s failing contracting business.
Later, she became the first woman in Australia to hold a ‘wireless experimenter’s licence’ to build and own radio equipment. This was in the early wireless days, even before it was possible to transmit voice.
She renamed the shop she occupied in Royal Arcade (now the site of the Sydney Hilton Hotel) for her electrical contracting business as The Wireless Shop, specialising in radio and electrical parts.
This was to become the epicentre of Sydney’s amateur wireless community. Her interest in radio had been ignited by a chance meeting with two schoolboys who demonstrated the transmission of Morse code.
Fascinated by wireless and its possibilities, she was heavily involved in forming associations and groups of amateur wireless enthusiasts as well as launching Wireless Weekly with three others.
The magazine was especially vocal in denouncing the Hughes government’s special treatment of AWA headed by Ernest Fisk. He had convinced the government to enact legislation that made it illegal to build your own set and to sell a set with any tuning mechanism. Fisk wanted sets tuned permanently to his own station 2FC, the first commercial radio broadcasting licence. It was issued to department store Farmer and Co (controlled by Fisk, later to become Grace Brothers and then Myer). Despite getting the first licence, it was William Maclardy, Violet’s business partner, whose 2SB was first to broadcast.
A footnote to history here – several years later these stations were nationalised; 2FC becoming Radio National and 2SB becoming the ABC’s local Sydney radio station.
Fast forward to the 1930s and Violet was extolling the virtues of electricity and electrical appliances in the home (and their safe handling).
By the late 1930s, with the threat of war in Europe becoming ever more real, Violet found herself in the middle of efforts to create a flying club for women, which saw her offering Morse code courses for members. By January 1939, Violet was presenting certificates to students who had become proficient in Morse code by completing her course.
Within months, Violet had decided to establish her own training school for Morse code, establishing the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps, inevitably shortened to Sigs, her greatest achievement. It was an amazing voluntary contribution to the war effort.
She taught not only Morse code but circuit theory, how to install an antenna and how to troubleshoot a faulty portable radio. She also taught semaphore.
Attracting negative publicity, Violet and ‘her girls’ were accused of wanting to take men’s jobs, an idea they rejected.
Realising that Morse code instructors were in short supply, it was then she describes a whole world opening up: she would train her girls to train the men who were trying to enlist in the RAAF but couldn’t because they lacked the basic skills.
By Christmas 1940, 100 women were volunteer instructors for WESC. They had trained over 1000 air force reservists as well as army signals personnel, merchant marine and Air League members.
As the war progressed, barriers to the admission of women to the armed forces began to come down, despite leaders such as General Thomas Blamey, in November 1941, proclaiming that it was no use women training to be dispatch riders and signallers in military roles, urging women instead to train to take the place of men in industry. It was an unusual speech from someone who was clearly out of touch as across all three services, women were already employed in military roles.
It prompted Violet to point out in an article in the Sunday Sun and Guardian that already 100 of her women were currently serving in the navy and air force.
By the end of World War II, Violet’s signal school had trained more than 3,000 women, over 1,000 of whom had entered the WRANS; many others had entered the army and the air force. She and her instructors had also trained more than 12,000 men.
Post war, her training school became the place to train in aviation communication systems.
Yet in all this she struggled for official recognition of the work she had done, officials keen to downplay her efforts. But she was universally loved and admired by those she had taught.
She died in a Sydney nursing home, aged 91, her final words, ‘… I have proved to them all that women can be as good as, or better than, the men.’
She was an extraordinary pioneer who pre-dated the women’s lib movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Yet, through her efforts, women became accepted in military life and broke down barriers that many thought impossible to breach.
This is an inspiring story of a great woman who refused to let entrenched sexism stifle her ambitions.
Her contribution to the war effort, through the voluntary work she did with the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps, deserves to be much better known and understood. She was awarded an OBE in 1950 but I can’t help but feel that, if she had been a man, the award would have been of a much higher rank.
Well done to David Dufty for bringing this story to the page. It certainly deserved to be told. Recognition of her efforts is long overdue.