Violet McKenzie, Ethel Lang, Queenie Ashton, Grace Gibson.

Historians today, correlate, that contributions made by women in society, have not been as well documented and recounted as the stories of men. The word ‘history’ is in itself, a case in point.

Women played important roles during Australia’s early years of wireless communication technology and radio broadcasting. Australian women worked in wireless telegraphy for the war effort and in print journalism publishing weekly wireless journals. They worked as performers, comedians, singers and scriptwriters: For radio serials, talent shows and advertisements. These women had careers in a time when women were encouraged to stay at home as housewives and mothers. These women were pioneers of the Australian media and communications industry. Their work impacted profoundly, on the shaping of Australian cultural identity.

Violet McKenzie, born in Melbourne in 1890 as Florence Violet Granville, was Australia’s foremost female pioneer in the radio and telegraphic communications industries. Her oral history interview, conducted in 1979, is held today by Sydney Girls’ High School, where whilst attending Thirroul Primary School, McKenzie won a scholarship to study. In her oral history interview, Violet talks about how she loved to make electrical buzzers and lights for her childhood home. Her mother complained of not being able to see in a dark cupboard, so Violet set up a battery and a switch, so that when ever her mother opened the door, a light would come on.*

*Ref: Catherine Freyne article

After passing Chemistry and Geology at Sydney University in 1915, Violet set her heart on enrolling at Sydney Technical College in Ultimo to do a Diploma of Electrical Engineering. In her oral history interview she recounts her tenacity in becoming Australia’s first woman to graduate from the course.

“I went down to the Technical College and saw the Head there, and he said, “Oh you can’t come here and do engineering unless your working at it’.. I said, ‘Well now, suppose I had an electrical engineering business and I’m working at it, would that be alright?’ He said yes, if you produce proof.” So I went back and I had some cards printed with my name on, and electrical work, and got the paper and wrote down the ads, and read that a house…way out beyond Marrickville somewhere, was asking for prices for putting in electric light and power….I went out there and nobody else was silly enough to go, so they gave me the job. It was about a mile from the end of the tram line…I went back to Tech and took my card down and showed them the contract for the job, and they said, ‘All right, you can start’.*Freyne no 5

By 1918, 900 amateur broadcasters in Australia, were using wireless telegraphy technology to transmit recordings and talk live to air. In 1919, George Fisk, head of AWA organized a broadcast of the national Anthem from one building to another, as part of a lecture he gave on the new medium of wireless technology to the Royal Society of NSW.


In 1922 Violet McKenzie opened ‘The Wireless Shop’ in Sydney’s Royal Arcade. Several other radio shops were also established in the arcade. Violet was at the forefront of a wave of enthusiasts who were buying and selling radios even before Australia’s first licensed broadcasts had begun. It was in her shop that she conceived Australia’s first radio journal: The Wireless Weekly, which later became Electronics Australia and was published right up to 2001. And it was in her shop too, that Violet was introduced to morse code by a group of boys who came in to admire her wireless sets.

Australia’s first licensed radio broadcast was in November 1923. During the 20’s and 30’s, radios were essential household items, designed to be prominent and featured items in the home. Radios of this era, were designed with open access from behind for the regular changing of electric valves. They had one large speaker at the front of the unit, to maximize audio output, the panel was made of wood, with a frequency tuner and baker-light control panel across the top. During this time, radio listening, was a central domestic and social event in Australian society. Family and community groups gathered around the radio set to hear sports programs, radio serials and news both from home and abroad. Liz Jacka, Australian media historian has said “Radio is in some ways, perhaps a more miraculous invention even than television, because the impact is the idea that remote signals can come into the living room.. Suddenly from a society that’s limited to the neighbourhood and the street and so on, the access to a wide world suddenly there in the living room : the voices in the living room, the news in the living room, the stories in the living room, is profound.” http://dl.nfsa.gov.au/module/180/

Ethel Lang was born in Sydney in 1902. She made her first appearance as a performer on radio for Radio 2FC in September 1924. 2FC stood for Farmer & Company, the holders of the broadcasting license. Ethel’s oral history recording, conducted by Bruce Asimuth in the 1970’s, is now held by the NFSA. In her interview, Lang recalls that at the time, Smith Weekly held the only other broadcast license and their call sign was 2BL. *NFSA Ethel land oral history recording. In her oral history interview (which you can listen to excerpts of on NFSA’s web site) she describes the 2FC studio, which was on the top of the Farmers market building on the corner of Pitt and Market Street in Sydney. She describes the sound proofing material in the studio, which was made of seaweed fibre and the heavy velvet curtains designed to block out the sound of the tram stop on the corner of market and Pitt Street and the crowds exiting her majesties theatre in market street below. She performed with her husband Jim and between news and musical segments, they were hired to do 10 minute comedy sketches.

In the same year Ethel Lang launched her radio career, 1924, Violet Mackenzie became the only female member of the Wireless institute of Australia * Catherine Freyne no 9.

2FC later became the Australian Broadcasting Commission in 1932. Ethel Lang stayed with the ABC for many years and played leading ladies for ABC radio plays all through the 1930s, including; Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth and the leading role of Jane Marryot in Noël Coward’s Cavalcade. She also worked extensively with 2SM and 2GB. Lang’s other long-running engagements were as Mrs Lawson in The Lawsons and as Meg MacArthur, one of the main roles in Blue Hills.

In the same year that Ethel Lang launched her radio career, and Violet Mackenzie became the only female member of the Wireless institute of Australia, : 1924,  * Catherine Freyne no 9.

Queenie Ashton also began her radio career, at Radio 2LO in London, singing brackets of classical songs. Her ability to both act and sing led her into musical comedy. She performed in several London productions, which earned her recognition abroad and in 1927 she was offered work in the musical Sunny at the new Empire Theatre in Sydney (which later became Her Majesty’s Theatre). She returned to England but soon came back to Australia to perform again in a number of musical comedies. In 1931, Ashton married Lionel Lawson, leader of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. They had two children, though they later divorced.

During the 1930s, Queenie Ashton worked on a number of ABC radio musical comedies. She appeared regularly with Dick Bentley on 2GB’s program Oh Quaite! In 1939, Ashton was cast in her first role as an actress in a radio drama, when she was cast as the lead in the serial Marie Antoinette. From this moment onwards, her destiny as one of Australia’s most loved radio performers was sealed and Ashton was in constant demand for roles in radio productions.

As well as performing in radio drama, Ashton continued her singing career through the 1940s and performed in ABC musicals with singers Gladys Moncrieff and Strella Wilson.

Ashtons’ Oral history interview conducted by Diana Combe, is held with the NFSA and an edited version of it can be heard on-line at the WIER pages. In her interview, Ashton discusses working in musical comedy at the ABC and early rates of pay for radio performers. She talks about performers ad-libbing live on air and performing effects themselves. And She recounts how actors would run from studio to studio. At that time, magnetic tape technology did not yet exist, so radio programs could only be broadcast live to air. Performers were required to adlib in scenes and wind scenes up or slow them down if there were unexpected changes in program timing and they also did they own special effects. Many of them played multiple characters using special voices.

It was for her roles in the long-running serial The Lawsons, which later came to be called Blue Hills, that Ashton became most famous. The series ran for 28 years. Ashton was cast as Mrs Gordon, the country doctor’s wife in the first episode and later, towards the end of the series, she was cast as Grannie Bishop, a character 40 years Ashton’s senior who became a much-loved national figure. She worked a long side her great friend and colleague on Ethel Lang on the long running series.

During the 1930’s Violet McKenzie devoted her energies to teaching other women about electricity and radio. In 1931 the Sunday Sun published her stating a need for a course of lectures on domestic radio and electricity established in girls’ schools and technical colleges. Catherine Freyne 18. So in 1932 she single handedly opened a ‘Women’s Radio College’ on Phillip Street. You must also remember that this was during the depression. McKenzie also persuaded employees to take on her trainees. One of her recruits recalled that it was the first time girls were involved in making electrical circuits, radio sets and working with morse code. Catherine Freyne 19.

In the same year that Violet Mckenzie established the Electrical Association for Women as an educational venture, A woman who was about to change the face of Australian radio culture, with the introduction of American radio serials, arrived in Sydney: Her name was Grace Gibson. The year was 1934.

Grace Gibson was born in Texas in 1905. On completing her schooling in Hollywood, Gibson found work with the Radio Transcription Company of America. This was one of the first radio drama production companies in the USA. A few years later, she was selling radio programs to prospective sponsors. Managing Director of 2GB, AE Bennett, travelled to America to buy transcriptions and it was there he met Grace Gibson. Gibson sold him every program her company had available. On returning to Australia, Bennett found the radio programs well received on air and profitable for re-sale. In 1934 Bennett called for Gibson to come to Australia and help him set up his own transcription company. Gibson was scheduled to stay six months, but she stayed for the rest of her life.

The company Gibson and Bennett established was called American Radio Transcription Agencies. People called the company by its acronym: ARTRANSA, and Grace Gibson was its first manager. With ARTRANSA, Gibson introduced early American serials in Australia including: Pinto Pete and his Ranch Boys, Chandu the Magician and Jimmy Allen’s Air Adventure.

After marrying Ronnie Parr (Ronald McDonnell Parr), Gibson set up her own production company, Grace Gibson Radio Productions, in Savoy House, 29 Bligh Street Sydney. At that time the building already housed 2GB, 2UE and the Australian Record Company, otherwise known as ARC. The first show Gibson produced was a documentary series called Here Are The Facts. Her early radio dramas were: Nyal Radio Playhouse, a series of half-hour plays, and the comedy-thriller Mr and Mrs North. Both of these programs were produced by Lynn Foster, one of Australia’s first women producers and script-writers.

Gibson’s oral history interview is held by the NFSA and can be heard on line at the WIER pages. (Although the quality of the recording isn’t very good) You can hear Gibson speaking in a very broad Texan accent, discussing her early career in selling radio transcriptions both in America and in Australia and also discussing the process of producing radio programs and selling them internationally.

Grace Gibson Radio Productions also created The Castlereagh Line, the most popular radio serial of all time, with a total of 910 episodes. Dossier On Dometrius, Cattleman, I Christopher Macauley, Portia Faces Life, Life Can Be Beautiful and Doctor Paul. These are but just a few serials credited to Grace Gibson Radio Productions.

In 1943, Ethel Lang began writing and producing her own program: Aunt Jenny’s Real Life Stories. Aunt Jenny (Lang) and her nephew, Jimmy, played by John Hudson, would have a cup of tea and listen to the stories of Aunt Jenny’s life, dramatised by actors. This commercial program, made for Velvet Soap, ran for 18 years and was the program, which made Ethel Lang a household name. You can hear a couple of episodes of this serial on NFSA’s WIER pages.

Violet Mckenzie established the Women’s emergency signaling Corps (WESC) in 1939. In her Clarence Street rooms. She had originally conceived of training women to replace men working in civilian communications, so that skilled me could be freed up to go to war and by the time war broke out she had trained 120 women to instructional morse code standard. In her oral history, Violet Mckenzie recounts the moment when she realized the scale of men in the services needing training in wireless communications. A pilot was refused enlistment as a pilot because he didn’t know morse code was literally walking past McKenzies rooms in Clarence street. And heard the sounds of morse signaling. “ It was just a room full of women” McKenzie said. “But he walked up to me and said ‘Will you teach me morse code?’ I just heaved a big sigh because I saw a whole world opening up in front of me. Then I knew what we could do. We could train girls to train the men. It was wonderful, because I thought we could only do things like relieving in the post office.’

As the premises became over crowded McKenzie had to re-locate them. At one point she received complaints from the pub next door who thought a spy mission was taking place in her offices. Without any government assistance or grant, Mckenzie trained some 12,000 servicemen during the course of the war. The women of WESC each gave one shilling towards the weekly rent. No fees were ever charged for tuition.

In 1940 she wrote to Billy Hughs to offer the services of the school to the Signalling Corps, if not as telegraphists, then as instructors. Hughs dismissed her offer. After to travelling to Melbourne to meet with the Naval Board, The Director of signals and Communications, visited the WESC headquarters to test Mckenzie’s trainees. He found them proficient and recommended the navy admit them. Hughs was still not convinced but as there was still an urgent need for trained telegraphists, the navy issued a letter on the 21st April 1941 to authorize the entry of women into the navy. This was the start of the Womens royal Australian naval service. The ministers condition was that no publicity be accorded the break with tradition. On April 28 1941, Mckenzie accompanied 14 of her WESC trainees to HMAS HARMAN in Canberra where they quietly became the first memebers of WRANS. They wore the green uniform McKenzie had designed for the Womens emergency Signalling Corps. Several months later the navy issued them with a naval uniform. From the initital intake of 14 women, WRANS expanded to some 2,600 women buy the end of the war. They made up 10 % of the Royal Australian Naval force at the time.

In May 1941, Mckenzie was appointed as an honourary flight officer of the womens Auxilliary Australian Air force, so she could legitimately instruct Air Force personnel. After the war McKenzie trained many pilots who came home to fly with QANTAS. In 1950 she received an OBE for her wartime services. In 57 she was awarded Fellow of the Australian Institute of navigation. In 64 she became patron of the ex-WRANS Association. In 79 she was made a member of the Royal Naval Amateur radio Society.

Before I finish I’d like to acknowledge the research of Catherine Freyne under the auspices of the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts, who’s research in Violet Mckenzie I have reference very heavily in the paper I have given here today. I’d also like to say, there are many more stories of women in Australia’s early media history. Today I have spoken about only four of these women. In the NFSA’s oral history holdings we have a further 13 or so oral histories with raw source material from other women who worked in our earliest days of media.

I’d like to finish my paper on women in early Australian Media with a statement made by Violet Mckenzie in 1982, two days before she died peacefully in in her sleep. She said “It is finished, and I have proved to them all that women can be as good as, or better than men.” (52)

Thankyou for listening.

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