Who was Australia’s first female tradie? Who knows, but a contender for that title must surely be Florence Violet McKenzie, Australia’s first female electrical engineer.

Florence Violet McKenzie 1939, founder of the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps (Australian War Memorial)

But McKenzie had another string to her bow. She formed the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps (WESC) in Sydney in 1939, some six months before the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe. This pioneering volunteer-run organisation was the forerunner to the Women’s Royal Australian Navy Service (WRANS). The formation of  WRANS in 1942 was one of the first avenues that enabled women to serve in the armed forces.

The Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps (WESC) was started by Florence Violet McKenzie, electrician and radio enthusiast. With the formation of the WESC, McKenzie made an invaluable contribution to the war effort by training women in a range of communications techniques including Morse code, wireless telegraphy and semaphore signalling with flags. The training rooms for the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps were at McKenzie’s Electrical Association for Women rooms at 9 Clarence Street in Sydney.

Initially, the Signalling Corps was concerned with training women in wireless telegraphic communications so that they could relieve men to fight overseas. Regular camps were held at Thornleigh, where the women wore green military-style uniforms (designed by McKenzie); undertook military drills, parades and marches; and were trained in ‘Morse code … at various speeds, coding and decoding and electrical theory’. They were required to be able to send and receive messages at the rate of 20 words per minute.

Girl Signallers Will Help (The Australian Women’s Weekly, 13 July 1940, p. 2).

Up to 3000 women received training by the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps. But soon they were called upon to instruct servicemen and recruits in Morse code.  Over 12,000 service personnel from Australia, America and India received training from ‘Mrs Mac’s’ girls. Because the demand for training was so great, the WESC operations moved across the road to much larger premises in a former wool store at 10 Clarence Street.

When WRANS was formed in 1942, its first 14 members were drawn from the ranks of the WESC. This was largely down to the efforts of Violet McKenzie, who tirelessly lobbied the Minister for Defence for her girls to join up. Although she never received any official recognition during the war years, she was the recipient of a OBE in 1950, for her work towards the war effort. She remains a fond figure for the many man and women that she trained, both during the war and in its aftermath.

For more on the home front in Sydney during the Second World War check out the Home Front exhibition at the Museum of Sydney, which runs until September 2012.