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Tides of Change: Women of the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW)

Women in the workforce at the MMBW

In the lead up to International Women’s Day, Melbourne Water celebrates and shines a spotlight on the past and continuing achievements of women within the organisation. Please join us in exploring the major milestones and social change within the MMBW, Melbourne Water and the Victorian Public Service.

Melbourne Water’s predecessor, The Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW), was formed in 1891 to take responsibility for the city’s water supply and treatment. Initially, female employees were appointed to administrative and clerical positions. It wasn’t until 1939 that women stepped into more official, technical and specialist roles. These included positions such as chemistry assistants, machine operators and assistant drafts women.

Not only were women’s roles at MMBW based on their contribution to the operations of the organisation, many women were involved in social, recreational and cultural activities. Perhaps the greatest legacy of women at the MMBW was their efforts in building communities, enriching and empowering the lives of those around them.

Banner image: Upper Yarra Dam, Co-Op Store, c. 1954

Transparency - Staff and Chauffeurs at the O'Shannassy Weir Quarters, 1921

Melbourne Water

Few women were employed in the early stages of the MMBW, with the first female employee, Annie Gray, hired in 1903 as a housekeeper. In 1911, the MMBW began the construction of the O’Shannassy Weir. The caretaker residences along the aqueduct were utilised by caretakers who were responsible for maintaining a section on the channel. However, it was up to the staff and chauffeurs of the Board to maintain their quarters.

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Photograph - Typists at the Board of Works, 1977

Melbourne Water

In the early 20th century, the Commonwealth Public Service Act 1902 and its regulations excluded women from most occupations and every form of career advancement. It was expected that married women were to leave the service and were therefore not eligible for permanent appointment. This meant that female employees were restricted to typist and telephonist positions within the public service.

As it was the men who undertook the secretarial work of the organisation for the first two decades at the MMBW, it was not until late 1912, when a female “typiste” was employed on a half time basis. At 21 years of age, Miss A. L. Arnott was the first female to be appointed to this role within the Secretary’s branch at Head Office. On February 23rd, 1917, Miss Arnott was earning two pounds and five shillings a week, with several male typists earning much less.

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MMBW Federation Journal, 1942

Melbourne Water

In 1939, the world was at war and the workforce was cut short of working men. Due to the draining of the labour force, many technical areas of work could not be filled. This had a profound impact on employment within the MMBW, providing women the opportunity to step into more specialised roles.

In October 1942, in an editorial of the MMBW Federation Journal, a man named E.J. Fitzmaurice observed that “Despite men’s prejudice and their persistent opposition, women have penetrated into every part of business life”.

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Photograph - Cocoroc School, 1950s

Melbourne Water

The workers township of Cocoroc was created at the Metropolitan Sewage Farm (now the Western Treatment Plant) in the mid-1890s to house resident workers it employed, at a time when Werribee was a fledgling town.

A woman named Betty Larkin was the first office worker at the Farm in the 1950’s working in general administration. Women were not employed to work in the field, not even during WWII, when there was a shortage of men. Only essential work was done and maintenance was left.

However, women on the Farm did more than just home duties. Many women had cottage industries; they raised chicks and sold them off when grown. They also made butter and cheese, and would sell their produce in Werribee and at the Victoria Market. Women also catered for MMBW functions and worked at the local schools, teaching and taking care of children.

Information of the Farm has been sourced from the PhD research conducted by Monika Schott to capture the social history of the community that once lived on the MMBW Sewerage Farm in Werribee during the 1900s, now the Western Treatment Plant. The research is being conducted on a Deakin University industry scholarship in partnership with Melbourne Water. Go to MMBWFarm on Facebook for more information.

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Photograph - Upper Yarra Dam Personnel, c. 1955

Melbourne Water

From the late 19th century through to the 1970s, women that were married to men who worked for the MMBW were not permitted to work. As well as running the household, these women were responsible for running community building activities. This included their involvement in community plays and the planning of events for schools, kindergartens, social clubs and sports. Throughout the 1900s, these women were the foundation of the community, supporting temporary townships that accommodated the workforce during projects at the Upper Yarra Dam, Thomson River and the Werribee Treatment Farm.

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Staff Newsletter - Gwen Hardy, First Woman Commissioner, 1975

Melbourne Water

Margaret Gwen Hardy was appointed as the first female Commissioner of the MMBW in 1975, a major victory for women at the time. Gwen was the first female Commissioner in the 84 year history of the organisation.

Born on the 5th of August 1926, Gwen had also been a Lilydale Councillor and went on to become the first female Shire President. In a statement by Gwen, written in the MMBW’s monthly staff newspaper (1975), Gwen talks about her role in a male dominated field: “I didn’t feel out of place, and they’re all prepared to help me. A couple of the Commissioners said they hoped they’d get a few more women to fill vacancies”.

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Staff Newsletter - Miss MMBW, Terri Cott, 1977

Melbourne Water

The Australian Cerebral Palsy Association ran the Miss Australia Quest and had various titles including Miss Queensland and Miss Victoria. One branch of the Victorian state competition was the Miss Victorian Government Service Quest. As part of the quest, a female employee would be selected to represent the company as Miss MMBW. The winner of the Miss Victorian Government Service Quest would then be entered into the Miss Victoria Quest.

While ‘Miss MMBW’ seems a strange concept in today’s world, the women who participated focused their efforts on raising large sums of money for charities.

Terri Cott was one of the MMBW’s most popular representatives in the running for the title of Miss Victorian Government Service Quest in 1977. At the time, 18 year old Terri was an Administrative Officer in the Accounts Payable Department.

Terri competed against 12 women from other State Government departments and was crowned as the winner for the Miss Victorian Government Service Quest, raising $17,337.72.

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Staff Newsletter - Denine Moloney, First Female Apprentice Gardener, 1979

Melbourne Water

In 1979, 16-year-old Denine Moloney made history at the MMBW as the first female apprentice gardener. Denine was part of a team that cultivated and distributed up to 140,000 plants a year from the nursery complex, where large trees, shrubs and various other plants were grown and utilised for Board beautification projects.

Denine’s ambition was to become a professional landscape gardener after her apprenticeship was completed. Four years later, Denine continued with her aspirations, and was appointed as head gardener at Jells Park.

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