‘Camp Life’ to ‘Happy Home’

The Wagga Wagga Service Women’s Hostel was founded in 1943 to accommodate service women who had been training in the areas around Wagga Wagga during the course of the Second World War.

Situated at 38 Morrow Street, the building had originally been built by Dr Burgess on the site of Wagga’s Temperance Hall. By 1942 it was a set of flats owned by the Burgess Estate and known as Parkview Mansions.

To support the war effort, the NSW Regional Committee, with the aid of the Australian Comforts Fund and Wagga Mayor’s Patriotic Fund, contributed to the refurbishment and staffing of the Hostel to cater for service women and trainees at a cost of £2000. The Hostel would accommodate up to 54 guests and included amenities for washing, ironing and entertaining.

The Hostel.jpg
The Service Women’s Hostel at 38 Morrow Street, Wagga Wagga [from the Service Women’s Hostel, Wagga Wagga, Collection RW1572].

Lady Gowrie, wife of the Governor-General, who officiated at the opening on April 3 1943, commented that the service women were going “to feel like girls again”, rather than return to their homes “hard-faced” after war training and service.

“The great thing is that you are going to feel just like girls again – because, after all, it is quite natural that camp life should be very different from what all girls have been used to in their homes. Well,… we do not want you after the war to come back so hard-faced – so tough, shall I say – that you do not even enjoy a little bit of comfort. No, we want you to remain women and able to make happy homes and enjoy happy homes.”

Elizabeth ‘Bess’ Duncanson was appointed Matron of the Hostel and was assisted by a Mrs Curtis, whose husband was in the army at the time.

Duncanson migrated to Australia from Scotland, aged 25. She initially worked as a housekeeper, and later owned a small mixed business in Botany. After the death of her husband in 1931, Bess sought work in the canteen of ‘Snows’, or Snowball Bros, a large dress-manufacturing store in Sydney.

Bess’ contribution to the Hostel, where she remained the first and only Matron, was recognised by the Joint Honorary Secretary of the Wagga Wagga Mayor’s Patriotic and War Fund at the cessation of her employment, where she had “received glowing tributes regarding her personality and capabilities”.

She returned to Sydney after the war and was appointed Matron at one of W.D. & H.O. Wills’ leave houses for country girls at the Caxton Park Tempe Complex, until 1956 when she joined the Emergency Housekeeping Association. She retired four years later and died on 14 September 1991.

Bess, Michael, Dot Stebbing 1943.jpg
Bess Duncanson (Matron), Dot Stebbing and ‘Michael’ at the Service Women’s Hotel during the war [from the Service Women’s Hostel, Wagga Wagga, Collection, RW1572].
At a time when emotions were strained, the Hostel was a special place for many young women who not only forged many endearing friendships but also tasted a sense of independence for the first time.

At the conclusion of the war, the Hostel was handed over to the Y.W.C.A. and catered for young women looking for a safe place to live in the Wagga Wagga area. In the early 1980s, the Hostel was converted into a restaurant and guesthouse called, ‘The Manor’; today it is the ‘Mates Gully’ cafe and accommodation.

2 thoughts on “‘Camp Life’ to ‘Happy Home’

  1. Terrific write up Jill, well researched and very interesting.
    Bob Douglas

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