Did you know that Australia had its own version of the Bletchley Park signals and cipher intelligence unit? No? Neither did I, until I read this new historical fiction by Australian author Alli Sinclair. Set in Queensland during WWII, it tells the story of the women and men who worked in a top secret organisation called Central Bureau.
People were recruited from all walks of life. They needed level heads, problem solving skills, as well as an aptitude for mathematics, patterns, languages, commitment to the war effort and – of course – the ability to keep secrets. They all signed an official secrets act, which meant they could never talk about the work they did. Not to family, friends…anyone.
I’ve often wondered how people who work in these sorts of roles, or in intelligence services more generally, manage to keep their working lives separate from the rest of their personal lives. For most people, work is such a big part of life and to keep it secret… well, I think it would be almost impossible.
What I especially liked about The Codebreakers is that this aspect of their role is not avoided. In fact, the secrecy requirements and the difficulties this posed for women forms a key part of the story.
Added to this is the portrayal of the other factors at play. The women recruited to Central Bureau were young, they lived in barracks and worked together every day, in a garage at the back of a mansion in a Brisbane street (most of the men worked inside the house itself). The women were dubbed ‘The Garage Girls’, and they formed strong bonds as a result of their experiences.
Brisbane during WWII is portrayed brilliantly – the heady atmosphere of wartime; fear of imminent Japanese invasion; grief and heartache at the loss of loved ones killed in action; conflict between Australian and American servicemen; rationing; the quick courtships and impulsive marriages that sometimes happened; living with continual uncertainty and anxiety. It’s easy for us today, knowing what we know now, to forget that at the time, Australians did not know what the outcome would be. Reading this novel I found it easy to imagine how it would have felt, living with the possibility that Japanese soldiers might well arrive on the shores of northern Australia.
The other aspect of the novel that is very convincing is the portrayal of how it felt for Australians, once peace was declared. Of course there was elation, joy, relief. For some, there was also sadness and a sense of let-down. We can understand that for the women in Central Bureau, their employment ceased almost immediately. They were expected to return to hearth and home, making way for the men as they returned from the services. The aftermath of war is not always easy, and they had to exchange the exciting, demanding, important work they had been doing, for more mundane roles at home or in jobs seen as suitable for women.
Shadowed by the mansion at Nyrambla, this little garage had been the centre of her world for two and a half years. Its walls had witnessed the women handling some of the war’s most top-secret messages and ensuring they got into the right hands at Bletchley Park, Arlington Hall and countless outposts around the world. The messages they’d decrypted and encrypted had saved lives and helped the troops come back to their loved ones. All this happened under the roof of a regular-looking garage in suburban Brisbane and no one outside Central Bureau would ever be the wiser.The Codebreakers p324
If you enjoy finding out about lesser known aspects of Australian life during WWII – and particularly the more unusual roles performed by some women – you’ll love The Codebreakers. There is a light touch of romance in the story, though the main themes are to do with friendship, courage and the many ways in which lives are changed by war.
The Codebreakers is published by HarperCollins Australia in March 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Today, Sunday 21st February 2021, the Parramatta Female Factory marked two hundred years since the convict prison building, commissioned by Governor Macquarie, took in its first cohort of 109 women and 71 children. It has been many years since the site operated as a gaol, workhouse, marriage bureau, work assignment centre and even an early version of a women’s health service (of sorts), but the Greenaway-designed buildings still stand, as do others added on over the decades.
A group of volunteers called Parramatta Female Factory Friends have been advocating for this site to be given world heritage status and for local, state and federal governments to recognise its importance and do what needs to be done to protect and enhance its future. It was a committee from the Friends who organised and ran today’s event.
It’s estimated that one in seven Australians today can trace their heritage back to a Parramatta Female Factory woman. That includes me: my 4 x great-aunt Mary Greenwood was an inmate here in the 1830’s, almost certainly her mother passed through here briefly before being assigned to work at the (then brand new) King’s Grammar School – as a laundress. Her name was Mary Ann Greenwood and she was my 5 x great-grandmother.
Thomas and Meg Keneally, both patrons of the Friends of Parramatta Female Factory, spoke of the power of the stories it can tell modern Australians about the women who lived and worked there. To survive the whole transportation experience, including incarceration in the various female factories around the country, women needed to be resilient and tough. They were voiceless and powerless then, but as Meg said, she and other descendants of her 3 x great-grandmother can now be her voice.
The day included an opportunity to lay floral tributes along the commemorative wall, which is inscribed with the first names of every woman known to have passed through its forbidding gates. Here I am with my little posy; if you look closely you’ll see my forebears’ names on the wall.
Another special part of the morning was a performance by Cliona Molins and Rosie McDonald, along with Nigel Lever and Ann Palumbo, of four songs specially commissioned by the Female Factory Friends to mark the bicentenary. The song suite is called Mothers of the Nation and includes recognition of the many women who, as the title song’s lyrics tell us, were
Mothers of the Nation, black and white,‘Mothers of the Nation’, by Cliona Molins and Rosie McDonald
Written out of history
Mothers of the nation, hold your heads high
Mothers of the nation, elders yarn,
her story of strength and fight
to carve out a life in this land.
My thanks to the organisers of today’s special occasion.
If you’d like to know more about the stories of the Parramatta Female Factory and the activities of the PFF Friends, you can visit their website.