Tuesday 8 March 2016

International Women's Day

In recognition of International Women's Day, we'd like to celebrate two of our local women who pushed through stereotypes and societal restrictions. Both were in an era when their actions would have initially attracted much gossip, comment and criticism. Their names are Agnes Lawson and Susan Colpitts.

Mrs Susan Colpitts of Heppleholme Farm in Winchester, South Carnamah

Agnes Scott Lawson / Sharp

In 1914 an entrepreneurial Agnes Lawson, who ran a dairy in Scotland, financially assisted her brother Jack to buy one of the Midland Railway Company's Ready-Made Farms at Winchester. Two years later she immigrated to Western Australia and was soon in touch with the company about buying a farm of her own.

The Midland Railway Company couldn't even contemplate the idea of selling a farm to a woman. The concept was absurd! They suggested that the farm be in her brother's name, however, she refused point blank to put her capital into his or anyone else's name. Much correspondence followed but the company held firm on their position. A women couldn't own a farm. How would she run it? Could she ever pay it off?

Poor Agnes. The irony is that she wasn't poor at all. This single 29 year-old woman had worked and saved enough money to pay the deposit on a farm! She would actually have been the envy of many men aspiring to be in the same position. In the end the hand of the company was forced by fear. They became worried that if they didn't sell Agnes a farm that her brother Jack would leave. This would be a big backward step for the Winchester settlement they were trying to grow and promote.

On 3 November 1916 Miss Agnes Lawson signed the dotted line to purchase the 465 acre Lot M922 in Winchester. The farm came with a house and 148 acres of cleared and cropped land. Payable by installments, it came at a cost of £2,150. Using the Reserve Bank of Australia's Pre-Decimal Inflation Calculator, this would be approximately $210,000 in today's money.

But how did Agnes fare? Did the farm fall into a big heap under the control of a woman? Not quite. In fact, for a while Agnes was one of only two Ready-Made Farm settlers who were managing to pay their repayments on time!

Agnes found love a little later in life and in 1922 married George Sharp. He was returned soldier from the First World War who had taken up farming in Carnamah. Their first child Nancy died at the age of two months but was followed by two more children, Agnes and Charlie. Sadly, her husband's war injuries took their toll and George passed away when their son Charlie was only three weeks old.

Agnes raised her children, ran the farm and also established a local dairy.

She was a regular and very diverse exhibitor at Carnamah's annual agricultural shows. During this era the sections of the show were typically considered men's classes such as livestock and grain or women's classes, such as cooking and sewing. Not for Agnes!

In 1928 she won 1st prize for Scones and 2nd for Sheaf of Early Variety Grain. Then in 1929 she took out both 1st and 2nd for Jersey Cow while winning 2nd for Butter and Scones! As the years went on, and she improved her herd of cattle, she would win most of the prizes in the Cattle section. She also participated in the Carnamah District Agricultural Society's activities and in 1934 came equal 2nd in their Fallow Competition.

Mrs Susan Catherine Maria Colpitts

In 1913 Susan Colpitts immigrated from South Africa to join her husband Jack. They settled on a Ready-Made Farm at Winchester, which they named Heppleholme after the middle name of Jack's aunt. They'd barely been on the farm six months when the First World War broke out. Jack soon enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and left for the front, serving in both Turkey and France.

Susan took over the running of the farm and its further development. She also boosted the farm's income by securing contracts to do work on the Midland Railway Company's unsold farms in Winchester and Coorow. Her place as a farmer, not just a farmer's wife, was firmly grounded when in 1917 she was named an Inaugural Vice President of the Winchester-Carnamah branch of the Farmers & Settlers' Association.

During the war Susan also worked tirelessly to raise money for the Red Cross and other organisations that worked to support and care for troops serving in the war. One example of this was as secretary for Winchester farmer Lou Parker's candidature in the Lazy Man Competition being run in Three Springs. From this one instance alone she raised £131, which in today's money would be almost $12,000.

Susan expected her husband home by May 1919 but four months went by and he hadn't arrived. It turned out he'd been granted leave to observe farms and agricultural practices in England but had failed to let her know! He did, however, finally arrive home just before Christmas - probably to a very happy but annoyed wife!

Susan and her husband then ran their farm together, as by this time she was the experienced Australian farmer - having been on their farm for four years longer than her husband. For a few years during the 1920s Susan also operated Winchester's telephone exchange and post office from their home.

For more information, please see:

International Women's Day occurs on 8 March each year and is a day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women. It's also a day to be aware that progress has slowed in many places across the world and that urgent action is needed to accelerate gender parity. For more, see www.internationalwomensday.com

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