The history of Manjimup entwined with town’s CWA branch

Anjelica SmilovitisManjimup-Bridgetown Times
Maureen Barton tells the history of the CWA in Manjimup.
Camera IconMaureen Barton tells the history of the CWA in Manjimup. Credit: Anjelica Smilovitis/Manjimup-Bridgetown Times/Manjimup-Bridgetown Times

The story and history of any Country Women’s Association branch is also the history of the town they serve.

As the CWA turns 100 this year, the Manjimup branch is celebrating many years of friendship and service, alongside the contribution to the town’s community.

For longtime member Maureen Barton, the role of the organisation in the town is simple.

“This was a tremendous asset to the community,” she said.

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As a hobby archivist, Mrs Barton said she has spent many years researching the beginning of the CWA’s Manjimup branch to keep the stories alive.

“The first ten years of our minute books are missing,” she said.

“That is a tragedy because so much happened in those years, not only in the branch but in the town.”

Housed in a 90-year-old building on Giblett Street, the beginnings and purpose of the Manjimup CWA still radiate through as a place for mothers to gather with their young children.

Mrs Barton noted when the town’s branch began in 1931, and for many years afterwards, there were only two streets of houses. Giblett Street was a dirt track, there were pine trees planted along the main street and there was not much else in town.

When women came in from nearby milling towns or group settlements, there was nowhere for them to gather with their children while the men were at work.

“They would sit in the dray if they could, under the pine trees with their children,” Mrs Barton said.

But for nursing mums, there wasn’t many options for them to feed and change their babies.

The founder of the CWA in Manjimup was Mrs McKay — a local tea shop owner.

She would invite mothers to feed their babies and shelter inside her shop, which is close to where the current CWA building is now.

“Mrs McKay, whose name you will encounter often in the history of Manjimup — was a very active lady and a very strong lady,” Mrs Barton said.

Mrs Barton said Mrs McKay also started the town’s Girl Guides, established the kindergarten and the hospital auxiliary.

“She had heard about CWA which began in Western Australia in 1924, and recognised it was an organisation for women, run by women,” she said.

Concerned about the women of the district, Mrs McKay held a town meeting for women inviting them to join the newly established CWA.

Mrs Barton said there were between 50-70 women who attended but due to missing minute books from the first 10 years, the exact number is unknown.

“When I realised, I began going to the J.S. Battye Library of West Australian History whenever I was in Perth and spending a day there reading the old Manjimup newspapers, which was absolutely fascinating,” she said.

“I had to exercise great self-control and just look for CWA because it was so interesting.

“That filled in some gaps but not all of it because we didn’t have the minute books.”

Mrs Barton said when the women heard about becoming a member in the earliest Manjimup CWA meeting, they went back to their group settlements and Mill Towns to tell others—many of whom joined from that moment on.

“There were churches here and they had groups like the women’s fellowship, but they were tied to the church,” Mrs Barton said.

“CWA is non-party political and non-sectarian.”

For a long period from the 1940’s, the women gathered every Friday for afternoon tea and chat. While there were social meetings, the members were also serving the community, meeting needs from the young to the aged.

Mrs Barton highlighted one of the earliest members, Mrs Cheetham, who proposed cottages for the aged so they would not need to leave town when their husband died and the farm was sold.

“They (could) stay with their friends in familiar places so that’s how we have Dunreath Cottages,” she said.

“There is still one of the original cottages up there, which were timber.”

The aged care centre in Manjimup still operates today with low cost accommodation for the elderly.

Setting out to document the community service of the presidents, Mrs Barton found many of the members who were not presidents have also contributed to the town – 104 of them.

She took her passion for preserving the society’s archives and writing about the timeline of events in Manjimup CWA’s history, publishing a book in 2018 title Manjimup CWA and Beyond — 1931 to 2017.

Soon after Mrs Barton joined the branch in 1993, she became the president and from then on she was “never quite out of office”, serving as vice president, president, secretary, and several times treasurer.

“I was sort of in the thick of it, which was good,” she said.

“CWA is very grassroots. It’s the members who make the decisions. The president is only there to see that everybody has a fair say and the decisions are made properly.”

The 90-year-old building is still open daily for parents to bring children for feeding and changing nappies—continuing the legacy of the early days in the tea shop to the CWA in Manjimup.

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