Stepping into the breach: conductresses in the Second World War

In 1941, after almost two years of war, the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board (M&MTB) was facing a major problem – a lack of manpower.

Petrol rationing had almost eliminated the private use of motor cars, leading to unprecedented demand for public transport in Melbourne. Enlistment of M&MTB male staff in the armed forces [1] had seriously depleted numbers, while the demand for public transport on new bus routes to the munitions and aircraft factories in Footscray, Maribyrnong and Fisherman’s Bend stretched the resources of the M&MTB.

The demands of the wartime economy exacerbated the crisis, when in 1941 the munitions factories shifted to three-shift round-the-clock operations. The M&MTB responded by introducing thirteen-day fortnights for its operational staff – over the protests of the union, the Australian Tramway & Omnibus Employees’ Association (ATMOEA). It also relaxed the medical requirements for male traffic employees, opening up employment to those who had not previously qualified.

These actions did little to address the underlying manpower deficiency. Something radical was needed.

In August 1941, the M&MTB took the courageous decision to employ women as tram and bus conductors, or rather conductresses, as they were known at the time. This action was unprecedented in Australia, as tramway organisations had employed only male drivers and conductors up to this time. However, Britain had taken this step two decades previously, during the First World War, so the initiative was not unique within the British Empire. It had been considered as an option by the Prahran & Malvern Tramways Trust (P&MTT) in 1915, but was discarded, due to the need to modify tramcars to cater for the perceived weakness of the female gender [2].

The ATMOEA objected strenuously, as it saw the introduction of conductresses as a direct threat to the job security of its entirely male membership. As the standard rate of pay for women was three-quarters of the male wage for the same work, the union viewed the initiative as a cost saving measure by the M&MTB that would lead to retrenchment of male conductors.

To placate the union, H.H. Bell – the M&MTB Chairman – agreed to employ conductresses on a hostilities basis only, meaning that they would be made redundant as men returned to civilian life after the end of the war. Furthermore, conductresses would not be eligible for promotion to drivers, and most surprisingly would be paid at the same rate as male conductors, eliminating the cost-saving threat to male job security. This would be the first time in Australia that the principle of equal pay for equal work would be implemented – a breakthrough for women’s equality, although it was not due to altruistic reasons.

Addressing criticism

The M&MTB was the subject of trenchant criticism from conservative sections of society, as the proper place for women was believed to be the bearing and raising of children, housework, and balancing the family budget. Any departure from this role was seen to be a direct threat to gender norms, leading to the breakdown of both family and society, together with the neglect of children. The employment of women as conductresses in a previously exclusive male role was viewed as a direct threat to the established social order.

Several avenues of defence were mounted by the M&MTB to meet this criticism. The first and most obvious was to bluntly state the exigencies of the wartime economy, and that without conductresses tramway services would have to be curtailed. However, this was not the only weapon in the M&MTB kitbag.

Women were to be employed as ‘assistant conductresses’, under the supervision of male conductors, and so would not be burdened with too much responsibility. This image was underlined by their uniforms. While male conductors wore a military style uniform in blue serge paired with a peaked cap, the women's uniform was brown and consisted of jacket and skirt teamed with a forage cap. Furthermore, the badge numbers issued to conductresses were higher than ‘3700’, outside the normal range used for male employees – another point of differentiation.

Rather than being referred to as female conductor, the job title was deliberately feminised as ‘conductress’.

Finally, frequent media reports regarding conductresses underlined both their efficiency and decorative appearance, especially the smartness of their uniforms, emphasising their femininity. This approach defused accusations of masculinisation of women, which was thought to be a characteristic of Communist ideology. This was particularly important, as influential conservative elements had an extreme fear of a Communist uprising. As a result, they were intensely suspicious of any initiative that was not aligned with their conceptions of civil society.

M&MTB conductress Miss Charl Round. Photograph State Library Victoria M&MTB conductress Miss Charl Round checking clearances of a tram shunting at the Hawthorn terminus in Power Street, 1942.
Photograph courtesy State Library Victoria.

One of the best examples of the media coverage was the photographic essay published in The Australasian of 26 September 1942 entitled “Tram girls are doing a vital war job”, covering the transition of Miss Charl Round from her previous occupation as a nurse in a mental hospital to becoming a full-fledged M&MTB conductress working from Hawthorn Depot. The physical attractiveness of Miss Round added to the strength of the message.

This strategy was so successful that the role women played as tram conductresses was held up as an example to society, showing that women had a true and valid right to participate in the general workforce, in occupations that had previously been forbidden to them – and that the total war effort was dependent on their participation, across industries as varied as abattoirs and the post office, munitions and aircraft factories, and as skilled technicians in laboratories. In the services, women were even trained in the combat role of manning anti-aircraft guns, as well as in the intelligence services as radio intercept operators and code breakers.

Starting up

Over 500 women applied for the initial eight vacancies for conductress positions. Much of the popularity of the role was due to the good salary, as conductresses were to be paid more than the skilled roles of nurses or female school teachers. This was due to the industrial muscle of the ATMOEA – although both nurses and female school teachers were very poorly paid according to modern employment standards. The concept of women being seen to do ‘their bit’ as part of the war effort was key, as was the thought of working outside the strictures of the office, shop or factory in a role of some responsibility.

When a tram was operating with a two-man crew, the driver was not responsible for ensuring the safety of passengers boarding or alighting. Instead, the conductor or conductress indicated to the driver when it was safe to leave a tram stop by giving ‘two bells’ on the bell cord. Without this signal the tram driver could not proceed. If a situation arose requiring an emergency stop, the conductor or conductress would give a ‘three bells’ signal on the bell cord, ordering the driver to stop immediately.

Conversely, when operating a tram with a single-man crew, the single entry and exit door was either immediately adjacent to the driver, allowing the driver to directly observe boarding and alighting passengers, or the entrance and exit doors were mechanically operated under the control of the driver, preventing passengers from boarding or alighting. Single-man crews were only used on lightly-patronised lines, or on all-night cars, as delays due to the driver collecting fares were minimal. The M&MTB only used two-man crews for the W class and maximum traction tramcars, which comprised the vast majority of its tram fleet.

Consequently, conductors and conductresses carried a great deal of responsibility, encompassing passenger safety, adherence to timetables, and minimising fare evasion.

One benefit of the job was that travel to and from work while conductresses were wearing their M&MTB uniforms was free.

Also, no coupons [3] were required for uniforms, as they were supplied free to staff by the M&MTB outside the clothing rations scheme. This meant that clothing ration coupons could be reserved for non-workwear.

Applicants had to pass a medical examination and have a reasonable level of general fitness. One of the conditions was a minimum height of 5 feet 2 inches (159 cm), and a maximum height of 5 feet 10 inches (179 cm) – necessary to have good visibility out of the tram windows to check the safety of boarding and alighting passengers. Their weight range had to be between 8 to 11 stone (51 to 70 kg), while the age of applicants was to be between 21 and 40.

The eight successful applicants began training at Hawthorn Depot in late August 1941. They were all wives of M&MTB employees away on active service – chosen specifically to counter further criticism. Their first shifts were on city trams on 4 September 1941. By all accounts they were effective at the job, although some of them noted that they disliked the bookkeeping component of the role. At the end of shift, the tickets issued had to be reconciled against the running journal kept, together with cash receipts. Any shortfall had to be made good from their pay, while the long-standing practice was to pay surplus amounts into the fund of the depot social club.

1941 photograph of the first class of M&MTB conductresses. Photograph courtesy State Library Victoria

1941 photograph of the first class of M&MTB conductresses with the chief instructor. The forage caps the women are wearing as part of the uniform would be replaced by peaked caps by the end of the year.
Photograph courtesy State Library Victoria.

The new conductresses were initially attached to Head Office and used as assistants in city sections so male roaming conductors [4] could be allocated permanently to depots. However, they soon proved to be effective in their new jobs and were assigned to depots and allocated to shifts on the same basis as male conductors – as soon as female toilets and restrooms were added to each depot. Conductresses were not only assigned to tram depots, they were also allocated to work on the buses – initially the Central Bus Garage at North Fitzroy, but later including the outlying bus depots. It should be noted that conductresses were not assigned to work on cable trams, as the last two lines had been closed on 26 October 1940.

Growing numbers

The M&MTB rapidly hired more women, so by the end of June 1942 there were 582 conductresses working for the Board, while the peak number achieved during the war was a total of 992 two years later, comprising 17.5% of all M&MTB employees. A total of 2,239 women served as conductresses with the M&MTB during the course of the war.

M&MTB conductress pulling down the trolley pole, 1942. Photograph State Library Victoria M&MTB conductress Miss Charl Round pulling down the trolley pole on W2 257 at Hawthorn terminus in Power Street, 1942. Note the headlight cover and white strip on the tram apron, part of the blackout precautions implemented in early 1942.
Photograph courtesy State Library Victoria.

The conductresses’ forage caps were replaced by peaked caps like the men’s when the summer uniform was introduced in December 1942, underlining the acceptance of their role in the M&MTB. The M&MTB soon dropped its requirement that conductresses be married to serving members of the armed services. Instead, women were employed regardless of their marital status.

It should be noted that almost all M&MTB conductresses of the day wore their peaked caps tilted rakishly to one side, in contravention to regulations.

In 1944, the M&MTB decided to appoint four conductresses – Marjorie Allan, Flora McKinnon, Madge Caylock and Jean Robertson – as Welfare Officers and Lady Supervisors, selected from a pool of applicants who had three years’ experience and a record of good service. With a higher salary, they were assigned the additional responsibilities of instructing female staff and caring for their general welfare. Their expanded role was underlined by the issue of new green uniforms, of the same fabric used for traffic inspectors’ uniforms.

Other tramways

However, other Australian cities were not eager to follow Melbourne’s lead. In September 1941, the Sydney tramways ruled out employing conductresses, as the NSW branch of the ATMOEA viewed the footboard tramcars [5] that comprised the majority of the Sydney and Newcastle tram fleets as totally unsuited for women. The union opposition was implacable, preventing the management of the Sydney tramways from hiring conductresses. It was not until the following year that the NSW branch relented, after the intervention of the Federal Secretary of the ATMOEA (Clarrie O’Shea), allowing the Sydney tramways to hire conductresses, but only for rostering on corridor tramcars [6], trolley-buses and motor omnibuses.

The precedent of the M&MTB paying equal rates for male conductors and female conductresses was set, so the Sydney tramways were forced to comply. The central women’s organising committee of the Australian Labor Party congratulated both the ATMOEA and the M&MTB on introducing the first case of equal pay in Australia. However, the equal pay initiative was not extended to other industries or occupations.

The Victorian Railways (VR) initially declined to follow the lead of the M&MTB, deciding not to employ conductresses on its St Kilda to Brighton Beach tramway. However, like the Sydney tramways, VR faced the same challenges as the M&MTB, so in 1942 it decided to proceed with employing conductresses. Initially, it wished to pay them at 80% of the male rate, but following the M&MTB precedent VR were required to pay women at the full male rate. However, when VR subsequently employed female railway porters, it would only pay them at 80% of the male rate, as was general accepted practice in all other occupations.

VR conductress issuing ticket. Photograph State Library Victoria VR conductress Miss T. Thompson issuing ticket on board a VR drop-centre tram on the St Kilda to Brighton beach line in 1942.
Photograph courtesy State Library Victoria.

The Australian Railways Union [7] (ARU) contended that flipping the heavy footboards [8] at termini would be beyond the physical capability of women, and the narrow gangways on VR trams would be too difficult for women to negotiate while carrying cash bags. The VR Commissioners demurred and proceeded with their plans. When VR was training conductresses in October 1942 for both the Brighton and Black Rock tramways, a number of the candidates were found to be under 21 – the minimum age for male tram conductors on VR. The ARU protested, demanding their employment be terminated, but VR declined to reverse its decision to hire them – although it did give a commitment that no more conductresses under the age of 21 would be employed.

VR conductress changing side destination board. Photograph State Library Victoria VR conductress Miss T. Thompson changing the side destination board on VR 31 in 1942.
Photograph courtesy State Library Victoria.

A tough job

There were downsides to the employment of women as tram conductresses on the M&MTB. Verbal abuse by passengers was frequent, and physical assaults were not uncommon, both generally as a result of conductresses insisting passengers pay for their travel.

The work was not easy, requiring significant physical endurance, as conductresses were required to be on their feet at all times when on duty. Balancing on a tram swaying from side to side and braking unexpectedly was not a simple task, especially while carrying a cash bag that became increasingly heavier during the course of a shift. While issuing fares, a conductress had to use both hands, and was thus unable to hold on to stanchions, strap hangers or seat backs, increasing the risk of falls. When changing poles at termini, or punching the Bundy clock, conductresses had to step out into traffic, risking injury or death through being struck by motor vehicles.

M&MTB conductress changing the route number in Elizabeth Street. Photograph courtesy Australian War Memorial M&MTB conductress from Brunswick Depot wearing summer uniform changing the route number in Elizabeth Street, 1941.
Photograph courtesy Australian War Memorial.

As a result, a number of conductresses suffered serious injuries through falls and assaults. Fortunately, the M&MTB did not suffer any employment-related deaths of conductresses during the war years.

To reduce neck pain and long-term injuries encountered by conductresses, the M&MTB later introduced a cash bag harness. It spread the load of the cash bag across both shoulders and upper back, instead of concentrating pressure on the back of the neck, as did the standard cash bag strap.

The physical demands of the role did lead to a reasonably high turnover of female staff, as did the combination of long hours, split shifts [9], or early and late shifts. The lack of leisure time – thirteen-day fortnights were standard during much of the war years – was also a contributing factor to the high turnover. Many married conductresses resigned from the M&MTB once their husbands returned from active military service.

Industrial action

During 1944, resentment against the thirteen-day fortnight grew amongst both male and female traffic staff of the M&MTB. This was exacerbated by the suspension of rights to annual leave. While both these directives were couched as a response to wartime conditions, tramway workers felt singled out, as munitions workers enjoyed a five-day week with full entitlements to leave. It was no coincidence that absences due to illness had taken a marked increase.

Under wartime labour regulations, the M&MTB had been declared a protected establishment, which restricted the rights of employees to change jobs to another employer or to resign, all such requests having to be approved by the Commonwealth Manpower Directorate. These restrictions on individual liberty exacerbated the frustration employees felt with the industrial situation.

Tensions grew during August and September, until a strike was called for Saturday 30 September 1944, the day of the Victorian Football League grand final between Fitzroy and Richmond [10], as well as a race day at Moonee Valley Racecourse. This was the first strike action on the Melbourne tramways in ten years.

The two major issues were for the resumption of a six-day working week of 44 hours and restoration of the right to take annual leave, which had also been suspended as a wartime measure. Other issues on the table were abolition of split shifts on Sundays and increase in wage rates.

Conductresses were prominent among those demanding change at the stop work meeting held on the strike day.

During late 1943 and 1944, it had become evident that Australia had overcommitted its manpower and financial resources to the military, crippling the civilian economy and reducing its ability to support the armed forces and Lend-Lease [11] commitments made to the Americans. As a result, the Commonwealth Government had begun releasing men from the military, for return to employment in selected industries, which included the tramways. Over the previous 13 months, the Manpower Directorate [12] had released 134 men from the armed services to the M&MTB and provided 704 new conductors and conductresses from the civilian labour pool. Despite this increase in resources, natural wastage and the resignations of conductresses resuming domestic duties due to repatriation of their husbands from overseas military service had resulted in a net increase of only 63 employees.

This was nowhere near enough to allow a return to a six-day working week. The ATMOEA demanded that the Manpower Directorate release more men from military service to ease the situation. It refused to man services along the new tram line from William Street City to Hanna Street South Melbourne [13] until the six-day week was restored.

While further stoppages on this issue were avoided, primarily due to orders from the Arbitration Court, there was continuing industrial tension over the issues at hand. The militant section of the union, led by former general secretary Clarrie O’Shea, continued to press for strike action, albeit unsuccessfully.

The M&MTB was also constrained by wartime finance regulations, preventing it from granting wage increases which may have eased the level of employee resentment over the long working hours. However, it did not handle negotiations well, which resulted in high levels of mistrust of M&MTB management in the workforce and would have ongoing consequences in the level of industrial disputes experienced by the M&MTB for the next four decades – until the militant faction led by Clarrie O’Shea for much of that time finally lost its influence.

Due to the commitment of the Australian forces in undertaking offensive campaigns in Borneo and Bougainville, which did not reduce the duration of the war in the slightest whilst attracting significant casualties, insufficient numbers of service personnel were released to civilian life to address the employee shortage encountered by the M&MTB and other employers. Resolution on the tramways was not achieved until October 1945, two months after the end of hostilities, when the six-day week was restored due to the availability of returning servicemen – although it required a two-day strike to force the M&MTB into action.

The William Street extension would not open until February 1946, the delay being ascribed by the M&MTB to the resignation of many conductresses, affecting the availability of traffic staff for the additional services required.

Ultimately, the industrial action was ineffective, due to the inflexibility of the Australian wartime economy, and the intransigence of the Australian military in refusing to reduce the size of the military forces sufficiently to provide relief to the economy [14].

Stockings or slacks?

The dispute over working hours was not the only industrial matter to have an impact on conductresses, and one issue had a very direct and physical effect on the women. In May 1944, as a result of consistent complaints from conductresses, the union executive approached M&MTB management with a request for the Board to supply stockings to the conductresses outside the wartime clothing coupons scheme, or alternatively to supply slacks (i.e. women’s trousers) as part of the winter uniform.

The problem was that accidental laddering of stockings by passengers was extremely common, ruining the stockings for future use. Women’s stockings were expensive, difficult to obtain and required a large number of ration coupons. As a result, many conductresses had to work bare-legged in Melbourne’s cold, wet and windy winter, and subject to reprimand for being out of uniform.

Chairman Bell refused to countenance changing the M&MTB conductress uniform to include trousers, as he was totally opposed to women wearing them, even for civilians in the street or on the beach [15]. However, his stance left him with little option other than to agree that the Board would make women’s stockings available off-coupon, although conductresses would have to pay cost for them. He did complain of the expense, and that the M&MTB might be left holding unsold stock after the end of hostilities, when the conductresses would be retrenched.

Most popular conductress

One of the aspects of the conductresses’ employment at the M&MTB was their commitment to social causes, which was most notably represented by the ‘Most Popular Conductress’ competition held in 1944. This four-month-long event was sponsored by the ATMOEA and was designed to raise funds for the Red Cross Prisoners of War Fund. Publicity for the competition was supplied by the proprietors of Black & White Cigarettes.

M&MTB conductresses selling Red Cross buttons, 23 June 1944. Photograph Australian War Memorial

M&MTB conductresses Nancy Pilkington and Pat Reilly selling Red Cross buttons in the city on 23 June 1944.
Photograph courtesy Australian War Memorial.

The M&MTB also announced that the highest Melbourne-based fund-raiser would receive a prize of 10. Note that the average pay per fortnight for a conductress was 13/15/7.

Beginning in May 1944, the competition was held across bus and tram depots of the M&MTB, as well as the depots of the regional tramways in Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong operated by the State Electricity Commission of Victoria (SECV). The conductresses working from the VR depots at Elwood and Sandringham did not participate, as they were covered by the ARU, not the ATMOEA.

M&MTB conductress selling Red Cross buttons, 23 June 1944. Photograph Australian War Memorial

M&MTB conductress selling Red Cross button to American soldier in the city 23 June 1944.
Photograph courtesy Australian War Memorial.

Ballots were carried out at each depot, to select a conductress to represent the depot in a competition to raise the most funds. The young woman selected by Preston Depot was Win (Winifred) Gibson.

Win joined the M&MTB on 9 July 1942. Married to an AIF [16] soldier on active service, for her first three months ‘on the bag’ [17] she worked on the Bourke Street double decker buses from the Central Bus Garage at North Fitzroy, before transferring to the trams running out of Preston Depot – one of the last M&MTB tram depots to be assigned conductresses – located across St Georges Road from Preston Workshops. She remained a conductress until she resigned from the M&MTB on 23 July 1945. Her Certificate of Service stated that her conduct and service were very good.

Win noted that most of the male conductors, and the drivers, were family men. They had a certain reserve regarding working with the conductresses, as few workplaces of the time were mixed sex, the ‘rules of engagement’ not being well understood. Over a period of time, the men came to accept the conductresses, and they willingly shared their working knowledge with the women.

One of the great benefits of the competition, according to Win, was it fostered closer working relationships, bringing the conductresses closer to their workmates’ families. As Preston Depot was one of the smaller M&MTB depots, they hoped to be able to collect 400 as their contribution for the competition.

The major method of fund-raising was through the sale of penny ‘vote’ tickets by conductors and conductresses on the trams and buses, while a special Red Cross Button day was held on 23 July 1944. Buttons were sold from stands around the city manned by uniformed M&MTB staff. A special event was held at Melbourne Town Hall, where noted Melbourne philanthropist Lady Angliss presented each of the nine Melbourne contestants with an orchid.

Penny vote ticket, courtesy of Vicki Wilson

Penny vote ticket from the 1944 ‘Most Popular Conductress’ Competition, featuring Win Gibson. These tickets were sold by M&MTB conductors and conductresses to passengers to support the Red Cross Prisoners of War fund.
Ticket courtesy of Vicki Wilson.

Both Bendigo and Ballarat held greyhound race meetings, where the local candidates were sponsored by the racing clubs, with bookmakers and successful punters making generous donations. One enterprising candidate organised an evening of boxing, wrestling and acrobatic displays at West Melbourne Stadium (known from the 1960s as Festival Hall). Dances at town halls were a popular fundraising event, while Win Gibson held two benefit concerts at the Gowerville Theatre.

A Gala Ball was held at Melbourne Town Hall on 31 August 1944, where the leading fund-raiser and winner was announced:

Mrs Sylvia Mitchell (Ballarat) 3,580
Miss Joan McCurdy (Geelong) 1,750
Mrs Dorothy Rosewarne (Bendigo) 1,725
Mrs Alice Elizabeth Pickup (Kew) 1,473
Miss J. Lake (Camberwell) 1,370
Miss Elizabeth Campara (Central Buses) 1,133
Miss Mary Pelly (Hanna Street) 973
Mrs Win Gibson (Preston) 836
Mrs Ruby Bale (Malvern) 787
Mrs Maud Berry (Brunswick) 787
Mrs Myrtle Holmes (Head Office) 491
Mrs G. Morrison (Port Melbourne) 171
Conductresses at the Gala Ball, 31 August 1944. From the Melbourne Tram Museum collection.

Group photograph of the twelve M&MTB and SECV conductresses at the Gala Ball for the ‘Most Popular Conductress’ competition, 31 August 1944. Back row from left: Miss J. Lake, Joan McCurdy, Sylvia Mitchell, Mrs G. Morrison, Maud Berry, Ruby Bale. Front row from left: Alice Elizabeth Pickup, Myrtle Holmes, Dorothy Rosewarne, Mary Pelly, Win Gibson, Elizabeth Campara.
Photograph from the Melbourne Tram Museum collection.

Using the Reserve Bank of Australia pre-decimal inflation calculator, the total amount raised of 15,076 is equivalent to $1,066,025 in 2017 Australian dollars – a very healthy amount. Win and her colleagues at Preston Depot were pleased they raised more than double their initial estimate. The cheque for the total amount was handed over to the Red Cross on 10 February 1945.

On the bag

Working on trams was generally preferred to buses, as conductresses were required to spend much of their time collecting fares on the open rear platforms of contemporary buses, exposed to dust, exhaust fumes and the weather. The ride quality of trams was also superior to that of buses, easing the demands on the conductresses’ balance.

When the author’s aunt, Hazel Scott, completed her training at Hawthorn Depot in 1942, she was told that she was due to be allocated to Port Melbourne Bus Depot. However, as the chief instructor thought Hazel was a ‘nice girl’, instead she was assigned to work on trams from Hawthorn Depot, so she wouldn’t have to deal with the rough Port Melbourne crowd on the buses. This change of assignment suited her, reducing her commute time significantly, as living in Burwood she would only have to catch one tram to get to work, rather than travelling to the city and changing to a Port Melbourne bus.

Mrs H.F. Scott in M&MTB conductress' uniform (1942). Photograph courtesy Mrs D.C. Jones.Mrs H.F. Scott in M&MTB conductress’ uniform (1942).
Photograph courtesy Mrs D.C. Jones.

Hazel said that of the runs she did from Hawthorn Depot, she preferred Chapel Street – mainly because it wasn’t as busy as the city runs, and the cash bag didn’t get quite as heavy – pennies and half-pennies were not light coins, being much heavier than their decimal counterparts. She also said that by the end of the day, often her ankles were swollen from standing up, and she was glad to get home to soak her feet in a large bowl of hot water.

Of the tramcars she worked on, her least favourite were the old maximum traction trams, as the ride was harsher than a W2 class. The best were the new sliding door cars for the smoothness of their ride, although they did roll a little more from side to side. Hazel was pleased she never had to work on the ancient single truckers used as all-night cars, as they rocked and rolled like a rowboat in a typhoon.


In June 1945, there were 913 conductresses on M&MTB staff. After the end of the war in August, the rate of resignations rose. In early 1946, retrenchments began, with twenty women being laid off by February 1946, when there were only 500 remaining on the payroll.

The ATMOEA protested to the Board, as women were considered equal to men within the union. It strongly put the position that retrenchments should be made on a seniority basis – last in, first out – regardless of sex. Chairman Bell stated that the conductresses had been employed on a temporary basis only, with the clear understanding that they would be replaced as men returned from military service. The M&MTB was not moved to change its policy and expected that all conductresses would be dismissed as soon as men were available to replace them. Additionally, it was determined to reject establishing any precedent for using seniority as the prime basis for selecting personnel for retrenchment, primarily as it wished to reserve the right to retrench staff based on other criteria, especially competence.

Conductresses E Chaplin with Private Ely, 14 March 1946. Photograph courtesy Australian War Memorial Conductress E Chaplin badge number 3707 with Private Ely of 4 Landing Craft of the Australian Army on 14 March 1946. Chaplin was one of the first class of M&MTB conductresses in 1941, while Ely is a former M&MTB conductor due to be released back into civilian employment. Chaplin would be retrenched in 1946 as a result of returning ex-servicemen.
Photograph courtesy Australian War Memorial.

By the end of June 1946, there were only 185 remaining conductresses.

In the April issue of the M&MTB staff magazine, Tramway Topics, Chairman Bell thanked the women for their service, although to modern eyes his words seem condescending. However, many conductresses found the tone of their dismissal notices cold and uncaring, without even a ‘thank you’ for their efforts.

Hazel Scott recalled many years later that she was furious at being dismissed. She said that being a conductress was the best job she ever had, and never forgave the M&MTB for taking it away. Her feelings were shared by many of her former colleagues.

Conductresses in Sydney being laid off for the same reason took direct action. A number of them protested in the State’s Legislative Assembly, demanding their jobs back, and to speak to the Minister for Transport. He refused to meet with them, having them thrown out of Parliament. Another member stated in the House that the women were nothing other than Communist rabble-rousers.

In Melbourne, conductresses did not take any similar action. Those remaining on the bag were bitter at the treatment they received from the public – especially from other women, who they felt were worse than the men. Conductresses were frequently abused for refusing to give way to ex-servicemen needing jobs, all the time while they were waiting for the inevitable retrenchment notice – especially when they had to be up at 4 am on early shifts or working until 1:30 am when on evening shifts, all the time carrying a heavy cash bag.

The redundancies and ill-feeling went on against a background of continuing industrial disputation, primarily over rostering and call-backs for special workings [18]. Resolution of these issues slowed the rate of dismissal, but all of the conductresses were gone by the end of the year.

Gone too far

On the Railway Trams, retrenchments had been much more rapid than with the M&MTB, due to the smaller size of the VR tramway. However, there was one problem – VR was left with a staff shortage, and by August 1946 was forced to rehire some of its former conductresses for the St Kilda to Brighton Beach line. Despite this action, VR unsuccessfully attempted to employ more ex-servicemen, so they could dispense with the women.

The following year, M&MTB employees were granted a forty-hour five-day week by a decision of the Arbitration Court. Prior to this event, the Board had been considering rehiring conductresses, as many new male recruits were resigning from the Board, primarily due to dissatisfaction with the shift work and long hours. More congenial occupations were available in factories at higher pay, where shift work was not required, and the forty-hour week was already well-established – which was why staff retention for the M&MTB was such a problem.

Due to the reduction of the working week, the Board was facing a shortfall of about 850 traffic staff required to maintain services. As a result, it started rehiring former conductresses in August. By November 105 of them were back working, and the Chairman hoped that a total of 500 would be employed by the end of the year.

Conductresses had become a fixture on Melbourne’s tramways, where they remained until replaced by the Metcard ticketing system. The last conductor was retrenched on 24 May 1998.

Despite the hard work and long hours, and the manner of their retrenchment, most wartime conductresses looked back fondly on their time with the M&MTB, and many of them made lifetime friends. In other words, the connies [19] wouldn’t have missed that part of their lives for quids [20].


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Jones, R. (2012), Fare enough, Melbourne Tram Museum

M&MTB (1939-46), Annual Reports, The Ruskin Press Pty Ltd

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MacCowan, I. (1990), The Tramways of New South Wales

O’Neil, D.J. (1994), History of the Geelong Electric Tramways, Baxter & Stubbs

Record (1942), Conductress and Driver Assaulted, 18 July 1942

Record (1942), Conductress Rebukes Unruly Passenger, 3 October 1942

Record (1944), The Pursuit of Happiness, 17 June 1944

Record (1944), Hanna Street Depot Popular Conductress, 26 August 1944

Sporting Globe (1944), Speed Programmes, 12 July 1944

Sporting Globe (1944), Surpass at Ballarat, 19 July 1944

Sporting Globe (1944), Country Coursing – Bendigo Meeting Aids Conductress, 26 August 1944

The Age (1941), Women as Rail Workers, 25 April 1941

The Age (1941), Women’s Place, 28 April 1941

The Age (1941), Housing Scheme Criticised, 8 September 1941

The Age (1942), News of the Day – Railway Conductresses, 13 July 1942

The Age (1942), Trams Collide – Seven Persons Injured, 28 July 1942

The Age (1942), News of the Day – Conductresses Please, 15 August 1942

The Age (1942), Disturbance on Bus, 29 September 1942

The Age (1942), Undertaking on Juniors, 13 October 1942

The Age (1942), Conductress Assaulted, 8 December 1942

The Age (1942), RAAF Man Fined, 9 December 1942

The Age (1944), Buses Collide at Works, 10 January 1944

The Age (1944), News of the day – Popularity Contest, 2 May 1944

The Age (1944), Prize for Conductress, 5 May 1944

The Age (1944), Orchids for Tram Girls, 23 June 1944

The Age (1944), No Action on Tram Issue, 28 September 1944

The Age (1944), Trams Cease Running in City & Suburbs, 30 September 1944

The Age (1945), Tram Link Hold-up, 17 March 1945

The Age (1945), Trams Collide – Eight Persons Injured, 11 August 1945

The Age (1945), Six-Day Week, 16 October 1945

The Age (1946), Conductresses in Railway Trams, 28 August 1946

The Age (1947), Conductresses May Return to Trams, 27 August 1947

The Age (1947), Conductresses May Total 500, 20 November 1947

The Argus (1941), Conductresses Make Their Bow, 28 August 1941

The Argus (1941), Service with a Smile, 5 September 1941

The Argus (1941), No Conductresses on Sydney Trams, 17 September 1941

The Argus (1942), Another Assault on Tram Employees, 20 July 1942

The Argus (1942), First Conductresses on St Kilda-Brighton Trams, 7 October 1942

The Argus (1942), Brighton Tram Conductresses, 12 October 1942

The Argus (1943), 20 Hurt in City Tram Crash, 1 March 1943

The Argus (1944), Conductresses Want More Coupons for Stockings, 24 May 1944

The Argus (1944), Button Day of Red Cross – Tramway Men and Women Assist, 24 June 1944

The Argus (1944), Conductresses raise 15,000, 1 September 1944

The Argus (1944), Tramway men ask or more releases from army, 5 October 1944 <typo?>

The Argus (1944), Limit Reached in Tram Board’s Concession to Men, 6 October 1944

The Argus (1945), Tramways Chairman Attacks Militants, 19 January 1945

The Argus (1945), Life of Melbourne – Tram Conductresses – Good Show, 10 February 1945

The Argus (1945), Women tramway supervisors, 23 March 1945

The Argus (1946), Dismissal of More Tram Conductresses, 13 February 1946

The Argus (1946), Tramways Board to Retrench Conductresses, 14 February 1946

The Argus (1946), Tram Conductresses Give Their Views, 2 April 1946

The Argus (1946), Conductresses Thanked, 3 April 1946

The Argus (1946), Tram Board’s Compliment to Conductresses, 8 April 1946

The Argus (1946), Talks Pending on Tram Rosters, 30 April 1946

The Argus (1946), Tram hold-up unlikely today, 4 May 1946

The Argus (1947), 5-day rosters wanted by rail and tram men, 13 September 1947

The Australasian (1942), Tram girls are doing a vital war job, 26 September 1942

The Herald (1944), Slacks Not Favoured by Tram Board Chairman, 24 May 1944

The Herald (1944), Tram Girls in Red Cross Button Drive, 23 June 1944

The Herald (1944), Contest for Popular Conductress, 27 July 1944

The Herald (1944), Tram Conductresses Work for War Prisoners, 31 July 1944

The Herald (1944), P.O.W. Fund Night at Stadium, 16 August 1944

The Herald (1944), Popular Conductress Ball Tonight, 31 August 1944

Weekly Times (1944), Conductress Raises 3500, 13 September 1944

Weekly Times (1944), 3 Women Killed in Tram Accident, 23 August 1944

Other sources

Personal recollections of Hazel Scott as related to the author.


Thanks to Vicki Wilson, daughter of Win Gibson, M&MTB badge number 4356, for supplying material regarding her mother’s participation in the 1944 Most Popular Conductress competition, and who provided the initial impetus for writing this article.

Also, thanks to my sister Noelle Jones, for her dedication as my editor. Her efforts result in my writing becoming infinitely more readable.


[1] By June 1941, 280 male staff of the M&MTB had enlisted in the armed forces. By war’s end, a total of 1227 would serve, of whom 34 died on active service – a casualty rate of 2.8%. In comparison, tramway employees serving in the First World War suffered a fatal casualty rate of 16.0%.

[2] In 1915, P&MTT conductors were required to collect fares while swinging along the footboards on the exterior of many of the P&MTT tramcars. This was held to be too physically demanding and dangerous for women to attempt, especially given the nature of women’s fashions at the time.

[3] To allow diversion of economic resources to support the military, a large number of commodities were subjected to rationing during the war – including food, clothing, luxury items and petrol. Every month, people were issued ration books, which contained coupons for various quantities of rationed products. Rationed products could not be legally purchased without presenting the required number of coupons from the ration book.

[4] Roaming conductors were assigned to city sections, reducing the chance of fare evasion in crowded trams with many passengers making short trips. City-based conductors could also be assigned to sell fares at particularly busy stops, most commonly at the corner of Flinders Street and Swanston Street, or at the Elizabeth Street terminus.

[5] The footboard (or toastrack) cars of the Sydney L/P, K, N, O, O/P and P classes required conductors to collect fares from passengers by swinging along the footboards on the outside of tramcars, known as ‘treading the boards’. Due to the high injury and death rate suffered by Sydney and Newcastle tram conductors on these trams, use of conductresses for the same duties was thought to be unacceptable. Conductresses were never hired for work on the Newcastle tramways, which only had L/P class footboard trams.

[6] There were 250 relatively new R and R1 class corridor (or saloon) cars in the Sydney tramway fleet during the Second World War. These were judged to be suitable for use with conductresses.

[7] The ATMOEA did not have industrial coverage of tramway employees of VR, as this was claimed by the ARU.

[8] The footboards on most VR trams were designed to be flipped up on the ‘off’ side at the terminus, preventing passengers from boarding via the wrong (i.e. right hand) side of the tramcar. The footboards were mechanically interlinked, so only one could be down at any time, although this was not implemented on the one-man trams on the Black Rock line or the 1942 VR luxury cars, as the same effect was achieved by shutting the air-operated doors on the ‘off’ side. Footboards on M&MTB trams were fixed, so the flipping of footboards was not required.

[9] Split shifts are working patterns where shifts were broken into two four-hour components, covering both the morning and evening peaks, with a break in between, usually also of four hours’ duration. Split shifts were unpopular with all operations staff. The M&MTB assigned staff with the least seniority to split shifts.

[10] The 1944 VFL Grand Final was played at the Junction Oval, St Kilda, adjacent to St Kilda Junction. Fitzroy (9.12.66) defeated Richmond (7.9.51).

[11] Lend-Lease was a US aid program operated during the Second World War for the supply of oil, food and war materiel to Allied nations, which were supplied at zero cost. It was a key reason for the eventual Allied victory over the Axis nations. Under the relevant treaty, Australia had reciprocal obligations to the United States, which were known as Reverse Lend-Lease. By the end of the war, unlike most other Allied nations, Australia had supplied more goods under Reverse Lend-Lease than it received from the United States.

[12] The Manpower Directorate was a department of the Commonwealth Government. From 1942 until the end of the war, it controlled allocation of manpower resources into both the military and civilian sectors, with priority given to roles that had a direct impact on the war effort. Companies could not hire additional personnel without approval from the Directorate, nor could employees change jobs without approval.

[13] The William Street to Hanna Street extension (in 2018 part of route 58) was completed in December 1944 but was not opened for service until 3 February 1946.

[14] At the end of the Second World War, the Royal Australian Air Force was the fourth largest in the world in terms of numbers of combat aircraft, after the United States, Soviet Union and the United Kingdom. In 1945, in the South West Pacific Area (SWPA), its major combat area after the surrender of Nazi Germany, it was committed to secondary theatres of action, not taking any part in the major offensives against Japanese forces carried out by the Americans. Similarly, the army consisted of six combat divisions engaged in action in the SWPA, outside the major American offensives – the 3rd (militia), 5th (militia), 6th (AIF), 7th (AIF), 9th (AIF) and 11th (militia) Divisions – as well as a large home establishment. It was planned to raise a seventh division, the 10th (AIF) Division, for participation in Operation Downfall – the invasion of Japan. This division would be manned, armed and fight according to American doctrine, rather than the highly-effective jungle fighting doctrine evolved by the Australian Army in 1943-44 and used by all existing six divisions. The raising of 10th Division did not proceed beyond the planning phase, due to the surrender of Japan in August 1945. The size of the military was kept high largely for prestige reasons, to ensure Australia obtained the maximum benefits in any negotiations held after the end of hostilities, and to recover Australian territory in Papua New Guinea held by the Japanese. This level of armed forces was amongst the highest of any Allied nation on a per capita basis, although it did not leave Australia free from criticism as not doing ‘its bit’, especially from post-war British military historians. Only the Royal Australian Navy, the smallest of the services, was actively involved in the major offensives of 1945, as most of its fleet units were tightly integrated into US Navy formations and operated according to American naval doctrine.

[15] Chairman Bell’s word choice underlines the quasi-military nature of the M&MTB as an organisation, as viewed by much of contemporary society, which would be reinforced by the appointment of his successor in 1949 – Major-General Sir Robert Risson. This view of the M&MTB was not shared by the ATMOEA.

[16] The Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was that section of the army consisting of soldiers who had volunteered for overseas service.

[17] ‘On the bag’ was an M&MTB colloquialism for being rostered on traffic duty as a conductor or conductress. It referred to carrying the conductor’s cash bag in the approved manner, slung around the neck, ready to issue fares.

[18] Special workings referred to tram workings outside the normal schedule. These included car transfers between depots or to Preston Workshops, charters, and extra services for sporting events – especially Victorian Football League games, Sheffield Shield (interstate) cricket matches or horse-racing meetings. It would also include additional workings to beach termini on warm summer weekends, or to special events such as New Year’s celebrations or Anzac Day commemoration ceremonies.

[19] ‘Connies’ is a long-accepted Melbourne slang term for both conductors and conductresses.

[20] A quid is an obsolete Australian slang term for a 1 note. The common contemporary expression “wouldn’t have missed it for quids” was used for emphasis, to indicate that an individual had not wished to miss an opportunity for any cause, even for a large amount of money.