In the 1930s and 40s Queensland, Meandering Martha was a tiny lifeline for the rural women of Queensland

One of Miss Hunfress' scrapbooks filled with submitted and collected recipes and household tips, 1939-52. Picture: National Archives
One of Miss Hunfress' scrapbooks filled with submitted and collected recipes and household tips, 1939-52. Picture: National Archives

Today, your cooking and housekeeping quandaries can be quickly solved through a Google or YouTube search. However in 1930s and 40s Queensland, women seeking such advice turned their attention to the wireless, specifically Women's Hour compered by a Miss Rita Humfress.

Over the hour, Miss Humfress would cover everything from thrifty cooking tips and celebrity interviews to household tips and the current fashions (with affordable recommendations).

For more than two decades her dedicated audience, many in rural and remote areas, would tune in. Some listeners felt compelled to write to Miss Humfress. As Australian Broadcasting Commission records, these letters are today held by the National Archives of Australia.

Included with the letters are numerous recipes from all over Queensland. From Rathdowney, south-west of Brisbane, to Millaa Millaa, near Cairns, women were keen to share their recipes with others also facing the challenges posed by the Great Depression, then war-time rationing.

For more than two decades her dedicated audience, many in rural and remote areas, would tune in.

Some of the recipes have annotations the letter-writer felt were pertinent to Miss Humfress. Two recipes from Mrs Doug Seaton of 66 Gatton Street in Cairns have a hand-written comment that they were ideal for "folk who don't get much in the line of fresh vegetables". Miss Norma J Knack in Ingham jotted a note that the recipe for a Dutch apple pie was sent to her from a Canadian penfriend.

The recipes reflect the frugality of the era. Among them are instructions for making "fake foods", including mock chicken, whiting, pears, whitebait and (gasp) mock cream. The mock pear recipe makes use of the likely more readily available tropical chayote squash or choko.

Recipe contributors were also keen to highlight the use of minimal or no eggs in their recipe. Mrs EB Ford of Toowoomba even managed to send in a recipe for a no egg, milk or butter cake.

Creative ways to deal with leftovers also feature heavily among the submissions. Mrs Henderson of Cambroon recommends a way to serve cold-meat leftovers in her most unappealingly titled "Meat Shape" recipe.

Illustrating the desire to use all parts of the animal, Mrs JA Schneider of Stanthorpe submitted instructions on how to tan rabbit skins. While Maureen Berszinski from Mossman simply suggested reviving stale scones by frying them.

During the 1930s, the recipes were shared on Women's Hour by "Meandering Martha", brought to life by actress Bebe Scott. Scott, in an interview about the role of Martha, described her as "a darling, just the kind of person you'd love to have in your own kitchen ... She's really too unselfish - most cooks hang on to their pet secret recipes like grim death, but not Martha - if she's got anything good to eat she's simply GOT to tell her friends about it."

The surviving Meandering Martha scripts held by the National Archives reflect this character and are peppered with "dearies" and "loves". By 1940 Martha appears to have disappeared from Women's Hour.

Although newspapers of the day would credit Miss Humfress as "just the compere" of Morning Sessions, her workload was considerably larger. A letter from the early 1940s arguing for a wage increase for Miss Humfress from £4 per week (equivalent to $390 today), explains that she is responsible for organising and writing six 80-minute sessions a week - one for each weekday and Saturdays. This included research, writing, liaising with guests, coaching speakers, rehearsing and responding to mail from her ever-expanding audience - a huge breadth of work for a single individual. In response to this letter, Miss Humfress was given a £1 a week pay rise.

Four years later, Miss Humfress again petitioned management for a raise, noting that despite her workload and public profile her salary is only 'a few shillings more than that of a senior typist'. Instead, Humfress' workload was reduced.

Women's Hour faced a reduced timeslot and a name change to Women's Session. Local information was reduced and more segments from interstate Women's Sessions were aired.

This was not something listeners were happy with. In 1946 Rachel Stewart from Mount Larcome reflected in a letter to the ABC Weekly: "To many women out in the 'Open Spaces' Rita Humfress' cheerful session is the one bright time in our daily routine ... During the long years of war Miss Humfress did much to cheer us and keep up morale."

Miss Humfress would continue working for the ABC through to 1956 when she suffered a paralytic stroke. She would pass away the following year.

It is easy for us to forget the significant role broadcasters such as Rita Humfress would have played in the lives of rural women during this time. As articulated in a 1947 Daily Examiner article, for many Miss Humfress was an unseen guest in many homes and "became a confidante and friend to those whom distance made friendship with other women impossible".

The files of recipes and housekeeping tips, held by the National Archives, were much more than simple advice.

They marked tiny lifelines between Miss Humfress' microphone and the women of rural Queensland.

  • Emily Catt is a researcher at the National Archives of Australia. The Archives are now open to visitors. You can explore the collections and resources at naa.gov.au.
This story Meandering Martha's Women's Hour first appeared on The Canberra Times.