World War II Onion Girls

On a Sunday in November 1942, sixteen young women from the Perth fashion salon John Lawley’s made their way to Spearwood to plant over 50,000 onions for a struggling market gardener.

Market gardens played a vital role in keeping the nation and the armed forces fed during World War II. With trade between many nations suspended and ships being sunk by the enemy, Australia had to rely primarily on its own producers for food. Farmers of all sizes struggled to keep up with demand, especially during planting and harvesting. Men and women were enlisting in droves, and even though market gardeners were often exempted from military service, their sons and employees were not. Gardens were left without enough hands to get the work done.

Five women and one man watching on as one woman and two men each plant an onion

Courtesy State Library of WA

The National Service Office connected able civilians with spare time, many of them women not already working in wartime roles, to struggling producers and manufacturers, sending out groups on weekends to pick fruit, plough fields, or in this case, plant onions.

The sixteen women from the fashion house, with the help of the Spearwood gardener (whose name is never mentioned), planted over 50,000 onions in less than six hours, and returned with more of their colleagues the next week to finish the job.

Seven boys picking carrots at Davey Brothers market garden

Spearwood gardens got another helping hand in October 1943, when 15 boys from the Fremantle Technical School travelled out to help pick carrots and swedes on the Davey Bros. market gardens. Mr J.E. Davey, snr, had three sons serving in the army, two of whom were prisoners of war. He was struggling to keep his garden going, and the help of strong young men to gather the harvest was badly needed.

See more: onion planting photos on the State Library catalogue, onion planting newspaper article, full page photo spread from 1942, Fremantle Technical School boys article on carrot harvest in the Western Mail.