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Sustaining the Firies – The Mobile ‘Canteen’ (1942 Ford 21W)

Did you know? The Women’s Fire Auxiliary (WFA), established in the 1940s, was primarily formed to aid the NSW Fire Brigade on the home front during World War II? Albeit an interesting little tidbit of history for you here, you may be thinking: pray, what is the connection between the WFA and a 1942 “mobile canteen”?

The canteen parked outside Headquarters, c. 1960
The canteen parked outside AGNSW, c. 1960

The Mobile Canteen in question, is a rare example of motorized canteen services used by the Metropolitan Fire Service from 1942 to 1974 and was supported, enthusiastically, by the WFA who actively organized and ran over 100 functions to raise funding for its fabrication. Their fundraising activities which included Housie-Housie (Bingo!), dances, raffles and more excitingly, the “Queens Competition” – a very fashionable affair, if you ask us – resulted in the WFA successfully raising £3323/7/4 (equivalent to $250, 870 today) by 4 December 1942. This is over 3 times the proposed £1000 objective.

Connections between the Mobile Canteen and the WFA could be considered synonymous with the changed mentality in gender roles during the war effort. The precis of the mobile canteen was to provide support to the NSW Fire Brigade through its use at major fires and other major emergencies.

Socially, it is a symbolic facet of women’s history in NSW, as the WFA’s involvement with the Mobile Canteen, since its inception, provided significant means for women to actively contribute to the war effort. Thus, propelling women into a more active and defined role in front-line response, during a time when ‘manpower’ was limited due to overseas consignments.

WFA, c. 1944
WFA, c. 1944

The 1942 Ford 21W Mobile Canteen has an interesting manufacturing history on design, production and bureaucratic dialogue between Fire Commissioners, their Secretariats and Ford manufacturers concerning the activities of the Government during the war effort from the period of 1940 - 1942.

The 1942 Mobile Canteen is a fine example of support equipment, which demonstrates the development of firefighting equipment, control and techniques during war efforts and the post-war period. It is a close copy, design-wise, of the Women’s Australian National Service (WANS) mobile canteens in use during the 1940s and holds great heritage significance on a state and national level.

The design of the canteen alludes to its primary function as a support service vehicle that served hot beverages and consumable services to firefighters in the occurrence of a fire. It is also a direct manifestation of the evolving practice and challenges faced by the Brigades when it came to freeing firefighters from non-firefighting roles during emergency incidents in the war and post-war period.

The Mobile Canteen was officially installed at Headquarters Fire Station (now the City of Sydney) on 21 July 1944 and was reported to cost £1968/19/11. It was first operated on Wednesday, 2 August 1944 at a fire at No. 7A and 7B Wharf in West Circular Quay, Sydney.

As we look at the design and its primary function during WWII and thereafter, the 1942 Mobile Canteen, a somatic expression of the effects of the wartime effort that propelled women in more active roles, is comparable to the actions, roles and significance of women during this time and demonstrates the development of support equipment which was necessary for efficient firefighting operations.

Ford Canteen parked on street at Headquarters Fire Station, c. 1970
Ford Canteen parked on street at Headquarters Fire Station, c. 1970

So, what happened to the WFA? Well, the WFA disbanded after the war in 1945 by the advice of the Board of Fire Commissioners of NSW.

Now, what about the Mobile Canteen? After this time, the Canteen was manned solely by NSW Brigade Officers until 1974 after 30 years of service. Today, it is a part of the Museum of Fire’s Heritage Fleet and considered to be 1 of 2 surviving Australian manufactured mobile canteens built and used by the NSW Fire Brigades.

On display now, the 1942 Ford 21W Mobile Canteen is a rare gem that is synonymous with changing technology (i.e., equipment and function) and the role of women during the war efforts.

The canteen on display at the Museum today
The canteen on display at the Museum today (2021)

- Museum of Fire Engagement Team


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