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Sugar and spice: changing patterns of women's work in a WA cake and biscuit factory

Ann Delroy & Phyl Brown

Ann Delroy & Phyl Brown, 'Sugar and spice: changing patterns of women's work in a WA cake and biscuit factory', Fremantle Studies, 1, 1999: 1-11.

In October 1991, Arnott, which had become the major shareholder in the Mills and Ware cake and biscuit company in 1973, announced the forthcoming closure of the Fremantle factory. Any business closure is a dramatic event and of consequence for the workers concerned, but this was particularly significant. Mills and Ware, later Arnott, Mills and Ware, had operated for nearly 100 years in South Fremantle. For much of its existence it had been one of the largest single employers of women in an industrial enterprise in Western Australia and, following the period of mass migration after the Second World War, a large employer of workers from non- English speaking backgrounds - initially from southern Europe and more recently from South East Asia. At the time of closure, 90% of the workforce were women and 75% were born overseas. Fourteen languages were spoken in the factory. It also held a very significant place in the Fremantle community: generations of Fremantle residents had worked there and all in its vicinity enjoyed the sweet aroma of baking biscuits and cakes.

When closure was announced, a project to document the factory was initiated. involved a range of organisations and individuals including the Western Australian Museum, the Trades and Labour Council, the Food Preservers Union, the State Library of Western Australia and the City of Fremantle Council and Library. An industrial photographer was employed to photo-document the factory before closure

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and two oral historians were employed to undertake a double-faceted oral history project: one focussing on the history of the factory and workers, the second focussing on the impact of redundancy. The Western Australian Museum, whilst helping to manage these projects, obtained artefacts for its collection and for a proposed exhibition. However, repeated attempts to obtain archival material from
Arnott’s management were unsuccessful.

This paper examines the experiences of women working in the factory. It draws on the bank of oral histories generated from the documentation project, together with scant existing documentary sources and official records. A number of key issues are addressed including the gender division of labour, the double day for women, the impact of new technology on women’s employment in the factory, scientific management in the workplace and the experience of migrant women.

Although work has been the focus of much research in the last few decades, the role of women in the workforce has, until recently, been comparatively neglected. Their work experience is different to that of men. Through ideology, men have been sanctioned as primary participants in the paid workforce. This was confirmed legally by the Harvester decision in 1907: women were to be wives and mothers. However, there was always tension in the model, as some women existed outside the package of ‘family’ and others, through the economic circumstances of their families, had no option but to find paid work. At the same time, some paid work was the province of women, and their cheap labour - usually associated with domestic or repetitive roles - was vitally important to the expanding industrialised
economy. 1

With the consolidation of manufacturing in Western Australia by the turn of the century, in response to the gold boom, new avenues of employment became available to women as employers sought cheap, unskilled labour for their factories. By 1902, 10% of workers in Western Australian industry were women. 2 Despite this, women in paid work were penalised: financially through wages substantially less than men’s, through lack of employment options and rigid segregation of men’s work and women’s work, and through expectations that unpaid domestic work in the home was women’s work and was to be carried out in addition to paid employment.

Clear lines of a sexual division of labour had been long established in the Western Australian labour market. By 1903 at Mills and Ware, fifty to sixty ‘girls and boys’ were employed in clearly defined areas of work. 3 The male workers were employed in mixing, baking and dispatch, whilst female workers were confined to the more

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repetitive, unskilled tasks of wrapping and packing the biscuits after they came out of the ovens. 4


Women packing tins of biscuits in the Mills & Ware Factory, 1905 Morning Herald, 1 September, 1905. Courtesy LISWA

The Morning Herald, in 1903, described the emerging business in glowing terms:

The workers of both sexes are cleanly and neatly dressed. Each department has its own area divided by partition walls and the ensemble is that of a busy hive of intelligent workers, putting zest into the pleasurable task of promoting the welfare of a splendid industrial disposition. 5

Despite the newspaper’s enthusiasm, the business was small and uncertain, providing a cyclical pattern of employment: workers were laid off in slack periods and re-hired when demand for biscuits increased. Some women found it necessary to return to domestic service to maintain an income. Mabel Pilling, who started work at the factory as a young girl in 1914, described it as

a poor place, they were only feeling their feet ... there’d be perhaps a month at a time we’d have to be put off because there was no work ... so I had to go into service ... but I didn't like it ... So as soon as the factory was asking for girls again, I’d go back ... I liked the company of the girls and it was a different atmosphere altogether to working for someone [as a domestic]. 6

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During the First World War, business was confident as the factory turned to the production of biscuits for the defence forces. Staff increased by more than 25% and the factory operated from 7.30am on Monday to 7.30pm on Saturday. 7 Women temporarily performed traditional men’s work of taking biscuits off the trays as soon as they came out of the ovens.

In the Depression years, when a temporary decline in business was experienced, workers’ security was again uncertain. The first to be laid off were women and men over the age of twenty-one years when the adult wage had to be paid to them. 8 Their replacements were often young girls, the cheapest source of labour. Phyl Subert was sixteen years old when she joined Mills and Ware in 1930 as a telephonist. She recalls that many of the girls employed then were her age because 'that was the year they were getting rid of the older ones'. 9

In the local community Mills and Ware became known as the ‘finishing school’. The term related to the fact that at fifteen years of age many girls, because of family economic pressure, had to leave school to work. In Fremantle, Mills and Ware was one of only a few places where young women could find employment and it was
there that they 'completed their education'. 10


Teams of women weighing baked biscuits, stacking and wrapping them, then gluing end papers on the rolls of biscuits, Mills & Ware, 1930s. Courtesy Arnott's Biscuits Ltd.

Cultural mores dictated that women’s place was in the home and conditions of women’s paid employment related to current ideology. For example, when the first minimum wage was handed down in 1926 in Western Australia, the difference between the male and female rates of pay was enshrined in the ideology of the

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family - the average worker was male and the breadwinner. 11 The first minimum wage for women was 56% of the male rate of £4.5.0 per week. 12

Because of the lack of unionisation amongst women there was little hope of changing working conditions. Indeed, 'unions, no less repositories of the cultural mores about women had a patchy record when it came to the organisation of women workers in Western Australia'. 13 Union involvement was considered the province of men and domestic duties limited women’s opportunities for activities outside the hours of paid employment. There was, however, one very long and significant strike over physical conditions in the factory in 1939 involving both women and men which lasted for seven weeks. The outbreak of the Second World War was the catalyst to end the strike, with nearly all conditions met by the company including the provision of seating for staff during breaks, toilets and change rooms. 14

By 1939 Mills and Ware, already one of the State’s largest employers of women, had a female staff of 53% which rose a further 7% in 1941. 15 After 1942, as a result of the Manpower Directorate during the War, the proportion of female staff increased to 69% when the factory took over production of biscuits for the defence forces. 16 Many additional staff were older married women who had worked at the factory when single and who were now employed in the heavy mixing process and on the hot ovens. Often it was only the older women who were physically capable of lifting the heavy trays of biscuits. 17

Almost all areas of secondary industry experienced an increase in women’s employment during the War. For example, food processing recorded a massive increase of 93%. 18 Win Wray recalled that when Mills and Ware advertised for women to do men’s work, there was no shortage of applicants and all types of women came - 'some of them were really strong'. 19 The Women’s Employment Board, established during the War, decreed that those women who could prove that they were doing men’s jobs would be awarded 90% of the male rate of pay. This increase was granted to women 'selecting and assembling goods for packing' in the Mills and Ware factory in December 1943. 20 However, the Award delivered in January 1945 shows a return to pre-war practice with women receiving just over half of the wage received by their male counterparts. 21

After the War, Mills and Ware continued to employ more women that men, with a drop of only 4% in the number of women employed between 1946 and 1951; but only rarely did women retain traditional men's jobs. 22 The Second World War did not institutionalise change to the gender divisional structure of the labour force. On

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the contrary, as Gail Reekie argues, government intervention cemented existing divisions between men’s work and women’s work and between high status, highly paid work and low status, poorly paid work. Women employed in traditional women’s work were prevented from moving up the occupational hierarchy, and women employed in non-traditional areas had little opportunity to continue after the War. 23 The increased proportion of women in the Mills and Ware workforce after the War was based on two other factors: firstly, when the production of ‘fancy lines’ was resumed after the War, more work in icing of cakes, creaming of biscuits and chocolate enrobing was generated - women’s work! Secondly, increased production through new technology created a need for more wrappers and packers, also traditionally women’s work. 24 The sexual division of labour into traditional women’s work and men’s work was a pattern which continued until the factory’s closure in 1992. Inroads were made in the 1980s when women worked on machines for the first time - but as attendants, not operators!

Technology of some kind had been part of production processes at Mills and Ware since William Mills’ first hand-turned biscuit machine. By 1903 all mixing, cutting and baking was done mechanically. 25 Increasingly machinery was used not only to improve production but to define and regulate the work of women on the factory floor. The first automatic oven - with a continuous band to carry biscuits through their baking time - was introduced after World War II and, in 1961, the first wrapping machine was installed. 26

Each innovation affected women whose work was generated and meted out by machines. Each technical innovation lessened handling during production and required fewer women for individual processes. New wrapping machines reduced the number of women on the packaging floor from 126 to 70. Casual labour was increased, saving management costs in superannuation and holiday pay and providing a flexible set of workers who could be moved in and out of work daily as they were required.

The introduction of new technology was part of the 'management boom' which swept across Australia in the 1950s and 1960s as production experts were employed in industry, large and small, to implement Taylorist strategies. 27 The aim was to maximise output in a given time by reorganising and controlling the labour process. Labour intensive, subdivided and repetitious work was often targeted for time-and- motion studies and individualised wage incentives. 28

At the Mills and Ware factory time-and-motion studies were first introduced in the 1950s. Emma Ciccotosto recalls that soon after she started working at the factory,

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and when Arnott became a shareholder in Mills and Ware in 1953, experts were sent from Sydney to improve production.

They employed a couple of men to study us working. They stood by us with stop watches in their hands and worked out how long it took us to do everything ... I worked with one of these men, George Lambert, for some time while he figured out a system of rates of pay. Management liked this system. They felt they were getting the best out of their workers and it suited me. I was a fast worker. I could wrap 3500 packets of biscuits a day and could earn ten shillings or more a day extra. But the bonus system didn’t suit everybody. 29

Some found the work hard, others did not, but it was always continuous. Cooled biscuits had to be wrapped, cellophaned, then packed into cartons. The work required speed, deftness and judgement. There was often competition among the women to ‘cellophane’ the biscuits, an efficient wrapper whose biscuits could be relied on to stay packaged. This meant that 'cellophaning' could be completed more rapidly, thus making it more likely for the worker to reap the benefits of the bonus system.

The individual bonus system was replaced by the group bonus system which included all the workers on a particular line. This was even less successful than the scheme for individuals. Most women were aware of the implication of proposed bonus systems and the effects of time and motion studies conducted by production experts. They urged: 'slow down a bit because if you slow down, when the real bonus comes you can speed up.'

Time and motion studies were also employed at Mills and Ware to cut down the number of workers. Betty Mills recalls that

May [the forewoman] chose me to show that we needed two girls packing off at the end of the belt ... I thought I was so wonderful ... so efficient I didn’t realise that what I was doing was what May didn’t want me to do. She wanted me to let the biscuits go everywhere and be a big mess so that we’d have to have two girls ... I realised too late that May was so angry with me for keeping up ... I’d shown them it could be done ... that meant only one girl packing off and it was my fault! 30

The pace of conveyer belts was adjustable, a necessity for different types of biscuits and different processes, but it was often 'a struggle to keep up' with the belt. The

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work output of women could be increased by varying the speed of the belts. Lillian Last, who worked at the factory for many years, described the process.

There were times when they would set the machines up in the morning and the girls would know they were sped, and if the machine was bringing the biscuits through too quickly and the girls couldn’t pack them off, they’d run off the end of the belt - well, that was wastage ... management would then slow things down. 31

Management used this ploy when demand for a product had increased or if they were trying to pick up time after a mechanical breakdown. It appears that women tolerated a certain increase in belt speeds but revolted at what they considered an excessive rate. At about this same time - a time when women from non-English speaking backgrounds were being employed - women speaking different languages were placed side by side to eliminate or reduce the possibility of their slowing down through talking whilst working.

The explosion of technology from the late 1970s dictated not only women’s rate and type of work but even whether they could be employed to work on the factory floor. The ideal packer was likely to be the most efficient and least likely to be affected by strain or injury and, presumably, resulting claims.

You couldn’t be eleven or twelve stone because you couldn’t operate on the line. Ideally if you were fit, five foot six and of trim build, you could work on a packaging line and have no problems. But if you were short, you couldn’t reach across the belt then. 5’ 10” would probably be the limit. Being too tall they were over-stretching the belts ... damaging backs. 32

The double day served by working women has been documented by numerous writers; for many female workers at Mills and Ware this was a daily reality. Single girls living at home were an exception. In addition to working a full or part-time day at the factory, it was expected that wives and mothers would also do the shopping, cooking, cleaning and child-rearing. Women workers repeatedly had to 'juggle and compromise' in their effort to live out the occupational consequences of motherhood and paid employment. 33 Between the 1950s and up to the 1970s, child care in Fremantle was extremely limited and expensive. Many mothers working at Arnott, Mills and Ware, of all ethnic backgrounds, could do so only with the support of their mother or another family member. Sometimes a woman worked part-time at night so that a husband could supervise their children after his work.

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Although many women spent almost their entire working life at Arnott, Mills and Ware, and it often amounted to decades, their employment was not concurrent. It was common for a woman to work until she was expecting a baby. As there was no maternity leave, she was forced to retire for a time. This pattern of taking time out to bear children, then returning to paid work, was an accepted part of a woman’s work cycle. The pattern caused conflict and anger when the closure of the factory was announced in 1992 as redundancy packages were initially calculated on the basis of continuous employment, not total number of years worked. One woman who worked between 1955 and 1992, a thirty-seven year period, but who left briefly to have three children, had only nineteen recognised years of service. These were the years worked consecutively after the birth of her last child. Arnott's eventual recognition of women's 'time out' to bear children was a union success.


Women 'creaming' rolls at the Arnott's Factory prior to its closure, 1992. Courtesy Fremantle Local History Collection

Many workers at Mills and Ware after the Second World War were immigrants - from the United Kingdom, Italy, the former Yugoslavia, Portugal, Spain, Poland and later Asia. Most women of different ethnic backgrounds had little formal education. But the company was tolerant of immigrant workers and for good reason: these women were dexterous, hard-working and tended to stay for many years, sometimes thirty or forty. Language was not a barrier to employment: women barely able to speak English were employed.

Migrant women from non-English speaking backgrounds generally worked in areas of low status, pay and conditions but it was a position shared by English-speaking women. However, there was less opportunity for women of non-English speaking

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background to become upwardly mobile and advance to the position of forewoman
or supervisor.

The experiences of women on the factory floor at Mills and Ware, later Arnott, Mills and Ware, were universal. Women were the lowest paid workers in the factory doing the most repetitive, routine work. Except for inroads made by a few women as machine attendants (not operators) and laboratory workers in recent years, the gender division of labour was largely entrenched.

Generally, different work areas for men and women reinforced the gender separation. Clothing, different for men and women, visually distinguished the sexes and generated messages about social activity. Men wore overalls or a shirt and trousers, suited to action; women wore a dress and apron, functional clothing but synonymous with domesticity. Apprentices in trades were almost always male; rarely did these boys do women's work. In speaking of themselves, female workers invariably used the term 'girls' with all the word’s connotations of gender and inexperience, while males were always 'men' denoting adult males.

Overtly and covertly gender divisions were reinforced and perpetuated through work and management practices at the Arnott, Mills and Ware biscuit factory. Women juggled and balanced their dual roles of unpaid wives/mothers and paid employees in the workforce. Most female employees did not dispute that this was the natural order of things.

Presented at the Fremantle Studies Day 4 May 1996, Fremantle History Museum


1 Marjorie Turner, Women and Work, Institute of Industrial Relations, Los Angeles, 1964. Christine Bose, Roslyn Feldberg, et al, Hidden Aspects of Women's Work, New York, Praeger Publishers, 1987. Norma Grieve and A Burns (eds), Australian Women New Feminist Perspectives, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1986

2 Carolyn West, 'An Economic Overview: The Development of Manufacturing in Western Australia from 1892-1902', unpublished essay, Murdoch University, 1992, p 20

3 Supplement to the Morning Herald, 1 September 1903

4 Shirley Booth, 'In the Factory: 'Burnt Fingers': Mills and Ware Biscuits 1898-1952', The Murdoch Ethos, Murdoch University, 1989, p 80

5 Supplement to the Morning Herald, 1 September 1903

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6 Quoted in Jan Carter, Nothing to Spare - Recollections of Australian Pioneering Women, Victoria, 1981, p 9

7 Margaret Dawson, ‘The History of the Development of Mills and Ware Biscuits Pty’, unpublished essay, p 14

8 Booth, p 82

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., p 90

11 Sally Kennedy ‘Segregation for Integration: Women and Work in Factories and Shops in Western Australia during the Great Depression’, Studies in Western Australian History 5, 1982, p 41-2

12 Ibid., p 42

13 Ibid., p 43

14 Booth, p 85-6

15 Ibid., p 84

16 Gail Reekie, ‘Women’s Paid Work During World War Two in Western Australia’, Honours Thesis, Murdoch University, 1982, p 55

17 Booth, p 84

18 Reekie, p 51

19 Booth, p 84

20 Reekie, p 56

21 Booth, p 85

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 Supplement to the Morning Herald, 1 September 1903

26 Dawson, p 25

27 Taylorist management practices involved a scientific management or approach to the organisation of work enunciated by an American industrialist engineer, Frederick W Taylor (1856 - 1915). His idea was to determine the best way for a worker to perform a task was to provide proper tools and training and to provide incentives for good performance so that workers would become supremely efficient and productive.

28 Chris Wright, ‘Taylorism Reconsidered: The Impact of Scientific Management within the Australian Workplace’, Labour History 61, May 1993, p 43

29 Emma Ciccotosto & Michal Bosworth, Emma: A Translated Life, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 1990, p 109-10

30 Interview with Betty Mills. 1992 (interviewer Stuart Reid)

31 Interview with Lillian Last, 1992 (interviewer Stuart Reid)

32 Ibid.

33 Pamela Daniels & Kathy Weingarten, 'Mother's Hours: The Timing of Parenthood and Women’s Work’, in P. Voydanoff (ed.), Work and Family: Changing Roles of Men and Women, Mayeld Publishing Co, California, 1984, p 211

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