The girl on the badge
A donation came to my desk in the days following Anzac Day that caught my attention. It was a maroon and white identification badge that featured the image of a young girl, her name, an I.D. number and the words, 'C.S.I.R. Radiophysics Division'
Fortunately the depositor of the badge provided details of the original owner and I was soon speaking to Valerie Briggs who at 79 years of age still possessed all of the enthusiasm and intelligence that I saw in the eyes of the girl on the badge.
Val confirmed that this was the badge she wore when she was working with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in 1944-45. At the age of 15, she successfully completed her Intermediate Certificate and was immediately 'manpowered' to work at the CSIR, the forerunner to the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation). 'Manpowering' related to the allocation and regulation of labour during the Second World War and was managed by The Directorate of Manpower. During the Second World War the CSIR was actively involved in research and development on behalf of the Australian military and in support of the war effort. It made a number of breakthroughs in areas such as radar, aeronautics, food preservation and manufacturing.
Val would catch the train from Fairfield each day and walk from Central Station to the CSIR facilities at Sydney University. Under the direction of Miss Plunkett, Val worked in the Publishing Section of the Radiophysics Division as part of a team of four girls, one of whom was Miss Joan Sutherland who would go on to become "La Stupenda' - one of Australia's greatest operatic sopranos. The team's duties focused on the typing, copying and distribution of scientific notes relating to a range of projects including the development of radar systems.
Val left the CSIR at the end of the Second World War, but she spoke at length and quite warmly of her year and a half with the organisation. She spoke about how it felt to make a contribution to the war effort, something I had expected to hear about. However, what also came through in our conversation was that Val felt she had received rather more than she had been required to give.
In addition to the excitement of being exposed to the fascinating work being undertaken by the CSIR at the time, Val spoke of her supervisor, Miss Plunkett with real affection. She described how, in addition to providing professional guidance, Miss Plunkett ensured that her girls were properly instructed in the ways of the world - including etiquette and culture. On Saturdays, Miss Plunkett would take them to lunch in town and sometimes to the theatre or the opera. It was obvious that Miss Plunkett made a positive impact on Miss Briggs engendering in her an enduring awareness, confidence and curiosity.
Val wasn't the only member of the Briggs family to serve; her father, George Albert Briggs, had falsified his age to enlist during the First World War and served as a mechanic with the Australian Flying Corps. He also served during the Second World War as a captain with the 7th Division, Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (AEME) in the Middle East and the Pacific. He was Mentioned in Dispatches (MID) and recommended for an MBE (Member of the British Empire). He received his discharge in October 1945, but continued to be troubled by his wartime experiences.
After the war, Val studied nursing and pursued a career in this field for 10 years. She married in 1961, had two children and went on to establish a successful business in Queensland.
I was pleased to accept this badge into the National Collection and to have had the opportunity to speak with Val as her story provided me with an insight into one of the many dimensions of the Australian experience of war. I told Val that the badge would soon be accessible on the Memorial's website and asked her if she used the internet.
"Oh no!" she said, "I'm too busy living!"
I'm sure she is.