The story of the extraordinary Mrs Mac,
pioneering engineer and wartime legend
Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2020.
Paperback 312pp RRP $29.99
Reviewer: Joy Cullen, November 2020
In 1950, Mrs Florence Violet McKenzie (Mrs Mac) was awarded the OBE for voluntary services to the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps, acknowledging the acclaim in which she was held for her substantial training role in World War II. Radio Girl reveals the dizzying trajectory of Mrs Mac’s ground-breaking contributions as it traces her complex story from childhood to old age. The book’s structural device, 33 short thematic chapters, helps to create a very readable book.
Violet Wallace’s childhood interests, playing with her father’s tools and bells and buzzers around the house, evolved into her focus on electrical engineering. Violet won a scholarship to Sydney Girls High School, then trained as a mathematics teacher at Sydney Teachers College, later changing direction to enrol in the part-time Diploma of Electrical Engineering at Sydney Technical College. Rejected because she was not an apprentice, Violet circumvented this hurdle by purchasing her brother’s failing engineering business in order to meet the College’s practical experience requirement. Graduating in 1923, she was the first woman to gain a Diploma in Electrical Engineering at the College.
In 1921 she expanded into a new line of business to focus on essentials of the early wireless era: crystal sets and the MORSE code. At her new Wireless Shop, in Sydney’s Royal Arcade, Violet had opportunistically picked up on these essentials through customer interests and needs, a characteristic which she displayed with great skill throughout her career. The shop sponsored The Metropolitan Radio Club, an association for radio enthusiasts that became the largest amateur radio organisation within NSW. Violet then launched the successful magazine, Wireless Weekly, to cater for the interests of ordinary people and to provide a voice for amateurs distinct from the commercial interests that were beginning to dominate other publications in the field.
The titular name, Radio Girl, originated around the time she established her radio station, 2GA, following the sale of The Wireless Shop and her marriage to electrical engineer Cecil McKenzie, in 1924. In 1928 she opened Radio Shop, in Phillip Street, as Mrs V.F. McKenzie. Nationalisation of the broadcasting infrastructure in 1929 changed the local broadcasting scene and Violet received many requests to offer talks and shows from a woman’s perspective, from newly nationalised A-Class stations. In 1930, another interest presented – the lack of women involved in electricity and radio. Violet started The Women’s Radio School, through which she provided correspondence and evening classes, and helped her students to find related employment, a vital goal for young women during the depression years. In 1934 she established the Electrical Association for Women through which she arranged lectures, demonstrations and visits with the aim of increasing women’s knowledge of safe practices with electricity
As pre-war nervousness increased, Violet established her own signalling school for women after teaching MORSE code to members of the Women’s Flying Club. The Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps (WESC) trained women in signalling techniques throughout the War. The establishment of WRANS, in 1941, led to her graduates being appointed to naval positions. Following the attack on Pearl Harbour, the need for signalling skills escalated, and WESC graduates taught courses at the Woolshed to men from Australian and Allied forces who needed to upgrade their skills. At a critical phase WESC students were requested to transcribe Japanese naval communications via airwaves and to convey their content to the Code Breaking team in Melbourne. Amazingly, the students did not pay fees and Violet covered the running costs of the Woolshed, including home comforts to sustain her students.
This book portrays an unusual woman for her time. While much of her work could be termed voluntary, Violet worked long hours daily at the Woolshed to provide a successful training course. The qualities she displayed throughout her life - initiative, creativity, flexibility, far-sightedness, ability to negotiate, people skills, patriotism yet adeptness at manoeuvring around prevarications of politicians and senior officers from the forces; all combined to sustain her unique achievements. Named Mrs MAC by her WESC girls, she was remembered with affection and respect by people from all strands of her life. A fine collection of photos from the Ex-WRANs Association complements her story.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.