National Archives of Australia

Issue 12 December 2013

Life in the ‘town that sprang from nowhere’

The Anglo–Australian Joint Project conducted weapons research and testing at defence facilities at Woomera, South Australia. Established in 1946, it was a combined defence project of the Australian and British governments to research the use of long-range weaponry. Until 1980, Woomera was used for atomic weapon testing, satellite launches and tracking spacecraft. Archives staff member and author of Commonwealth Government Records about South Australia, Sara King, discusses what life was like in this ‘town that sprang from nowhere’.

Archives records relating to the Anglo–Australian Joint Project include plans, photographs, film, audio recordings and correspondence files. These records show that in 1947 work started on building the Woomera village to house the joint project staff and their families. By 1949 the construction of Woomera village was in full swing, with some of the very first families moving in. At its peak, the population reached approximately 7000. A remote town almost 500 kilometres from Adelaide, the community had to establish its own schools, churches, recreation and entertainment, and coordinate food supplies.

Modern amenities

Concern about families arriving in a place that was still under construction, led to a recreational area that would provide for cricket, tennis, football, rugby and basketball, as well as a safe playground for smaller children.

Sports oval, Woomera, 1964. NAA: A1500, K12399

Sports oval, Woomera, 1964. NAA: A1500, K12399

A coffee lounge, designed by very fashionable architects in Melbourne, was included as part of the original village square, and original plans show it was to include a state-of-the-art Gaggia espresso machine. Given that many of those who went to work in Woomera were recent immigrants from Europe, keeping the local population sufficiently caffeine-fuelled must have been seen as vital!

Community store, Woomera, 1964. NAA: A1500, K15012

Community store, Woomera, 1964. NAA: A1500, K15012

In 1950 there was a call for a cinema and purpose-built theatre to be constructed. Initially the cost was seen as prohibitive, so it was suggested to hold shows in the open but to provide ‘enclosures 12 feet high to keep out the wind and dust’. The climate was but one of the challenges for new arrivals in Woomera, many of whom came directly from the United Kingdom. One of the superintendent’s reports describes severe damage to the local piano due to ‘extreme climatic conditions’.

By 1954 Woomera had most modern amenities, including shops, churches, a school, post office and hospital, as well as a local radio station, laundrette and courthouse. The availability of fresh food remained a constant issue, however, with the long distances and harsh climate making it difficult to keep up with demand.

Primary school class, Woomera, 1966. NAA: A1500, K15173

Primary school class, Woomera, 1966. NAA: A1500, K15173

The gymnasium was used as a temporary indoor cinema for the first few years, but by 1956 the Woomera Entertainment and Recreation Committee was ‘so concerned with the importance to morale of the cinema at Woomera’ they offered to contribute a large sum to assist with the cost of alterations to the building in order to show modern films. Other amenities that were available by 1956 included a bowling green, swimming pool, community hall, croquet lawn, golf course and rifle range. The local paper, Gibber Gabber, reported on the town’s happenings, copies of which are now held in the Archives’ collection.

The call for a permanent theatre came again in 1957 as the temporary building was proving too small for the town’s increasing population and the appetite for cinema screenings, dances and celebrations swelled. By 1960 the construction of a new theatre had been approved, plans drawn up and sent to the United Kingdom for approval. It was constructed in 1963 as something of a show piece, with seating for 700 people.

Woomera Theatre, 1967. NAA: 1200, L63907

Woomera Theatre, 1967. NAA: 1200, L63907

Living in a restricted area in a defence department town had its hardships too – in 1951 the president of the local football club requested ‘permission to import a quantity of beer into the Area’, a request that was swiftly denied due to ‘Range policy [and] that the South Australian police would take an active interest if quantities of beer were allowed to enter [the] area for any one organization at frequent intervals’.

South Australian research guide

The recently published Commonwealth Government Records about South Australia provides an in-depth look at Australian Government agencies and activities unique to South Australia. The Defence Science and Technology Organisation, Commonwealth Railways, and Wine Overseas Marketing Board are some of the local highlights. Readers will find that, among other things, there is a vast array of immigration records, security and intelligence files, photographs, and World War II internment and POW files to be discovered.

The guide can be purchased via the Archives’ e-shop, or downloaded free of charge from the Archives’ website.

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