The Salt of the Katoomba Earth: A Series on Blue Mountains Identities (No.1) – Peter Carroll 1908-1985

John Low

It was down to a hardy bunch of stalwarts…the salt of Katoomba earth, fighters and dreamers, battlers and visionaries.
— Roger Milliss, Serpent’s Tooth, p. 138.

The good thing is that everywhere are small groups of people actively concerned with social problems….doing their bit in a small but important grass-roots democratic way.
— Len Fox, Broad Left, Narrow Left, p.233

In the early part of Roger Milliss’s moving autobiographical novel Serpent’s Tooth readers may remember a briefly evoked incident that took place during the turmoil of the 1949 Coal Strike. A grey winter Katoomba day bore down uncomfortably upon those obliged to remain outside for any length of time. At the top of Katoomba Street, over by the railway gates, at the unscenic entry to the ‘Queen City of the Mountains’, a small group was valiantly putting the miners’ case. Unimaginative real estate and tourist signs and hoardings, venerated icons of Katoomba’s waning prosperity, glared unsympathetically while the mountain wind whipped at the speaker’s words, throwing many of them beyond the hearing of the casual passer-by. When Bruce Milliss stepped down to talk to his son his place at the microphone was taken by another speaker, a man wrapped against the coldness of the day and their public reception, in a shabby, old overcoat. This man was Peter Carroll.

After living, working and being politically and socially active in the Blue Mountains for over forty years, Peter Carroll died in August last year. He was seventy-seven years old.

From the time I arrived in the Blue Mountains four years ago, I was aware of Peter Carroll by sight and reputation. His longish grey hair and small neatly cut beard gave him, on first appearance, almost the air of an oriental sage though, on closer inspection, the cowboy stringtie at his neck transformed this impression into one of an elderly General Custer. Driving his panel van around Katoomba, he was easily recognisable.

I only met him once, however, at the Katoomba launching of the Sertpent’s Tooth. I don’t think anyone present that afternoon will soon forget his vivid, larrikinish re-telling of the part he played in circumventing the government’s freezing of the miners’ funds in 1949 and the clandestine trips he and Bruce Milliss made, in the dead of night and under the very noses of the authorities, to take relief to the striking Lithgow miners and their families. After purchasing food and supplies with the hidden union money, they would load them into a borrowed army surplus truck and brazenly join the tail of an army convoy to evade the blockades the troops had set up around Lithgow.

Peter Carroll, known to his cricketing mates as ‘Kangaroo’ , was born at Hill End. He came to Katoomba with his family at the end of the 1930s when the shadows of the Second World War were beginning to lengthen. To earn his living he had previously turned his hand to many things – gold prospecting, farming, truck driving and labouring. In Katoomba he set up his own contracting business which offered a truly jack-of-all-trades range of services. His expertise covered everything from landscape gardening to heavy haulage. His friend, John Apthorp, another of the ‘fighters and dreamers’ of the Milliss chronicle, remembers: “Anything that required a good pair of hands, hard work and a bit of nous, Peter was your man.” He would in later years become perhaps the only communist ever elected president of his local Chamber of Commerce.

This same energy and enthusiasm was channel1ed into a rather awesome range of social and political involvements. He was an early member of the Katoomba Branch of the Communist Party or, as it was known in order to circumvent its illegality in the early 194Os, the Legal Rights Committee. As one of Milliss’s ‘Mountain Reds’, he participated in the battles and achievements that marked the period of their most vital activity. Their active presence in the ALP reinvigorated the Katoomba Branch which, in February 1942, boasted a membership of 150 and “a vigorous and fearless policy concerning many problems of direct concern to the community”. (Blue Mountains Advertiser, 27.2.42).

The Katoomba Reds were in the front line of the struggle for community improvements. Their vision and zealous social activism resulted in the establishment in Katoomba of a Boys and Girls Library and Craft Club in 1942, a Day Nursery in 1943 (a great relief to the many local women munitions workers) and an Oslo lunch canteen at the Public School in 1945. A number, including Peter Carroll, also gave time and hard physical work, as members of the Katoomba Volunteer Land Army, to assist farmers in the Hawkesbury and Megalong areas suffering from the wartime shortage of labour.

From a state or national perspective these achievements may, perhaps appear small. (Though we should remember that library and child care services were by no means the widely regarded essentials they are today and, indeed, the day nursery was reputed to be a national first.) From a local perspective, however, they were considerable advances. By these means their dream of a civilized, socialist Australia was taking shape in their own country.

When the war ended the public respectability of the ‘Mountain Reds’ went into a gradual decline. The crushing defeat of the Coal Strike under the Chifley jackboot and the McCarthyist tactics of their local opponents left them fighting “a desperate holding operation”. (Milliss, p.139).

However, while the expectations of those early years might have withered somewhat, surrender in the struggle for a saner, more civilized community, as Peter Carroll’s subsequent record shows, was never entertained. The following is just a sample of his involvements but, even so, makes clear the extent and vigour of his engagement with the unimaginative and soulless forces of local reaction:

  • His efforts on behalf of senior citizens have almost attained a legendary status. He helped establish the Katoomba-Leura Senior Citizens Club and worked tirelessly to ensure the provision of low-cost lunches for the elderly. He was the Club’s president for many years and also held positions on a number of local aged services committees.
  • From the time of his involvement with the Children’s library in the early 1940s Peter carroll maintained an interest in and commitment to the establishment in the Blue Mountains of a free rate-supported public library system open to residents of all ages. In the 1960s and early 1970s he held executive positions on both the Blue Mountains Public Library Campaign Committee and the Blue Mountains Library Promotion Council. These were the citizens’ organisations that carried the fight against the pervasive philistinism then opposed to the establishment of the library service residents now take for granted.
  • In the mid-1970s Peter Carroll was president of the Citizens’ Action Committee, a ‘grass roots’ organisation set up to oppose what appeared to be an attempt by some aldermen to divert to commercial interests the site in Katoomba Street set aside by the Council for, a Katoomba- Leura Community Centre. To Peter Carroll it was a clear question “of whether or not the people’s land in Katoomba Street is to be hawked to shop developers or used as the majority of the people wish”. (Letter to the editor, Mountain Gazette, 15.1.75.) The battle was a hard fought one. The communist bogey was even resurrected and used publicly against the president in an attempt to undermine the movement. (At this time Peter Carroll, who had remained a staunch member of the Moscow-aligned CPA for many years after the heady days of the 1940s. had been out of the Party for several years and was now a member of the ALP.) The tactic failed, however, to halt tlhe movement’s momentum and a Community Centre, that includes a branch of the public library and a senior citizens’ centre, now occupies the site – a triumph of ‘grass roots’ politics!

Peter Carroll learnt of his cancer after an operation in July last year and died quietly at a friend’s home on the morning of Saturday, 10 August, only hours before he was to attend the dedication in Leura of a sporting field that would bear his name. When the mayor unveiled the plaque that afternoon a concealed Eureka flag suddenly unfurled for all to see. It was an appropriate farewell.

His friend, former ALP alderman on the Blue Mountains City Council, Claude Papesch, summed him up in the following terms: “He was a militant, compassionate, self-proclaimed socialist who, while waiting for the downfall of capitalism, did not embark on useless escapades but turned himself to work that benefited other people and improved the quality of life for the disadvantaged.” The Blue Mountains owes Peter Carroll a considerable debt.