The Salt of the Earth: a Series on Blue Mountain Labour identities (No 2) – John Apthorp

John Low

These were the hey-and-never-no days of the Left in its outlandish mountains stronghold: … they opened up a bookshop in Katoomba Street to push their gleaming goods
[Roger Milliss, Serpent’s Tooth, p. 120]

Today, if you walk down Katoomba Street’s steep descent from the railway station and pause in front of number 193, you will see nothing to link this ordinary little shop with the propagation of radical political ideas. The concerns of its present occupiers are with the outside of the head not the inside. Number 193 Katoomba Street, in its current incarnation, is a hairdressers, but during the years 1943-1947 it housed a library and bookshop run by Katoomba’s lively and progressive Left.

The man to whom fell the responsibility for the daily operation of this ‘Current Affairs Library and Reading Room’ was John Apthorp. Born in Perth in 1904 and raised on the Kalgoorlie gold fields, he came to Katoomba with his wife Dawn in 1938 after being invalided out of the navy.

The following are some edited extracts from two conversations I had with John Apthorp, in February and August 1986, at his home in Katoomba.

Had you any political involvements before you came to Katoomba?

No I hadn’t. Just before than, of course, was the Spanish Civil War which lid followed closely and I read books like ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. I read all sorts of things but that stands out as the one that made a great impression on me. My politics up to them probably would have been conservative and these things began to change me and turn me right round.

And when you came to Katoomba you got involved with a number of others of like mind.

Yes, well, when I first came here I was invalided and recovering and when I got enough physical strength back the first fellow I contacted was our postman, Tom Butterfield, who was in the Labor Party. We got chatting and eventually he convinced me I should join the local branch. That would have been 1940. There I met people like Milliss and Carroll and Dr. Dark and others who were much more political than I was and I served my apprenticeship with them.

At this time a branch of the Communist Party was formed in Katoomba?

That came in 1941. He (Bruce Milliss) formed a branch and people like Peter Carroll and myself became members of the Communist Party. We didn’t resign from the Labor Party but personally I never took any more part because we opened a library in Katoomba called the Current Affairs Library which dealt with political books and pamphlets so I went down and ran it.

Can you tell me something about the Library’s establishment and operation?

Yes, well, 1943 was a Federal Election year and a little shop had been hired in Katoomba Street as Ben Chifley’s campaign quarters. After the election, which they won handsomely of course, Bruce Milliss, mainly, got the idea of setting up a bookshop and library there. It was in the middle of the war and books and pamphlets were being produced in great numbers about the war and about history and about social history. A committee was set up consisting of Bruce, Charlie Davidson and Dr Dark. The landlord was a friendly Russian named Slutzkin who gave it to us at a fairly cheap rent and I ran it in a voluntary way, so our overheads weren’t great. We started at the end of 1943 and went on until after the war in 1947. It was open for four years and our hours were from 10 am until 6 pm and open Saturday morning. In those days we closed Wednesday afternoon.

It was actually a lending library. Books were hired. From memory the hire of a book was fourpence a week for most and sixpence for the special (more expensive) ones. If you kept a book over a week you were fined a penny a day. We never made a fortune as you can imagine, especially at those prices, but the library was very popular and patronised by all sorts, not just those of certain political bent. There weren’t all political books. A good proportion were not “political” books at all, just fiction, travel and the usual things you find in libraries. We, of course, had all of Eleanor Dark’s books, Katherine Prichard, Jean Devanny, Kylie Tennant and Xavier Herbert. We had all the Australian authors. But then we also had the usual (currently popular) books like “The Magnificent Obsession” and “King’s Row”.

And, then, we sold books. We used to deal with all the book wholesalers in Sydney like Angus & Robertson and Edwards Dunlop. I used to make a trip down every now and again to look at their books and we’d buy what we could afford. At Christmas time we used to do a fair trade in book selling. But for the most part it was pamphlets we sold, all the cheap pamphlets that were coming off the presses in great numbers, especially from a place called Current Book Distributors. They were in Rawson Place in Sydney. And, of course, we sold the “Tribune”.

And we had a reading room where people could come and read. The reading room was well used and, of course, it was a great centre for political gossip and talk of the day. Things were exciting, of course, in 1943. All sorts of authors would pop in if they were going through Katoomba. There was Freddy Thwaites and a fellow called Warburton (Carl), William Hatfield and Osmar White who came from Leura and became a noted journalist. There was Eric Low who wrote the fine novel “Beyond the Nineteen Counties” and, of course, Eleanor Dark and Katherine Susannah Prichard who, on occasion, was our guest here in Katoomba.

I understand your connections with the Throssell family go back to when you were a boy?

Yes. Lieutenant Throssell visited Kalgoorlie after returning from the war and winning his V.C. He wrote in a cousin’s autograph book; he just put “Love one another, Hugo Throssell.” For us kids this became a regular admonishment – to remember what Lt. Throssell wrote in Lal’s autograph book!

Then, in 1919, I found myself on the property of one Paddy Lienham not far from the West Australian wheatbelt town of Dowerin. I was a very young rouseabout on the place and Hugo Throssell had entrusted a blood mare to the keeping of Paddy, who ran a small stud which stood a stallion descended from a Melbourne Cup winner Posinatus. I well remember the mare, “Molly”, a beautiful fifteen hands animal which I would saddle whenever the slightest opportunity presented itself and sweep across the paddocks, often to earn the opprobrious observations of Paddy. I never learnt the outcome of the Posinatus – Molly connection but Paddy Lineham subsequently figured in a K.S.P. short story called “The Dark Horse of Darran”.

My first association with Katherine herself was in Sydney in the 1940s, a hectic town in the middle of a patriotic war. Although the first of the trilogy on the West Australian goldfields was not published in Australia until 1946, the manuscript of “The Roaring Nineties” was prepared in war-time Sydney under considerable difficulties and my wife and I did the typing of it. The manuscript was done on inferior wartime paper in pencil. Katherine’s quite legible handwriting was no problem but being an ex-goldfielder was a distinct advantage in coping with place names and locations.

The manuscript came to us, in the Blue Mountains, in batches of loose pages by courier from Katherine’s place near King’s Cross. As she made only one copy of each page she wou1dn’t trust them to the post or rail. The batches arrived at all times of the day or night, and we never forgot the night the courier arrived later and, finding a window he could raise, stepped inside my mother-in-law’s bedroom. Her screams awakened the whole neighbourhood and frightened the wits out of poor old Andy Levings the courier.

Everyone admired and loved Katherine for her quiet, gentle-voiced conversation, her wise advice and her compassion for people. She loved the Mountains and, whenever possible, would escape from Sydney to spend whatever time she could spare away from her busy city life. I can recall long winter evenings around a log fire discussing the manuscript and people she’d met on the ‘fields’ while researching for “The Roaring Nineties”. She would talk of Hugo, always referring to him as Jim, and young Ric.

Sometimes we would go to hear Katherine speak at a war time rally in the Sydney Town Hall. She was an accomplished platform speaker. Her theme was always of people, ordinary people.

To remember those days I have on my shelves a copy of “Working Bullocks” inscribed:

“To two dear Comrades with love from Katherine Susannah”.