The Salt of the Katoomba Earth: A Series on Blue Mountains Labour Identities (No 3) – Erik Dark

John Low

… while around them spread a gradual web of sympathisers, led by a well-known doctor and his wife, a leading novelist.
(Roger Milliss, Serpent’s Tooth, pp. 114-6)

At the time of writing the remarkable Dr Eric Dark has just celebrated his ninety-eighth birthday. A bottle of good German moselle was ‘cracked’ and he, his family and close friends looked back over a life that has witnessed the whole of the turbulent twentieth century so far.

Born in 1889, Eric Dark served in the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War I and was awarded the Military Cross for bravery. In 1922 he married Eleanor O’Reilly and the following year the couple moved permanently to Katoomba where Eric opened a medical practice. Their beautiful home, ‘Varuna’, at the lower end of Cascade Street where the land begins to drop away to the Falls, became, in the words of Jean Devanny, “a citadel of civilised living”. Both involved themselves in the life of the town, though retreating into the bush was also a favourite occupation and there were few places in the Mountains with which they were unfamiliar. Eric Dark was both a fine bushman and an experienced mountaineer.

It was in Katoomba that Eric Dark underwent his political conversion. While Eleanor was the daughter of a Labor politician, he had been brought up in a very conservative family environment. He was, his wife once said, “completely oblivious to political issues”. The Depression, however, was to change that. As a doctor working in a small community, Eric Dark saw things that disturbed hill deeply. He became angry at the way an entrenched economic system was destroying the lives of ordinary people. His conversion led him into the Labor Party and he became Vice-President of the local branch. As well, he began to write extensively on the social aspects of medicine and on wider political and social issues. He donated land for a Labour meeting Hall in Katoomba and soon counted among his friends such’ left’ luminaries as Ben Chifley, Bert Evatt and Brian Fitzpatrick.

However, his newly won political commitment had its price in the hostility it engendered towards hill in a certain less enlightened section of the community. Politically, the 1940s and early 1950s were a particularly lively and sometimes bitter period in Katoomba’s history. Harassment and a campaign of smear and innuendo cost him professionally in the decline of his medical practice and personally in the disruption it caused to the even flow of his family life. (Interestingly, it also cost him the appointment as Australian Ambassador to the Soviet Union.) Indeed, for a time in the 1950s he and his wife preferred to escape to Queensland and grow macadamia nuts.

Though labelled a communist, he was never a member of the Communist Party and is insistent about his political philosophy. “Democratic Socialism not communism! I never became a communist because I always thought out my own politics, thought them out well and they were mine. If you joined the Communist Party you had to go entirely along their line, the Communist line, and I would not do it! I insisted on doing my own thinking.” These comments and the following short extract come from a series of interviews conducted with Dr. Dark at his home in Katoomba earlier this year:

‘Well, there was a group of really very vicious young fascists and they didn’t like me one little bit. Of course, they called me a communist and (at one stage even) there was talk of foreign invasions, that I was going to join the invading forces and fight with them against the democrats. Well, you can’t do much with that, yes, they were very vicious. I had a practice there, a medical practice, in Katoomba and it was doing pretty well. I had a good practice there and people like me and these fascists came in lying their heads off. They destroyed my practice almost completely. Oh yes, my name was mud. I had done a good job there but they destroyed me. Not quite completely but I gave up the practice there and went for a time to plant macadamia trees up in Queensland. There was nothing I could do about it. No use protesting. They would only begin a new pack of lies. Eleanor used to come with me to meetings (and on night calls) and do you know what her armament was? She had a muff and she said, “Get me fifteen inches of inch-wide lead piping and bring it to me” . And she put it in her muff. She was an athlete you know, oh yes a very good athlete. “I’ll watch out for you”, she said. “They’re planning to knock you out. If they start it I’ll finish it. I’m still in pretty good training and the things I can do to those bastards with my foot of lead piping you’d be surprised!” Eleanor was a lovely person and very courageous, and a born fighter when it was necessary. Oh yes, she’d have given a good account of herself. There would have been a lot of cracked heads if they had attacked me. I’ll tell you rather a quaint little story. I was called to rather a poor part of town, to a house that was a poor sort of a house. And it was late at night, but I had made a practice of always going to a call. So I went and Eleanor stayed in the car parked at the gate. There was a straight little drive, a straight little path to a door with a glass top and a light and as I approached it I saw what I thought was a man hanging in front of this light, gently swaying. I said, “Good God, the man’s hung!” I nearly turned around, but I said I’d call so I went and as I got nearer, closer to the light, it went out. Then I nearly did turn around and go away. But I thought, .. I’ve been called, I shall go”. So I went and knocked, the light came on again and they opened the door. They said, “Come in doctor”, and I went in. Pure anti -climax! It was a coat and a hat hanging in a certain way in front of this bloody light. It looked like a man hanging. I burst out laughing because I’d been properly had. I don’t think they did it on purpose, it had just happened and I had been really scared what was going to happen when they opened that door. Oh yes, Oh yes, we’ll get this bastard Dark. Oh very common.

Finally, as an example of how people were warned against Dr Dark, the following reminiscence of Eric Kettle who, in the period after the War, was an employee of the P.M.G., is interesting:

“We rented a cottage in Cascade Street, down next door to Dr E. P. Dark. I got to know Dr. Dark pretty well then, and Eleanor Dark the novelist. The foreman at the telephone exchange in Katoomba told me to stay away from Dr Dark because he was a communist and it wasn’t doing me any good in the Department. And also from a chap named Bruce Milliss. Now, during the War Bruce Milliss, who had gone to school with my wife, had been a very good friend of hers. She was asthmatical and he’d helped her quite a lot. And I got hauled over the coals by the P.M.G. people, the senior people, for being associated with Bruce Milliss. (He refused to give up his friendship with either of the two men.) So they called me a communist too. And the boss said that, well, if I wasn’t a communist I was a fellow traveller anyway. That’s how things were in those days. And, as a matter of act, I was a churchman!”

Soon after this article had been finished I learnt of the death of Eric Dark on Tuesday evening 28 July,1987. As a mutual friend said to me the following day, his death marks the end of an era in Katoomba’s history. He is to be buried next to his wife Eleanor in the cemetery at Blackheath.

To Enid Schafer of Springwood who conducted the interviews with Dr Dark for the Blue Mountains City Library.

For further detail on the life of Dr E.P. Dark:

  • Lenore BAXTER, ‘Fires in the Fall – the Story of a rational reformer’, New Doctor, No. 32, June 1984.
  • Jean DEVANNY, Bird of Paradise, Sydney, 1945 (chapter XXVII, ‘Writers at Home: Eleanor and Eric Dark’).