John Low, Local History Librarian, Blue Mountains City Library
Beware the Reds! I came back to Katoomba after two years’ service for my country (details of which I’m not permitted to disclose) to find the town being taken over by a highly organised brigade of Kremlin stooges. Look at the Labor league, the P&C, the Mothers’ Club, the children’s library, the nursery, see how they’ve been whiteanted by these emissaries of Moscow.
[Local Government election pamphlet, quoted in Roger Milliss, Serpent’s Tooth, p. 121]
What follows continues the series of articles, begun some time ago, profiling participants in that exuberant period in Katoomba’s political history dealt with in the first half of Roger Milliss’ book Serpent’s Tooth (Penguin, 1984). Described by Milliss as ‘the hey-and-never-no-days of the Left in its outlandish mountains stronghold’ (p. 120), it was a time when the political Left was inspirational in local community affairs.
Some of its achievements included a free children’s library, a forty-cot day nursery for working mothers, and an Oslo lunch canteen in a revamped weathershed at the Public School. Not earth shattering from a global perspective perhaps, but in the microcosm of a small, conservative town in 1940s Australia these were substantial gains.
‘Tibby’ Whalan and the other ‘mountain Reds’ of the Milliss chronicle epitomise the meaning of ‘grass roots’ politics. ‘Fired by the glowing vision and convinced that socialism waited just around the postwar corner, they absorbed themselves in all the problems of the town … soaking up every dribble of the parish pump’. (p. 117) After the heady days of achievement had passed and the crunch came at the end of the decade, ‘Tibby’ Whalan remained one of the ‘hardy bunch of stalwarts’ that held on to the retreating dream.
In more recent times she has played a leading role in improving facilities for the town’s senior citizens, including the establishment of a Katoomba Community Centre and the daily provision of nutritious low-cost meals. She was also active in the movement to establish a public library in the Blue Mountains, finally achieved in 1974, and in the long struggle which led to the opening of a new High School in 1962.
The following consists mainly of edited extracts from a conversation with Mrs Whalan taped at her home in Katoomba in March 1986.
I was born in Sunny Corner, New South Wales. My father had a small farm – 20 acres free selection and about 140 acres conditional purchase. A letter arrived to say he owned the farm a month after his death in 1938. My father was a foundation member of the Labor Party in Bathurst and he used to ride his bicycle to Bathurst, nineteen miles there and nineteen miles back, to go to meetings. He was employed by Turon Shire Council as a maintenance man on the roads and I still have a photograph of him when they had the Eight Hour Day Procession. He was very keen on all things Labor oriented and so we grew up talking politics as far back as I can remember.
Once when I was a child my mother was in Sydney and she joined in the big march Jack Lang had. My mother had been down in Sydney for an operation and she was staying with my brother and his wife. My sister-in-law and my mother went in this big march when they thought Jack
Lang was going to lead the workers out of trouble. And I remember saying to Dad: ‘Oh isn’t this wonderful, he’s going to do something marvellous for us.’ And Dad said: ‘You can’t believe too many politicians; you’ve always got to watch them.’ I thought about that afterwards and I thought how true it was, because he was correct in that.
I can remember only having one decent dress and one decent pair of shoes when I was a kid. That was your Sunday-go-to-meeting. We used to walk to church four miles. And, of course, being the most poverty-stricken family in the area I suppose something that made me more of a rebel than I would have been otherwise (laughter). I’ve known that it is to be without much to eat and very little for the kids and it was pretty hard going I can tell you.
I got married when I was seventeen. When we lived out at Duckmaloi near Oberon my youngest brother used to come out and bring me Tribunes to read and he brought me this book, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, and I think that’s really the first serious political book that I ever read.
When the War came on we went to my mother’s farm and I stayed there while my husband looked for work at the Small Arms Factory in Lithgow. He was able to get on there and after six months we came down to Katoomba. We managed to get a house down here. It was very hard to get houses – you couldn’t get them in Lithgow for love or money – and we paid the vast sum of 22/6 a week which was terribly dear. We came here on 27 October 1940. I had two little kids and my next child was born in April the following year.
It was only after the first child got into school that I began to known people and I joined the Infants School Mothers’ Club. I didn’t know anybody until them. It was when my son was in infants school that I first got to know Bruce Milliss, that I first got to know the Carrolls [Peter and Margaret]. Peter (see Hummer No.q.q.v.) was of the working class. He had been through the trials and tribulations of the Depression. He’d been a farmer, then had come here and worked in the Katoomba Laundry as a driver. Peter was standing for the Katoomba Council and somebody must have pointed me out to him. He was handing out ‘How-to-Vote’ forms and he said to me: ‘I know your brother Bill Egan. He’s standing for the Turon Shire and I’ve still got property up there. I’m giving him a vote, now will you give me a vote?’ I said: ‘Certainly I’ll give you a vote.’ And that was the first time I contacted him, and gradually we got into all these other things. That’s how I started to get interested in the political side of things in Katoomba.
I didn’t join the Communist Party until 1945. That’s five years after I came here, but that was when I got used to being in different organisations that were working for things like the children’s library. My son, particularly, was an avid reader. [Her son Rex is a librarian who co-wrote, with folklorist John Meredith, an important study of Francis McNamara, Frank The Poet] And I was in the P&C and the Mothers’ Club and various other things. I’d heard about the children’s free library movement before I even came to Katoomba. I always was a reader of newspapers and I had read about it in the Herald, but I was interested when I saw in the local papers about it and that’s why I went up there and joined in.
Charlie [Davidson: Another of the ‘mountain Reds’. He was an accountant by profession] was one of the people that had a great influence on me. He told me that he had been in the New Guard and so he had come totally round from the New Guard to the other point of view. And he used to say it was rather odd for a man with his viewpoint to be a money lender type of person, because he had a cash order business. But, he used to say, you had to realise that you weren’t living in a socialist world, you were living in a capitalist world. And this was true, and I found it often very handy to have a little cash order to get something I needed. I was friends with Charlie and his wife and Charlie’s youngest daughter and my youngest daughter started school the same day and were very good friends. So you felt you had this warm, united feeling amongst people. Actually, I suppose I was closer to Charlie Davidson than I was to Bruce Milliss. I knew Bruce and Edith and I knew the boys, but I had more to do with Charlie Davidson and I knew what sort of a humanitarian he was.
Gradually I got disillusioned [with the Communist Party]. There were so many splits that I got to the stage where I couldn’t be bothered going anymore. There were too many people being divided into too many different things. In my early days I could see the emancipation of mankind around the corner, but now I got a bit cynical and I realised that there was no emancipation of mankind likely in Australia and I still think my great, great grand children might not see it.
There were some terribly bitter divisions and I always remember my father telling me that ‘divide and rule’ was part of the reigning system, that the more splits within the working class the weaker it became. So it’s the same old story. And I suppose I was idealistic. It- was an idealistic time.
It was 1968 – just after the Czechoslovakian thing – when both Peter [Carroll] and I left the Communist Party. We were both disgusted with the whole business, with all the splits and things – not overseas but in our own country – that we decided it was time to get out. And I was never going to be in any politics anymore at any time. And then, in 1973, we were having this fight for the site [of the Community Centre). The Labor Party gave us $50 towards helping to publicise the ‘Save Our Site’ campaign and I was the youngest I suppose of the senior citizens and I was appointed to go up and thank them at their meeting. So I went up and made a speech and thanked them and there were so many people there I knew and they wanted me to join. I said: ‘Oh, I can’t be bothered. I’m never going to be in politics anymore.’ ‘Oh but you must’, they replied. ‘We need your sort of people in the Labor Party.’ And they ended up persuading me to join that night. Now I’ve been Treasurer, Senior Vice – President, President, Secretary and I’m back to Treasurer again (laughter).