In 1927 a waitress named Betty wrote in a letter to Worker’s Weekly; “We working women want the bread of life, but as well as that we want the roses and silk stockings of life.” For a few years I have been talking to three women who were young when that was written and for whose lives, with their causes and campaigns, it might have been a battle-cry. I’ve told their stories, and those of some of their comrades and friends, in a book called Bread and Roses which has recently been published by the Left Book Club.
When I began, I had in mind a project linking the lives of ordinary women with individual campaigns of the labour movement; but the women I approached were not ordinary women and their lives were too interesting to extract any single instance, so instead I followed their lives from first social and political consciousness in youth to still active old age.
I began with Flo Cluff, well known in recent years as the benevolent yet belligerent octogenarian Secretary of the Combined Pensioners Association, beloved of the media for her pithy comments, recipient of the Order of Australia, and dancing partner of Barrie Unsworth – there’s a photograph to prove it. Earlier in her life she was Flo Davis, organiser and then Secretary of the Hotel, Club and Restaurant Employee’s Union and long-time left-wing delegate to the NSW Labour Council. Yet she had an unlikely start for a life of industrial militancy.
Flo was born in Chillagoe, in the geographical isolation of far North Queensland, one of a family of eleven children, and for part of her childhood home was an earth-floored, sapling-framed hut. Flo was “the clever one” and in her teens went on a scholarship to a central school in Cairns and came back as a pupil teacher at the local school. Then a tragic accident deprived her of both parents, scattered the family and caused Flo to enter an unhappy marriage at the age of eighteen.
There was little paid work for women in North Queensland, so, when Flo left her marriage the only work open to her was as a domestic, or in a hotel bar or cafe kitchen. During the 1920s Flo worked at those and related jobs in towns from Mareeba to Brisbane, and there she made a home for her two youngest brothers till they were old enough to stand on their own feet. She has sharp memories of Depression Brisbane and the unemployed organisation that made life more bearable for young men out of work. In Sydney Flo saw more of the sadness of that grim time. Her life as a single mother in Woolloomooloo meant cleaning the lodging house bathroom for a reduction in the rent she paid for the room she shared with her baby, and walking into the city every day for the part-time waitressing job she was lucky enough to get at David Jones. It all changed for Flo when she joined in political activity, made life-long friends among fellow-activists and found her life’s work in the union.
Flo’s inspiration in her union work was a woman who was already an organiser, Topsy Small. Topsy, who came from Fremantle, had early imbibed the IWW principles of her father, a wharfie and part-time shearer, and later the reasoned socialism of her English husband. The Depression brought Topsy face to face with the misery of unemployment; trying to help some of those who were suffering prompted her to make common cause with the well-known writer and communist, Katharine Susannah Prichard. When the Smalls became victims themselves and lost their home, Topsy, her out-of-work husband Fred and their two children made for Sydney where they hoped things might be better; instead they were worse.
Fred did get some occasional and part-time jobs in Sydney, but mostly they lived on the dole and moved when they couldn’t pay the rent. As her children reached school age Topsy found her chance of work was better than Fred’s, but only as one of the band of ill-paid and exploited women – many of them the sole support of a family who staffed the kitchens and dining rooms of the city’s cafes and restaurants. Indignation at the treatment of women whose lot she shared drove Topsy to the union, then to attempts to push its dispirited officials into action, and finally, to become an organiser herself. She had to force her way into some establishments, insist on the observance of awards and insist the union prosecute if they were broken. It was her boldness and daring in this enterprise that .so struck Flo Davis and provided that shy young women, as she then was, with a model for her union work. Flo followed Topsy into both the Labour Council and the Council of Action for Equal Pay in which they both held office.
In the war years, with her husband in a T.B. sanatorium, Topsy kept her family by working shift work at the Lithgow Small Arms factory, and they remained in the mountains after the war, taking part in Katoomba’s rather exciting political life. In her fifties Topsy put her age down and trained for a new career as a nurse; she became sister in charge of the nursery at the local hospital. Retirement meant she could more actively engage in opposition to the Vietnam War, and her general commitment to the peace movement continues to the present.
A chance remark of Topsy’s about her friend Mary Lamm led me to the third of these remarkable women. The name was familiar because I had just been reading a newspaper report of the 1930 state election in which Mary Lamm had stood as Communist candidate for Annandale. When I met her I found a cheerful, humorous woman with a political history that went back to the Militant Women’s Group of the 1920s. Mary Wright, as she now is, could well recall taking her youngest in her pram to join the other families standing on the timberworkers’ picket line in Glebe Point Road in 1929; and, with the timberworkers’ wives, organising support for the locked-out men. With a husband too ill to work, she kept her four children on handouts from the Benevolent Society, she stood for Parliament, marched with the unemployed and canvassed door to door for the Worker’s Weekly. As a young widow, still in her twenties, Mary moved her family from house to house when he couldn’t pay the rent; all the while making gallons of soup for the unemployed and for evicted families, through Workers International Relief. After the mid-thirties, Mary’s preoccupations became more sedate; she was occasional editor of Working Woman and Woman To-day, and in 1936 was President of the first International Women’s Day committee. It was through that organisation that she met Jessie Street and they had a later happy association on the Council of the United Associations of Women and the Women’s Charter conferences of 1943 and 1946. Mary had a long and happy second marriage with Tom Wright, trade union leader, leading Communist and long-time propagandist for aboriginal rights.
While the life experiences of Flo, Topsy and Mary are my book’s main source, there were interviews with a number of others, some of whose stories are included. Worker’s Weekly f1les were helpful and even more valuable was access to the good collection of union and labour movement material made by Vic Workman, also an organiser, and later President of the Hotel, Club and Restaurant Employees Union. Vic carried his swag in the Depression, was Secretary of the Movement against War and Fascism, and founded the Trade Union Club.
There is so much to admire in the energy and optimism of all these people that I found getting to know them was the most enjoyable part of collecting the material and telling their stories in Bread and Roses.