Reminiscences of an Old Leftie

Audrey Johnson

Reminiscences of an Old Leftie was the title under which Della Elliott recently spoke to members of the Labour History Society on working class life in the 30s depression, as well as her own life and activities in the Communist Party and the union movement. She declared that, given her life over again, she would choose to join the same struggle for the same ideals.

Della Elliott believes her early interest in politics was due to her parents’ influence. Her father, Nick Zenodohos, was a Greek migrant who moved from being a Queensland cane cutter, through Melbourne fish and chip shops, to become the proprietor of a Kings Cross cafe. The depression shut his cafe down and sent him looking for work. He found a job at the Hotel Australia as a fish cleaner, and moved up to become the hotel’s buyer, while becoming a stalwart of the Hotel, Club and Restaurant Employees’ Union.

Della’s Australian-born mother, Agnes, had left school aged eight to help an aunt who scrubbed floors for a living and, after a variety of similar jobs, had, by the time of her marriage, become a song and dance artist, acrobat, contortionist and girl of all trades with a travelling circus. Her performing talent was revived in the early thirties when she and her daughters joined the amateur theatre troupe which was forerunner to the New Theatre.

Della, one of a family of four children, left school at fourteen and trained at business college to become a shorthand typist. But in 1932, in the depth of the depression, she found her high speeds could not get her an office job, and she would be lucky to get any job at all. She worked in a Greek coffee shop and then as ‘a fifteen-year-old slushy’ doing housework and washing for three people, and cooking for six, for fifteen and sixpence a week. She left when a bit of extra factory work was added to her load, for the same money.

Nick Zenodohos was involved in raising money to aid political prisoners under the Metaxas regime in Greece, and in doing so he had come in contact with a Communist Party ‘fraternal organisation’, the International Labour Defence (I.L.D), which was affiliated to International Red Aid, later called International Class War Prisoners Aid. The LL.D. was in Roma House in George Street, and its business was to look after workers on strike or arrested in demonstrations, and after families who had been evicted from their homes. Her father arranged for Della to go there as an office worker, without pay, just for her tram fares and lunch. An I.L.D. lunch was made up of stale pies – one penny each against threepence for a fresh one – from Sargents across the road. After a year or so she needed some money for living expenses, so transferred to a slightly less impecunious organisation, the Friends of the Soviet Union (FOSU). This was headed by Sam Aarons who donated his time, while making his living from his Rapid Shoe Repair shop in Pitt Street. The work at FOSU was both demanding and varied, and Della gained her office proficiency there. She, with her mother and her sister, joined the small theatre troupe which was attached to the FOSU, and where one act plays and political skits with a working class slant were produced. Their most ambitious project was the three act Ragged Trousered Philanthropists which was a great success. Above the stage was a sign which stated ‘Art is a weapon, and the pen is mightier than the sword’.

Arising out of contacts she made in the FOSU, Della joined the Young Communist League, and spent all her spare time on its activities – at meetings, classes, paste-ups, chalk-ups and canvassing the Young Worker on Sundays. A little later she joined the Communist Party, the first one of her family to do so, but was soon followed by her sister Sylvia, her father and her mother.

When bad times resulted in the FOSU having difficulty in finding the one pound per week they were paying Della, they arranged to share her with the Militant Minority Movement, where Esmonde Higgins edited Red Leader and the many political bulletins produced by factory branches round Sydney. Since it was useless to campaign for higher wages or improved working conditions in those straightened economic times, emphasis was usually laid on amenities, like proper lavatories; and they had so much experience in that direction that Della’s co-workers joked that they would make ideal Commissars for Lavatories after the Revolution. Working for the MMM Della got her first taste of trade union work, which was to make up such an important part of her life.

By 1936 job prospects were better, but Della knew her employment record would never commend her to a commercial employer. Sam Aarons had decided to go to Spain to fight with the International Brigade against Franco, and he was selling his shoe repair shop. But before he went he used the shop’s letterhead to write a splendid reference for Della, to cover the three years she had worked for the fraternal organisations, and it helped her to get her first job as a shorthand typist in industry. In the next few years she was to endure a succession of eccentric bosses; but she was also able to join the Clerks Union and become active in it. In a year or so she had become the union’s Metropolitan Secretary. The Greek connection also persisted, with her father’s involvement with a Greek socialist organisation, the Atlas League. After the war, and the suppression of the Greek left, Della became Secretary of the League for Democracy in Greece.

By the late thirties she had gone back to work in the trade union field – for the Waterside Worker’s Federation, where Jim Healy had been elected general secretary. She was in charge of the union’s office for many years, and experienced two police raids during that time. The first was in 1949, during the coal strike, following passage of the National Emergency Act with its power to freeze union funds to prevent aid being given to strikers. Anticipating a threat to their funds, some left-wing unions had withdrawn some or all of the money in their bank accounts. The WWF had withdrawn eight thousand pounds.

Della Elliott was subpoenaed and questioned in court by Gough Whitlam’s father-in-law, (later Mr Justice) Dovey, a big man, who she said, flapped his black gown round the court like a vulture, and treated the union people as though they were the criminals he was used to dealing with in the criminal court. Jim Healy and Ted Roach went to jail because they refused to say where the missing money was; the truth was that they did not know. Della, who in the confusion of Dovey’s cross examination was never asked directly if she knew, had hidden it, with her father’s assistance, in the large jars of rice that stood in the storehouse underneath her parents’ house.

Another raid came in 1951, this was to do with the financial aid the Australian union was giving to its New Zealand counterpart in a waterfront strike’ the police took all the union records to try and trace the payments. When they returned them it was with a compliment for the way they had been kept. ‘If they’d warned me they were coming’ said Della ‘I’d have messed them up a treat’. She saw in these incidents indications of how governments, including a Labor government in 1949, will always do what the establishment requires.

There was not time for the speaker to deal with her role as a Labor Council and ACTU delegate, or her place in the Equal Pay Movement – including moving the successful resolution in its favour at an ACTU Congress. Neither could she deal with her editorship of the Seamen’s Union Journal and her long association with that union, of which her husband, E.V. Elliott, was the national secretary. But she finished by stating her belief that there is a strong need, in the face of the chaos in Europe and the advance of the Right, for people with ideals and a love of humanity to sink their differences and work together for a society that will benefit all- a classless society.