On 2 July last year, on a typically cold Katoomba day, I sat with poet Denis Kevans at the back of a packed funeral parlour chapel as we paid our last respects to an old Labor man (and subscriber to Hummer) who was liked and admired by many. The service was conducted by the local Salvation Army Major and a tribute was delivered by a long standing friend. One of the last survivors of that 1940s group of left wing activists known as the “Katoomba Reds” was gone.
John Apthorp was born in Perth and grew up on the Kalgoorlie goldfields. At the age of sixteen he joined the navy and spent several years on the boys’ training ship HMAS Tingira. When he left the navy in 1929 he purchased a grocery business in Annandale, later expressing the conviction that the Great Depression almost certainly began in his street. With his savings gone he joined a group of men prospecting for gold in the remote reaches of the Shoalhaven River.
The hoped for riches proved illusory and he rejoined the navy in 1932. Thoughts of a naval career were soon shelved, however, when he contracted TB. He was invalided out of the service and found himself undergoing treatment at the Bodington Red Cross Sanitorium at Wentworth Falls. Here began a love ofthe Blue Mountains which lasted for the rest of his life. In 1939 he and his wife Doreen (Dorn) settled permanently in Katoomba.
Still recuperating and with time on his hands, a passive interest in politics now developed into an active one. John always credited Tom Butterfield, the local postman and a prominent member of the Katoomba branch of the Labor Party, with being the catalyst. On his rounds they would spend time yarning about the state of the world and after a while Tom talked him into joining the branch. Meetings at that time were held in a small hall that had been built by volunteer labour on land donated by Dr Eric Dark.
Membership of the Labor Party brought personal friendships with a number of left wing activists, including Eric Dark, Peter Carroll and Bruce Milliss. When the latter established a branch of the Communist Party in Katoomba John and a number of others swung their allegiance over. In the wartime years that followed, co-operation between individual members of both parties achieved some remarkable local advances in Katoomba. Some of these – a children’s library, healthy school lunches, a day nursery for the children of women munitions workers – and a number of the people involved have been discussed in earlier issues of Hummer (No.12, Peter Carroll; No.17, Dr Eric Dark; No.25, Muriel Whalan).
Also discussed in an earlier Hummer (No.15) was John’s managing of the Current Affairs Library and Reading Room which operated in Katoomba during the years 1943-47. It was run by a committee which include both Bruce Milliss and Eric Dark and brought John into contact with popular writers of the time, like Fred Thwaites, Carol Warburton and William Hatfield, who dropped in whenever they were travelling through Katoomba. Others like the Darks, Oscmar White and Eric Lowe already lived in the Blue Mountains. He also knew Katherine Susannah Prichard, who sometimes stayed at the Apthorp home in Katoomba and John and his wife typed the manuscript of The Roaring Nineties for her during the war.
His interest in literature and his close friendship with Eleanor and Eric Dark led to his involvement towards the end of his life in the move to transform the Dark’s Katoomba home, Varona, into the Wrtiers’ Centre after their deaths. He served on the Board and the management committee and for a tirite held the office of Treasurer. It was a source of great satisfaction to him to see Varona established and making a contribution to Australian culture.
To many people John was best known as a prolific letter writer to both the local and metropolitan newspapers. Not long before his death he became one of the few to have had a hundred letters published in the Sydney Morning Herald. Always brief and to the point and invariably spiced with humour his letters ranged over many subjects from politics and history to language, folklore (his first published letter was on the use of quandong nuts in the game of conkers) and cricket. All his friends testify to the extraordinary range of his knowledge and interests.
John Apthorp was a man of principle, concerned about the condition of his fellow men. He had no problem with any “generation gap”. At his funeral there were many young people who saw him as both friend and inspiration. “I’m still a socialist”, he said in an interview with the local newspaper in 1990, and in his quiet, articulate and compassionate way he left his mark on the world. Three scrapbooks of his letters and several oral history interviews with him are lodged in the Local Studies Collections of the Blue Mountains City Library. Men and women like him deserve to be remembered. Vale John.
Blue Mountains City Library