Catherine Green and Ellen Webster – The First Women in the NSW Legislative Council

Sue Tracey

Address to Randwick & District Historical Society, Edmund Blackett Theatre, Prince of Wales Hospital, 21 November 1998.

In November 1931 NSW Labor Premier Jack Lang appointed 25 new members to the Legislative Council. The 25 included two Labor women, Catherine Green and Ellen Webster, who were the first women members of the State Upper House. Ellen and Catherine were both appointed on 23 November, 1931. Catherine took her seat on 24 November and Ellen two days later.

Neither could claim to have been the first woman in the NSW Parliament. That distinction belongs to the UAP’s Millicent Preston-Stanley who was elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1925 for the seat of Eastern Suburbs. She was elected during the period when NSW had multi-member constituencies and was one of three members representing that constituency. However, their appointments were certainly a first for the NSW Labor Party.

At the time of their appointment Ellen Webster lived at 49 Darley Road and Catherine Green at 12 Knox Street Clovelly, both within the Randwick City boundaries. As the Secretary of Randwick North Branch of the Labor Party, I was excited to find that our branch had one of the first two women in the Upper House. Ellen belonged to our branch from 1932 until 1956. However, it has been difficult to find out much about the first 40 years of her life, her political views or what she did after being a member of the Upper House. This is more a chronicle of the journey to find out about her than actual discovery.

First a bit of background about the Upper House. Prior to 1934 legislative councillors were appointed, not elected, for life. Because Labor had seldom held office since 1856, when responsible government began, the chamber was conservative. Lang intended that the 25 new councillors, including Ellen Webster and Catherine Green, would vote to abolish the Legislative Council. In the end Jack Lang himself was sacked by Governor Philip Game in May 1932. After Jack Lang’s dismissal the conservatives introduced fixed terms and, from 1934, 60 members were elected by a joint sitting of both houses for 12 year terms. It was not until 1978 that the Wran Government successfully brought in the referendum that provided for the Legislative Council to be elected by popular vote. The terms remained 12 years. There has been a subsequent reform and now 42 MLC are elected for 8 years in staggered elections. Jack Lang apparently never regretted his decision to appoint women to the Upper House. Following the death of the Hon Gertie Melville MLC he wrote in a front page editorial in his newspaper The Century in 1959 :

They were there when needed to give their votes during the all night divisions including the vote to abolish the Legislative Council itself. Unlike some of the male members, they honoured their pledges.

Catherine Green and Ellen Webster were married to men active in the Labor Party. However, they were two very different women. ALP life member and former member of the Party’s Central executive, Bill Browne, who is still alive and remembers them well, notes:

There was a big difference between Mrs Green and Mrs Webster. The former, of working class origin, was a dedicated socialist and constantly active in ALP campaigns and other activities. She was a member of the LWCOC [Labor Women’s Central Organising Committee]. Each year she organised the Eastern Suburbs Labor Picnic. Mrs Webster was the wife of a grazier, lived near Forbes and might be described as middle class Irish and traditional Labor voter.

In the Labor Daily on 7 August 1928 there is a profile of Mrs Webster, who was then a member of the ALP’s ruling body, the Central Executive. She is described, no doubt from information she supplied to the paper, as follows:

Mrs Webster is a virile type of woman whose mission in life is to help those less better circumstanced than herself. The daughter of one of NSW earliest settlers her father the late Mr Phillip Callachor owned many valuable properties at Yetman, and other centres, extending to Queensland. But he was ever a humane man, and bequeathed this fine quality to his daughter. Mrs Webster, at her own expense, travels hundreds of miles to say nothing of her visits to Sydney from her home in Forbes. A graduate of Sydney University in both faculties of Arts and Medicine she realises the economic faculty of humanity’s call for help, has the first release on her outlook of life.

There are some inaccuracies and puzzles in this profile. She was not a graduate from Sydney University in either Medicine or Arts. Her father, who arrived from Ireland in the mid-19th century, could hardly be described as one of NSW’s earliest settlers, although he may have been an early settler in the Tenterfield region. The sixth of ten children, Ellen Callachor was born in 1877 near Tenterfield where her father had a property. Some time before his death in 1998 I interviewed her nephew, Jack Fletcher, who was close to her, and was her major beneficiary, I hoped he would be able to assist with information about her education, employment, charity work and commitment to the ALP. He recalled that she lived with his family during World War One and he thought she had studied medicine but because of kidney trouble dropped out of the course. However, Sydney University has no record of her having been enrolled in medicine. He did not know what her earlier schooling had been. It was not uncommon for girls on country properties not to attend school and she may well have been educated at home. Her niece, Mrs Walker, believes she was educated at Yetman Public School near Tenterfield.

Jack Fletcher thought Ellen didn’t have paid employment outside the home. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, middle class girls often were not in paid employment, as it was considered a poor reflection on their families, particularly their fathers, if they undertook work outside the home. The only evidence that has come to light of her earning an income is from the 1917 electoral roll which shows her occupation as grazier of Yetman, NSW. However, ‘grazier’ implies landowning and apparently she did not own land at this time. Her father had died in 1913 and the estate was subsequently sold up in 1922. After her marriage her occupation is shown as home duties and in 1939 her occupation on the electoral roll is again shown as grazier at 49 Darley Road Randwick. It is unclear how accurate that description was of her activities as it seems her husband was primarily involved in running the grazing properties. It is astonishing that there is this uncertainty about her education, employment and what she did in her earlier life.

In 1921, at the age of 44, she married William Webster who was 9 years younger than her. However, on their marriage certificate his age is clearly shown as 23 and hers as 28, no doubt this is what they told the priest who would have completed the form on the information given. The question is why? Their usual place of residence shown as Sydney. It is not known how they met. In the Labor Daily of 7 August 1928 William Webster is described as follows:

Mr W M Webster, the President of the ALP Executive , is one of those virile Australian natives whose interest in his country’s welfare has been a cardinal obsession of his life. Born and reared in the western district of New South Wales, after a successful school career the overlander found him hearkening to it and droving, shearing, stock dealing found him absorption and travel over every part of NSW, Queensland and Victoria. Joining up with the Labor Movement when only 18 years of age, his fidelity to its principles has never been questioned. He organised Labor campaigns in Yass 1913, Albury in 1913, Macquarie 1917, contested Calare Federal electorate in 1925. Represented Murrumbidgee Council at 1926 Easter Conference. His work on the Rules Committee and as an executive member in recent years is one too fresh in the minds of Labor’s supporters to need recapitulation. He worthily won his spurs to hold the highest position which he now enjoys in the Movement.

William was active in the ALP and by 1927 he was Country Vice President. Following the death of WH Seale, William Webster became the Party’s President for a few months from 1927-28. He was close to JJ McGirr and perhaps could have played a much bigger role in the Party than he ultimately did. When Webster married, he gave his occupation as ‘clerk’ and by 1925 he was a stock and station agent. He ran for the seat of Calare in 1925 and for Lowe in 1954 against Billie McMahon. After the 1930s he seems to have concentrated on his membership of the Closer Settlement Board and the Phosphate Board as well as his country properties near Forbes where he spent considerable time. He appears to have done well and when he died on 20 April, 1958, while staying with his brother in the Grenfell District, he left an estate of nearly £80,000.

The Websters lived in Johnson Street Forbes in the late 1920s, moving to Randwick around 1930, near Kemmis Street, then to 25 Clovelly Road. They then moved to 49 Darley Road where they remained for the rest of their lives although William did have grazing properties near Forbes which he continued to run. After his death Ellen, who was nearly 80, attempted to maintain control of the properties with the help of a manager. Mrs Webster was a member of the Party’s Central Executive. No evidence has come to light of Ellen being in the Labor Party prior to her marriage. Ellen’s activities were reported in the Labor Daily during 1931 and ‘32 and announcements appeared that she would speak on radio or address a country meeting. However, what she said is not reported. She wrote an article on the 1932 election, as did other prominent Labor women, setting out women’s choices in the election.

Ellen Webster made one speech during her time in Parliament, on the Farmers’ Relief Bill, which she opposed as it was to remove the protection of the Moratorium Act, the Act which protected people from eviction because of inability to make mortgage payments during the depression. On 22 April, 1934, she lost her seat due to the reconstitution of the Upper House. After the reformation of the Upper House she was relegated to an unwinnable position. The Daily Telegraph reported her saying:

I’ve been dumped but I can still raise a smile. The result was a shock, as the Women’s Organising Committee was assured I would be on the ticket so that Labor Women would have a representative in the new house.

In June 1934 she unsuccessfully sought the Legislative Council vacancy created by the death of Mr Rees. Thereafter, she remained a member of the Party and the Labor Women’s Committee but she does not appear to have played a prominent role. Whereas there is ample evidence of Catherine Green’s ongoing activism, I can find no evidence of Ellen being active on any policy issue.

The entry in the 1933 Labor Year Book notes Ellen was a keen charity worker especially for the unemployed. No particular organisation is named so it is difficult to find what she actually did. It is mentioned in her entry in the Biographical Register of the NSW Parliament 1901-1970 that she supported the Little Sisters of the Poor. I have spoken to several people who were active in the Catholic Church in the Randwick area in the 1950s and they either did not know her or were unaware of her charitable work. Amongst the people I spoke to were Father McCarthy now of Oatley, Frank Doyle, local parishioner and former president of the Randwick Historical Society, Mrs Norma Compton, who has been active in the Church for decades and knows everyone. I wrote to Mother Angela at the Little Sisters and I received a phone call to say they had no record of her assistance.

Her grand niece, Terry Fletcher, remembers Ellen being theatrical in manner. In latter years she was evidently given to wearing lots of rouge, red clothes, great hats and waving a long cigarette holder which she used without actually inhaling. She loved getting dressed up for the races and she would go to Melbourne for the Cup. For many years at her home in Randwick she had a butler, Joe, who had an alcohol problem as well as a cockatoo that would say “Answer the phone Joe”. She also remembers Ellen being keen for girls to get an education. Mrs Walker recalls that she went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and the Vatican with Matron Renehan, who ran a nursing home in Darley Road. She was a keen supporter of Eddie Ward, she sat through his trial on the New Guinea timber leases and she was also a keen supporter of Danny Minogue. At election times she was very effective at canvassing for votes in the nursing homes.

After her husband died she made at least two wills. In April 1958 she bequeathed her property at 49 Darley Road Randwick and her motor car to her nephew, John Fletcher, and sought him to provide for the welfare of his son Rev Father Francis John Fletcher a Missionary of the Sacred Heart. In July 1958 she willed all her country properties – Arcot, Cincinnatti, and Allermuir and Greenfields – to John Fletcher. When Ellen Webster died on 1 October 1966, aged 89, she was a wealthy woman, leaving an estate of £96,051/9/2. She is buried in Randwick cemetery with her parents, brother, husband and great nephew.

I’ll turn now to Catherine Green who is more accessible.

Catherine Green, nee Diggs, was born in 1881 in Curban, the youngest of 10 children born to Daniel Diggs, farmer, and his second wife Catherine Kain (Daniel had 10 children with his first wife as well). She was educated at Curban Public School and as a young girl she learnt the violin, using an instrument which her brothers bought for her. She ran away from home at the age of 14 because she saw no future at home. She got a job in a hotel in Dubbo as a domestic. The hotel was sold and the landlady bought a hotel in The Rocks area and she brought Catherine with her to Sydney in 1898.

She married twice. Her first husband was William Russell, with whom she had four children, including Jim Russell the writer of the much loved “Potts” Comic Strip. The second one was Sydney Green. It is from Jim Russell that I obtained much of my information about his mother. When she married William Russell in 1904, he was a foreman plumber with the Sydney City Council; in 1915 he fell off an 18 foot ladder and was fatally injured. He was president of the NSW Plumbers’ Union and ran for the seats of Parkes and Canterbury; he had been promised West Sydney, a safe Labor seat, but died before being able to run for it.

When they were first married they lived in The Rocks area but Catherine was keen to leave the inner city, with its larrikin pushes, and so they moved to Claremont Street, Campsie in 1908. They purchased land and could afford to build only half a house. After William was killed in 1915 testimonial dinners were held and some insurance money was paid. This enabled Catherine to finish the house and she then opened a grocery shop in the front room. The boys used to deliver the groceries in billy carts which Catherine made from boxes. On Sundays they would canvass for business. The shop was not a success, in part because of credit extended during the railway strike in 1917 but never settled. She then set up shop in Beamish Street Campsie, selling knick-knacks. This also failed and, overwhelmed by the failure, she had a breakdown. Jim and his brother were sent to relatives in the country for 18 months and she was cared for at home by a Mrs McKinlay and boarders were taken to supplement the income. After she recovered, around 1921, she got work in milk bars and delicatessens.

In 1926 she married for a second time – to Sydney Temple Green, stonemason of Clovelly, whom she met at ALP Annual Conference. Sydney had the quarry near the corner of Clovelly Rd and Arden Street. Sydney Green was a Labor activist and member of the Central Executive from 1928-30.

Catherine joined the ALP about 1904 and was subsequently active in the LWCOC in South Sydney and the Bankstown line. She was press secretary for the LWCOC. She was a member of the Campsie Branch of the ALP while she lived in the area. Catherine Russell, as she was then known, became a Justice of the Peace on 13 July, 1921, in the second gazettal of women justices. It was not until May, 1921, that any women were appointed to that position. The right to become JP’s had long been agitated for and a number of Labor women sought appointment to the position.

When she was interviewed by the Labor Daily following her appointment to the Legislative Council she said:

I am naturally very proud to be one of the first two women ever appointed to the LC but prouder still of the confidence reposed in me by the greatest statesman Australia has ever known.” [She meant Jack Lang.] … Food clothing and shelter are not enough Music, art and literature should be in every home…. Maternal care, equal guardianship of the child, equality of sex as regards wage conditions and family courts.

Because of ill health, Ellen Webster had to delay taking her seat. The Labor Daily reported that Catherine Green took her seat on 24 November, 1931, wearing oyster satin, lace jabot and black hat. Unfortunately there is no photograph. Catherine Green always claimed it was not important that she actually took her seat first. She always said she and Ellen were appointed at the same time and that was what mattered.

Catherine Green spoke on two Bills during her time in Parliament: the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Bill where she sought protection for women workers, and the Family Endowment (Amendment) Bill. In the first Bill, she was concerned about the practice of private employment agencies overcharging women seeking positions. In fact she said she opposed private employment agencies. So if she were in Parliament today she would no doubt have strenuously opposed the dismantling of the CES which provided free job brokering, and the setting up of private agencies which charge.

According to Jim Russell, although Green was a life-long Lang supporter, she disagreed with Lang over his plan to sell the State Abattoirs to Swifts. While she was in the Upper House Lang, in collaboration with newspaper proprietor Joynton Smith, had introduced a Bill which, if passed, would have cost Robert Clyde Packer £78,000. She was distressed that Voltaire Molesworth was offering members £100 to oppose it; ultimately the bill failed, with the defection of 6 Labor members led by Coates.

On 8 September, 1932, Catherine Green tendered her resignation to Sir Philip Game. There is consensus that she resigned because of opposition from her husband to her being an MLC. This was either because he didn’t like her being there late at night with all those men or he felt he should have had the position and was jealous of her political prominence. The latter reason is supported by Bill Browne, an ALP life member, who remembers her and Sydney well. He said Sydney thought he should have been appointed, and so did many others.

After leaving Parliament she continued to be active in the ALP in the Clovelly Branch and campaigned in State and Federal elections as well as in the Labor Women’s Organisation. She is clearly remembered by local Labor people, such as Bryan Vaughan and Dulcie Walsh (Lou Walsh’s widow) who remember her campaigning for the Party. She was the Honorary Matron of the Lang Hostel, founder of the Women’s Vanguard and a member of the Public Liberty League. Jim remembers her being Secretary of the Domestic Workers’ Union while she was in the Upper House and a member of the Women Justices Association. He also notes she was a keen violinist and a friend of Bertha MacNamara, Henry Lawson’s wife. In 1943 she appeared before the Films Commission, representing the Watson Women’s Labor Auxiliary. She argued that boys and girls under 15 years should be segregated at the pictures: “The women I represent do not approve of adolescent boys and girls being together for hours in darkened theatres.” She also argued that as children couldn’t go into morgues or asylums, they should not be able to see such material at the pictures.

After her second husband died she worked as a housekeeper at St Mary’s Cathedral for a time. When former NSW Premier, James Dooley, was dying she volunteered to look after him while his wife went out to work as a hairdresser. Dooley was described by Jim ‘as a big fat fellow down on his uppers’ She later took a job as a priest’s housekeeper at St Anne’s at Enfield. Catherine died on 25 January, 1965 and is buried in Rookwood Cemetery with her first husband.

When looking through the records of Randwick North Branch I was amazed to discover in the Pledge Book a notation that Ellen Webster had been expelled in December, 1956. Further research revealed Ellen Webster has the distinction of being expelled from the Labor Party at the age of 79 for working for opposition candidates in the 1956 City of Sydney elections. The ALP Executive Minutes for 14 December, 1956 contain the following motion:

Item 12 Members acting in violation of rule 50. Information has been received by officers that the following persons are actively supporting another political organisation, and worked for opposition candidates in the recent city of Sydney municipal elections. Miss M Gray, Lane Cove Branch Mr R Gray Haberfield Branch Mrs R Gray Haberfield Branch Mrs J T Kane Haberfield Branch Mrs Webster Randwick North Branch Recommendation: that the persons named by declared to have incurred automatic expulsion for conduct contrary to rule 50.

No doubt she was handing out how to votes for Jack Flannery, pharmacist and prominent DLP member in Randwick, who stood for the Sydney City Council in 1956. His son Paul remembers Ellen as a lonely old lady who used to always be ringing his father up for a chat – so she probably was pleased to help him in his effort to gain a DLP seat on the Sydney City Council. She was expelled at the same time as Mrs Kane, wife of the DLP leader, and his secretary, Molly Gray. It was not until a month later that The Sun reported her expulsion under the heading “2,000 are Outed”. The expulsion of the first woman – or strictly, the second – in the Legislative Council did not make much impression on those in the Labor Movement. Although Jack Kane had supplied The Sun with the information about the expulsion in the previously mentioned article, Ellen is not mentioned in Jack Kane’s memoirs. Former Labor Senator Mulvihill and Labor MLA John Armitage, who were Party officers when she was expelled, don’t remember her. Harry Jensen, who was Labor’s successful Lord Mayoral candidate had no memory of her when I interviewed him. However, these men all recalled Molly Gray.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography entry claims Ellen Webster joined the DLP in 1957 but I have found no record of her doing so. I have canvassed this with Frank Higgins who was active in the DLP at the time and he says she did not; her great niece whom I interviewed doubts she would have done so as the Fletcher family firmly believed it was important to stay in the ALP.

These two women, then, had very different lives although they were geographically close at the time they made history and were appointed to the Legislative Council. Randwick can boast that the first two women in the Legislative Council were living in this municipality at the time of their appointment to the Upper House and the Randwick Historical Society can be very proud its president, Jeannette McHugh, in 1983, was the first woman from NSW to enter Federal Parliament and the first woman from NSW to become a Minister.