Harriet Powell: Labor Organiser

Sue Tracey

When the Australian Labor Party opened its ranks to women in 1904, a number of impressive females emerged to organise for the party. Harriet Powell was one of them. For about seven years she cut a swathe across  the political landscape of the eastern Australian states, including visits to New Zealand, and then suddenly disappeared. In his biography of Michael Savage, New Zealand Labour’s first Prime Minister, Barry Gustafson included a biographical note on Harriet being ‘of pleasing appearance and charming frankness of manner’; ‘she of the glib tongue and the socialistic temperament who vanquishes wherever she goes’ . Yet, aside from a few brief mentions Harriet is ignored in Australian Labor history and the story of this woman needs to be told.

Harriet Frances Powell was born in 1878 in Ballarat,Victoria, the eldest of five children of George Burbridge Powell, a miner-cum-foreman and his wife Mary.

Harriet claimed that her family was not particularly political. When she was six years old she read Peep of Day which she thought was a most beautiful book and made her want to be a writer.’1 This widely published book was written by the Evangelical Christian, Favell L. Mortimer, daughter of a founder of Barclays Bank. Harriet again referred to this book and its influence on her education when she wrote to the Hobart Mercury in 1936.

As a young woman she joined a local debating and literary society (perhaps connected to the Lydiard Street Methodist Mutual Improvement Society).2 Her brother.Arthur was a keen debater and took part in national debating competitions; perhaps she took part in that as well. She became interested in the Women’s Movement, angered at the widespread belief that women were inferior to men. Like many activists of the time she was an autodidact, making good use of the Ballarat City Library.

Harriet was employed as a shorthand writer/typist by a Ballarat law firm. In order to transcribe evidence in court she had to pass the Law Courts Shorthand Examination so she enrolled at the ‘Central’ Business College in Melbourne. The exam, which required being able to take down shorthand at 150 words per minute, sometimes had a 90 per cent failure rate.3 The College, run by Frederick Zercho, had the highest success rate for the exam from 1896-1902.4 An advertisement for the College says that at the exam on 5 September 1903 the College achieved a 100 per cent success rate and one of the three successful candidates was Miss Powell of Ballarat.5 She apparently took shorthand in the Supreme Court in Melbourne, perhaps from 1903-04.

Although Victorian women won the vote federally from 1903, Victoria was the last Australian state to enfranchise women (1908). Harriet enrolled that year in the East Ballarat electorate. She soon became involved in the. Women’s Parliament, a mock parliament formed in 1904 by the Women’s Political Association, in which Aileen and Vida Goldstein were both active members.6 This ‘parliament’ met at the Presbyterian Hall in Collins Street, Melbourne, in June 1904 and later in November 1904 at Miss Byrne’s tea rooms in Elizabeth Street. On 2 December 1904 the Women’s Parliament was formally prorogued after first dealing with a resolution in favour of preferential trade: Vida Goldstein was the Governor General and Miss H.F. Powell proposed the toast to State and Federal parliaments.7

From April till July 1905 Harriet spent three months in New Zealand, visiting Christchurch and Wellington before returning to Australia where she began giving talks in regional areas of New South Wales. In September, 1905 she went to Narrabri where she gave a series of addresses: ‘Labor in Australia and New Zealand, Progress of Civilisation’ and ‘The Humanitarian Ideal’. During her time there a women’s branch was formed. A couple of months later she helped form a Political Labor League (PLL) in Little Plains (Gwydir electorate) where she devised a syllabus for debate during the first six months of the Branch’s operation, the first topic being ‘Labor’s Objective’. The secretary says that without Harriet’s stirring exhortations the branch would not have been formed. She spent four weeks in Moree and reported that Mr G.A.Jones was safe in his seat of Gwydir and that a further 145 members had been added to the PLL. She said the farmers, although anti-Labor, supported the socialist concept of a State Bank.  Then she proceeded to Warialda for three weeks where she resuscitated the local branch. Harriet then spent seven weeks in Inverell, forming a new branch and recruiting 540 new members. At the Scone meeting she tried clear up misunderstandings about the Labor Party – that it was a humanitarian party, and not confined to those who laboured manually, and she urged women to make use of their new given power.

In January 1906 Harriet was elected to the NSW Labor Party Executive. Labor was slower than the conservatives to mobilise women to support the party. In September 1904 the ALP Women’s Central Organising committee (LWCOC) was formed in NSW with the primary objective of mobilising women voters to support Labor. The women vigorously participated in the 1905 Labor Party Conference.8 That year four women were elected to the Executive, and by 1906 there were seven women on the 24-member Central Executive of the NSW ALP. Not until the Central Executive was replaced by the Administrative Committee in 1971 were there more than four women on the executive in any year.

Besides Harriet Powell, the six other women elected to the Central Executive at the Annual Conference in January 1906 were Selina Anderson (who with Vida Goldstein was among the four women who stood for Federal Parliament in 1903), Mrs Edith Bethel (LWCOC) Secretary who was expelled over conscription), Mrs Kate Dwyer (long term LWCOC President), the US-born Miss A. E. Gardiner, Mrs Mary Anne Grant (wife of John Grant,ALP General Secretary), and Maggie Hall (sister of David Hall)

Harriet’s organising trip in NSW; which lasted till September 1906, continued through the Macquarie, New England and Robertson electorates and by September 1906 she claimed to have enrolled 3,079 new members, 1,200 of them in Macquarie alone. In addition to holding meetings she also canvassed door to door.

On 1 October 1906 Harriet began organising in Victoria, with her first meeting being held in the Balaclava electorate. The Labor organisers made an agreement with the local party. Her terms, perhaps subject to variation, were £1 per day or 25/- for a day and a half in the country, and 15/- per day or 20/- per day and a half for Melbourne and suburbs. During February and March 1907 she spoke in the Tumut, Adelong Tarcutta areas. In 1906 and 1907 she visited the Rutherglen district, escorted by Michael Savage. On these trips she called for women to not just have the vote but to have full equality with men.9

On 6 October 1907 Harriet Powell made another visit to New Zealand. She arrived in Auckland on the Zealandia and went to the mining districts of Waihi and Karangahake before going to the South Island. On 27 April she gave a talk on ‘The Story of Socialism’ at the Town Hall of Otautau.

By July 1908 she arrived in Brisbane and in an interview published by the Brisbane Courier explained that the objective of the Political Labor Leagues was socialism otherwise she would not have belonged to its ranks. Powell suggested of her time in New Zealand that she ‘talked unadulterated socialism and the hearing was always attentive’. In her opinion, ‘the P.L.L. is weakened by having many members who are not Socialists’ .10

At the time Annie Besant and the Theosophists were generating much discussion for their views which included birth control, opposition to the White Australia Policy, support for cremation and belief in reincarnation. Annie Besant was invited to speak on the subject of ‘Theosophy and the Workers’ at Trades Hall Adelaide in June 1908, and in Sydney she was given an illuminated address in appreciation for her efforts for workers everywhere.11 In a letter to the Courier Mail, Harriet fulsomely described Besant as ‘a queen among women’. Harriet thought Theosophy superior to orthodox religion in interpretation but questioned whether it would abolish superstition or generate human progress’. By contrast:

Socialism will give equal opportunities to all for success in material things: mental science will enable us to appreciate knowledge and apply it to the best advantage. Theosophy leavens the lump of. humanity for the establishment of what Morrison Davidson calls “the New Social Order”, Socialism will complete a great stage of industrial evolution; mental science will convert mental sordid poverty into intellectual lofty luxuriance and Theosophy pave the way.12

On 5 October 1908 Harriet Powell arrived in Auckland on the Victoria. A month later, she spoke at Netherton on the topic of ‘ Socialism – What, Why and How’. At Wanganui, the following December, at a meeting of the New Zealand Socialist Party held in the Opera House, she spoke again on socialism which she said dealt with economic questions, but not with religion or marriage. During this speech she recited very dramatically, the poem, written by Edwin Markham in response to Millet’s painting:

The Man with the Hoe
Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes
on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back the burden of the world

In July 1909 Powell travelled to the Western Districts of Victoria where she again lectured on socialism and established a branch of thirty members. The same month she became the Killarney delegate to the Victorian Labor Women’s Convention.13 After this conference the trade union movement formally supported the Labor women organising working women: activists such as Lilian Locke,Amy Whitham, Minnie Felstead, Ellen Mulcahy and Harriet Powell.14 Harriet represented the Barwon Branch at the 1910

and 1911 Victorian Labour Party conferences and at the January 1910 conference was elected to the Committee of the Victorian Political Labor Committee, polling fifth equal of the 15 elected.15

Although the newspaper reports of her organising in country areas of the Eastern States and New Zealand were usually glowing, it was not all smooth sailing within the Labor Party. At the 1911 NSW ALP Annual Conference held in January 1911, a letter written sometime previously by Mrs G.A.Jones, the wife of the Member for Gwydir was read out. As mentioned earlier Harriet had canvassed extensively in the Gwydir electorate in 1905.

The letter begins: .

424 Riley St Surry Hills
Dear Mr Johnson,

I see by the Moree News that you have decided to have Miss Powell up your way. I can assure you that she does not speak on the Labor Movement, and you will be sorry that you asked her to Moree.  She will do the district more harm than good. I have heard her speak.All our ladies have a great set on her, and I am sure you ought to think well over it. Why not try and get Mrs Dwyer, one of our grand Labor workers that knows something about the work. I am sure you will regret her coming for she will do no good.16

There was uproar at the Conference. Mrs Dwyer spoke in her defence: ‘that letter is a private letter, Miss Powell of Victoria had not grasped the movement at the time, although she is now a good worker for the cause’.

In March 1911 Harriet Powell returned to Victoria having been asked to organise for Labor in Gippsland by Labor titan William Spence, Member for Darling and co-founder of the Australian Workers’ Union.17 From March till June 1912 she worked across Tasmania. At a meeting in Longford she spoke of the need to emancipate workers from wage slavery and talked up the gains the Labor party had already made such as the eight hour day and improved conditions in shops, factories and mines.18 At Burnie Town Hall she was unexpectedly presented with a bouquet of roses and a gold jewelled pendant, emblematic of Tasmania.19 .

Towards the end of 1912 she returned to NSW and entered into an agreement with Parramatta PLL Council to organise for a week in Parramatta, where she signed up 68 new members and a further week in Kellyville, where she established a branch with 20 members. Assisted by assistant secretary J. Hulyer, she used the quarto-sized photo bills to publicise the meetings. These bills included the word ‘socialism’, which was objected to by Frank Walford, president of the Parramatta PL,L. (The Parramatta PLL was dominated by the proprietors of the Cumberland Times, Frank Walford and Bill Ely, Member for Parramatta, 1920. In the 1941 Frank Walford would become the conservative Mayor of Katoomba and become the scourge of the writer Eleanor Dark and former ALP friends).20

A further meeting was to be held at Baulkham Hills on 14 December, and prior to the she received a letter from Frank Walford, dated 11 December, saying she must not distribute leaflets which contained the word ‘socialism’ without the consent of the League. She refrained from putting up further notices and the next evening received a letter terminating her services for ‘acting opposite to advice, our principle being to confine all meetings to the Labor Platform only’. Two executive members had told her fruit growers would not understand socialism. Intra-party tensions caused by sectarianism and the anti-socialist views of some members were, in the opinion of Powell, threatening the party’s viability.

In May 1913 a Labor-initiated referendum took place in conjunction with a federal general election. The referendum sought to widen commonwealth powers over monopolies and industrial relations (a previous attempt  in 1911 had failed). Harriet Powell was concerned that not all NSW  Labor representatives supported the referendum. On 18 December, the Parramatta Labor League met in the offices of the Cumberland Times newspaper and considered two motions put by her supporter Mr Hulyer. The first supported the referendum passed easily. The second was put on notice:

Also to awaken the electors to the fact that Socialism consists in ‘the securing of the full results of their industry to all producers’ that by eliminating the middle-man Socialism would prove a God-send to every fruitgrower, that the basic principles of the Labor movement are essentially socialistic.

Her charm and her support from people like Savage and Spence within the Party had meant that she could speak and campaign in her own style. There had been previous disquiet about her emphasis on socialism but she had continued undeterred.

Perhaps the Parramatta campaign, where the President of the local PLL undermined her in a way she had not experienced before, was her last organising effort for the Labor Party? After this the trail went cold. All searches by the author for evidence of Harriet’s later work were futile until, by chance, a family member was found who had some papers relating to Harriet, which included a number of letters to and from her brother Arthur.

According to a newspaper cutting, Harriet Powell seems to have sailed from Sydney on the Niagara on 29 June 1914, although her name does not appear on the passenger list published in the Sydney Morning Herald. The following newspaper cutting hand dated August 1914 reads:

Miss H.E Powell, the Australian Labor organiser of wide and varied experience in so many States, and a native of Ballarat, was a passenger from Sydney to San the Royal Mail SS Niagara at the end of last month. This enterprising Australian woman has embarked on the characteristic undertaking of a series of lecturing tours relating to Australia, her advanced Labor laws, improved condition of women in Australia and the benefits accruing therefrom. She is assisted by a quantity of informative literature obtained from New South Wales Tourism Department, as well as a few sets of lantern slides, and the equipment of first-class credentials from Labor officials and the New South.Wales State Labor Government. Many other accompanying circumstances favour Miss Powell, who has never failed to make a good impression wherever she went, and altogether, a successful career may be anticipated for her in the great Republic of America.

These lantern slides may have been those exhibited at the Franco British Exhibition, staged in London during 1908.21 They showed aspects of life in NSW mining, dairying, smart Federation houses in Sydney suburbs, and Norfolk Island, without however a single picture of the state’s renowned beaches.

It is nine years before we hear again of Harriet. In December 1923, her brother, Arthur, was cabled from the British Consul in Jacksonville, Florida with a request to: Cable sister money seriously ill husband Germany Harriet (Kingsbury).

There are few details of Harriet Powell’s life in America. The date of her marriage and her husband’s first name have not been found. She does not appear on the US Census for 1921 or 1931.

Correspondence shows that Powell was submitting articles for publication and that she attempted to have a book of verse published. She also appears to have given least one talk on Australia. She was friends with James R. Brown, President of the Manhattan Single Tax Club, and his wife, and possibly Harriet embraced these views.

In January 1936 she wrote to the Hobart Mercury,signing herself H.F. Kingsbury formerly Miss H.F. Powell N.S.W, Australian Labour Organiser, She wrote of the visit to New York by Mr Brooks,Tasmanian Director of Education, and her brother’s friend, whom at her brother’s suggestion, she had shown around NewYork, including the famous automat restaurant in Sixth Avenue. She ended by saying:

I am now preparing to establish the great Labour movement here, politically, as it is the only hope for the workers in every line and kind of labour. The world needs that an A.L.P here should link up with the A.L.P at the Southern Cross, and culminate in the universal congress with all industries and all peoples represented.22

In February 1936 Harriet wrote to her brother that she had secured relief work at Conboy & Co, a law firm with Democrat connections. She had been there for some weeks and was enjoying the work, although. some of the overtime was unpaid. She thanked her brother for sending her £20 as requested: she hoped to soon payoff her debts and added she would soon leave New York to launch her career.

Harriet died on 18 July 1936, of chronic cardiac valvular disease, perhaps the result of childhood rheumatic fever. The manager of the Hotel Elton, East 26th Street, where she had lived for a lengthy period, helped arrange her funeral at the Silver Mountain Cemetery. A few months before she died she had told her brother Arthur she had a Postal Savings Bank account in her maiden name, for her literary and journalistic work. It seems there was not enough to pay her $200 funeral costs and the further $55.50 she owed Barclays bank, which her brother paid.

Twenty years after leaving Australia, and near the end of her life, Harriet still envisaged working for the labour movement. Her organisational skills had been formidable. She was an accomplished speaker and had motivated some thousands of people to join the Labor party throughout NSW and Victoria. This charismatic, talented woman would, had she had been a man, surely have represented Labor in Parliament.

Sue Tracey is a long time member of the NSW branch of the Australian Labor Party and also the Treasurer of Sydney Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History.                    .


  1. The Weekly Times, 16 October 1909, p. 10.
  2. Powell family correspondence (copies in possession of author).
  3. Argus, 23 January 1899, p. 6.
  5. Argus, 9 September 1903, p. 10.
  6. Jill Roe (ed.),My  Congenials :Miles Franklin and Friends in Letters, vol. one, Angus & Robertson in association with State Library of New South Wales, Pymble, NSW, 1993, p. 35.
  7. Table Talk, 1 December 1904, p. 24.
  8. Michael Hogan (ed.), Labor Pains: Early Conference and Executive Reports of the Labor Party of NSW, vol 1, Federation, Sydney, p. 450.
  9. Barry Gustafson, From the Cradle to the Grave: A Biograpby of Michael Joseph Savage, Reed Methuen.Auckland, 1986, p. 60.
  10. Brisbane Courier, 7 July 1908, p. 4.
  11. Jill Roe, Beyond Belief; UNSW Press, Sydney, 1986, p. 142.
  12. Courier Mail, 23 July 1908, p. 5.
  13. The Worker (Sydney), 8 July, 1909, p. 3.
  14. Melanie Nolan, ‘Sex or Class? The Politics of the Early Equal Pay Campaign in Victoria’, Labour History, vol. 61, November 1991. p.108.
  15. Gustafson ,Michael Joseph Savage, p. 294.
  16. Truth, 29 January 1911.
  17. Argus, 10 March 1911, p.9.
  18. Examiner (Launceston), 12 March 1912, p. 6.
  19. Examiner (Launceston), 9 May 1912, p. 6.
  20. Sue Tracey, ‘The Great War at Branch Level: the Minutes of the Parramatta Labor League 1916- 1918‘, Hummer, vol. 3, no. 4, Winter 2000.
  21. State Records NSW Lantern Slides of NSW and the Franco-British Exhibition, 14086.
  22. The Mercury (Hobart), 4 January 1936, p. 10.