Vera Deacon was born in Mayfield, Newcastle, NSW in July 1926. She grew up during the 1930s economic depression as part of a large family who made their home on islands in the Hunter River. Her father was out of work for long periods and living on the islands provided an opportunity to survive by fishing and growing food. It was a tough life. To attend school, Vera had to row a small dinghy across the river, in fine or stormy weather, ground it on the mainland, make her way some distance to the school and return by the same means at the end of the day.
Across the river from their house were the BHP Steelworks: the source of life for tens of thousands, but also the source of exploitation and pollution. Vera’s inner strength and politics sprang from these experiences and World War II, as well as from all those people from the struggle street of life that she met and joined with in struggle. Their stories and fighting spirit, combined with her own life experiences, set Vera on a clear path from which no amount of harassment and threats from authorities could deter her. Nothing was going to be too difficult after what she had already faced.
During WWII, when she was just 18 years old, Vera became Secretary of the TAFE Students’ Association in Newcastle. In 1944 she joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in that city and married the then Newcastle CPA secretary, Stan Deacon. She was proud of her membership of the CPA, saying that it was there that she met some of the best people you could ever hope to meet. Her commitment to changing society for the better attracted the attention of the secret police (ASIO) and led to her being spied on over many decades.
In April 1948 at 21 years old, she was noted by ASIO as a member of the New Housewives’ Association, campaigning for price control on essential foods in the post-war period of scarcity. Later that year it was reported that she was a candidate for the CPA in North Ward in the Newcastle Council election. At one point, an agent had clearly been outside her home at night, because they reported the ‘crime’ that ‘Mrs Vera Deacon had been up late at night – typing’. Vera was later able to confirm that this ‘subversive’ activity was in fact typing the minutes of a Parents’ and Citizens’ meeting.
The family moved to Sydney at the end of 1948, and in 1949 it was reported that she addressed a CPA meeting in the Sydney Domain, and wrote an article in the CPA newspaper Tribune advocating free medical care. In August 1950, at 24 years old, Vera was arrested at a protest against Sydney City Council, which had refused to allow the then Democratic Rights Committee to have use of a room to hold a peace meeting in the Town Hall. The meeting was to call for the banning of the atomic bomb.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, in Sydney, Vera was very active, speaking in the Domain and writing numerous articles for the Tribune newspaper, including the marvellous ‘The Men Who Make the Steel’ (1956). She joined the Realist Writers’ Group in 1954 and won a Mary Gilmore Literary Competition medal in 1957. She became National Secretary of the Realist Writers in 1960. She also became a committee member of the Australasian Book Society which had been formed in 1952.
In December 1967, Vera, at 41 years old, was declared a security risk to all Australian Commonwealth Departments and Instrumentalities. It seems ASIO was worried that she was working for the Postmaster General’s Office (PMG), while being active and prominent in the CPA. It is worth noting that Vera attained this status 16 years after the failed attempt by the Liberal party to ban the CPA via a referendum; the attempt backfired and made the CPA the only Australian political party to be legalised by referendum. This fact makes ASIO’s continual harassment of Vera, her husband, and her family, over many decades, an even more shameful undertaking.
Despite this, Vera did not waiver at any point in her life in her resolve to organise and advocate to dismantle the system she identified as the problem and replace it with a socialist one. Her resolve was tested many times and never failed. Secret police operations against left wing activists were bad enough, but the harassment was extended to the activist’s family as well. In 1970, Vera and Stan’s 18-year-old daughter applied for a job in the public service. She was secretly vetted by ASIO and the Public Service Board and was confined to a low-level job, specifically because her parents were active Communists.
When Vera’s father died in 1973, the secret police produced a report detailing her close family including those living and those then deceased. They also noted the ASIO file number of the Minister of Religion conducting the burial, the Reverend W. H Childs. Given these life experiences, it was no surprise that, on first meeting Vera in 1994, I knew at once that she was someone to learn from. It was obvious that she had a broad understanding of world affairs and a well-integrated philosophical perspective that enabled her to analyse world events quickly; she was a woman of wisdom and humanity. Vera was happy to talk about a single issue, but she was not a single-issue person; rather, she always considered how an issue fitted into a broader strategy. She was about people working together collectively to change society and the world for the better. Not just to survive, but to enjoy life.
Vera stayed in the CPA until 1991 when it dissolved into the Search Foundation, which she then joined. Her husband Stan died in 1993, and in 1997 she returned to live in Newcastle. There she joined the Progressive Labour Party and became active in the Hunter Broad Left, from which she received an Outstanding Service Award in 2014. Left-wing politics were clearly central to her life, and she saw an historical necessity for socialism. It was no accident that she supported regional history via the Regional History Fund at the University of Newcastle that was named after her. She was also an activist for the environment, often planting trees on Kooragang Island. It all stemmed from her political perspective and her concern for the earth we live on. Popular recognition came late in her life: she was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Newcastle, was granted the Keys to the City of Newcastle, and received an Order of Australia Medal from the Commonwealth Government.
Another aspect of Vera’s life was her love of music, and in particular she loved Newcastle’s union choir, the Newcastle People’s Chorus. She first heard the song ‘Weevils in the Flour’ when the Chorus sang it in Sydney in 1995. She loved it, as the song (the lyrics of which had first been written as a poem by her friend and comrade Dorothy Hewett) was about her own life on the islands in the Hunter River. One stanza summed up her background:
‘In those humpies by the river, we lived on dole and stew,
While just across the water, those greedy smokestacks grew,
And the hunger of the many filled the bellies of the few.’
Vera became an ardent follower of the People’s Chorus performances and attended many Chorus parties where those present were privileged to hear her stories and, of course, the latest political analysis. Sadly, Vera died in May 2021 at the age of 94. She was an example to us all, as a political activist, an advocate for those not so well off, and for those in need of support. All those who knew Vera Deacon considered themselves lucky to have such an inspirational person in their lives.
An electrician by trade, Rod Noble worked at the Newcastle steelworks and for 15 years as Newcastle Trades Hall Council Research Officer before becoming an academic at the University of Newcastle in 1990. He was a founding member of the Newcastle People’s Chorus and is currently editor of Australian Socialist. Rod was a friend and comrade of Vera’s for more than 25 years. This article first appeared in the Sydney branch publication, The Hummer vol. 15 no. 2. Full references can be found at https://www.labourhistory.org.au/hummer/
Radical Currents, Labour Histories, No. 1 Autumn 2022, 36-38.