Joy Cummings – “Words were not important – love has its own language” – A tribute to Australia’s first female Lord Mayor

Joy Cummings (1923-2003) left a great legacy of her years of leadership as Lord Mayor of our city, she entered politics as an environmental campaigner and had a vision for the city of Newcastle, she was able to transform into a people-friendly city.


  • Born at Ramsgate, Sydney, in December 1923.
  • Joined the Labor Party in 1938 aged 15.
  • Moved to Newcastle a year later. Her deep involvement with the ALP later included being Mayfield ALP branch secretary and foundation secretary of the party’s Newcastle Federal Electorate Council women’s committee.
  • 1946 – Married Ray Cummings and lived 30 years in Mayfield, where she raised four children.
  • 1968 – Enters the political arena as ALP representative for Newcastle council’s East Ward. Her decision is prompted by Newcastle council plans to destroy a row of Moreton Bay figs on Maitland Road, Islington. For six years she remains the council’s only female alderman. Her reputation grows as a champion for environmental causes.
  • 1973 – Road through West End’s Birdwood Park and removal of 17 trees at dawn angers the public. Alderman Cummings cried on-site, saying she was “ashamed” of being an alderman after the sudden council action. Many councils lose their seats at the 1974 election and there is an ALP shake-up.
  • 1974 – Alderman Cummings becomes Australia’s first female Lord Mayor. Her election is made possible only because the ALP has gained a majority on the council, the first time since 1938.
  • Alderman Cummings is Lord Mayor of Newcastle for nine years (except for 1976-77) until August 13, 1984.
  • 1974 to 1984 – The popular Alderman Cummings has an enormous impact on the city, seeming to make the top local government position more accessible to the people. She and husband Ray are a formidable team, virtually reshaping the image of the Lord Mayor, giving the city more “ownership” of City Hall.
  • Other achievements include being a member of the State Government Environment and Planning Authority, membership of the NSW Advisory Committee of the then Australian Broadcasting Commission.
  • 1975 – Awarded the Order of Australia (OAM) for her services to local government.
  • 1984 – A severe stroke in mid-April forces her to resign from local politics in August.
  • 1988 – The still-ill Mrs Cummings witnesses the Newcastle Bicentennial restoration of the East End derelict wharves, which are transformed into a magnificent foreshore park.
  • Many present see the parkland, which is opened by the Queen, as the crowning achievement of Mrs Cummings’ career.
  • 1990 – Husband Ray passes away.
  • 1992 – Mrs Cummings is honoured with life membership of the Labor Party.
  • 1988-2003 – Because of her stroke and continuing disability, Mrs Cummings retreats from public life but is still revered as a Newcastle icon.
  • 2003 – Grand-daughter Sarah Wynter scales the heights of Hollywood and returns to grandmother’s side when she becomes ill.
  • 2003 – Joy Cummings, aged 79, dies peacefully on July 1 surrounded by family at the John Hunter Hospital.

A Leader

Joy was elected Newcastle’s Lord Mayor in 1974, a pioneer in local government in Newcastle and Australia, being the first woman in Australia to be elected as Lord Mayor. She changed the way local government operated in Newcastle, using the inclusive & consensus model, promoted the arts and preserved our built heritage.

She left a great legacy of her years of leadership as Lord Mayor of our city. Joy entered politics as an environmental campaigner and had a vision for the city of Newcastle, which she was able to transform into people-friendly city. Joy was elected Newcastle’s Lord Mayor in 1974, a pioneer in local government in Newcastle and Australia, being the first woman in Australia to be elected as Lord Mayor. She changed the way local government operated in Newcastle, using the inclusive & consensus model, promoted the arts and preserved our built heritage.

Early Life

Joy was born in 1923, the first of two children to parents Charlotte and Dallas Plumbe. She and her brother Bill spent a carefree childhood at Ramsgate, on the shores of pristine Botany Bay. To the south was her holiday playground, the Royal National Park, to the east, the bay and Ramsgate Baths.
Her father was an adventurous man, before joining the fire brigade in 1926, he was a motor mechanic who repaired and flew in early planes. One great influence in her life was her grandfather, who lived with the family at Ramsgate. Joy’s grandfather was a sailor of the great clippers, who owned a sea chest of memories from the days of sail. From her grandfather and father she gained a spirit of adventure and courage, and the ability to lift her eyes to a wider world.

Her grandmother, aunts and great aunts were Irish Protestant Nationalists. These women, mostly schoolteachers, carried with them a vision of a world not as it was, but as it might become.

Her grandmother joined the first Labour League in the 1890s, and her parents were active members of the ALP in the twenties.

Her politics were destined to be progressive. Joy’s experiences of the depression also influenced and shaped her life. Her parents not only supported those in hardship, but were determined to address the causes of that suffering. At 15 Joy joined the Australian Labor Party.

Her formal education ended with 3 years at Kogarah Girls’ High, cut short by the war, and her father’s transfer in 1942, to a fire station in Scott Street Newcastle. The family home became Hellenic Court (or Ayrcourt Flats), in Telford Street.

“Mum confessed to us that she was a reluctant immigrant to Newcastle and the first sight of her new home was devastating. But the following morning she walked over the sand-hills and there was the harbour, Nobby’s and the beach. It was love at first sight and that love remained a constant in her life until the day she died.” Helen Cummings

In 1946, Joy married Ray and so began the other great love affair of her life. She settled comfortably into life in working class Mayfield, raising four children and maintaining her involvement in ALP politics.

“As children, we thought Mum and Dad were party-goers and that the “labour party” was a continuous celebration of food, drink and coloured balloons. Their enthusiasm for politics was such that we couldn’t wait to be invited to join the festivities.” Helen Cummings

Despite Joy’s Celtic heritage, her songs, like her life, were rarely in a minor key. She was always happy, the eternal optimist. This heritage gave her, and her family, a love of literature and music. Many of her favourite books were passed to her from her grandmother and great aunts. Works of philosophy and poetry – Thomas More, Virgil’s Aeneid, Keats and Shelly – later joined by Ruth Park, Dylan Thomas, Oodjeroo and Judith Wright. These and many others were treasures that nourished her soul in the shadow of the BHP.
Joy’s political life began when she followed Ray into council as an alderman for East Ward in 1968. In 1974, she was elected by her peers on council as Lord Mayor, a first for Australia. Some of her interests and the achievements of her council encompass the natural and built heritage, cultural life and the industrial and commercial development of Newcastle.

People Person

Joy communicated well with people, she understood local communities and wanted to be involved with her constituents. She was a supporter of environmental movements in the area. Under her leadership she promoted community group movement in the areas of Cooks Hill and Newcastle East and establishment of Cooks Hill, the Hill and Merewether resident groups.

“Joy’s love of Newcastle was infectious and she changed the way that Novocastrians felt about their grimy industrial city. She showed them its beauty, that industry had its own beauty, but also convinced them that they deserved natural beauty as and showed them that it was possible.” Helen Cummings

She ventured into the heart and soul of Newcastle, joining in with sing-a-longs at elderly citizens centres, and presenting medals at a school sports carnivals. She could often be found making a pot of tea at AA meetings or sharing yarns with the men at the Mission to Seamen in Hannell Street.

Between receiving heads of state, negotiating with ministers of the crown, both federal and state, and chairing important meetings, she found time to go home for lunch and share a sandwich with Dad. He was her touchstone and she was recharged. Council meetings were often complex and marathon affairs. Mum would come home and sleep like a baby while Dad and the family paced their respective floors.

Lord Mayor of Newcastle, Alderman Joy Cummings, Prince Charles and Princess Diana, Newcastle, NSW, 1983 Driven by her Vision, Inspired by People.

She forged friendships both here and abroad, and her friends in the Japanese city of Ube continued to connect with her long after her stroke. (We welcome them today). Mum was sustained not only by her family and her dear and numerous friends, such as Alan and Anne Morris, Joyce and John Manning, Bryce and Barbara Gaudrey, John and Alma Tate. Being a politician of consensus, her friendships ranged across the political spectrum.

Archdeacon Beal, Lord Mayor Joy Cummings (Newcastle City Council) and Mrs Anne Morris – Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia.
John McNaughton, Joy Cummings with Sir Bede Callaghan and another an unidentified female, the University of Newcastle, Australia. Courtesy UON Cultural Collections.

Heritage & Environmental Legacy

Joy valued the built environment and its cultural environment. The city did not become full of high-rise buildings, but retained its heritage features, many heritage conservation areas were established in Newcastle East because of the standards created by Joy to conserve and protect precious heritage of the area.

Joy was involved in many environmental campaigns. Blackbutt Reserve and its extension into Richley Reserve, the saving of Civic Park, the Newcastle East plan and, in particular, the Harbour Foreshore Park. The preservation of our built heritage and the conservation, protection and enhancement of our natural heritage.

Pacific Park, Newcastle East. Courtesy UON Cultural Collections.

Green Legacy

Joy valued and respected and valued parks and recreational areas, she encouraged creativity and education
Never for the money, never for the thanks or the accolades, it was more the people of Newcastle who inspired her and her job was a labour of love.

Walking in the grass near a pond – Hunter Wetlands Centre, Shortland. Courtesy UON Cultural Collections

Joy achieved many personal firsts, but these were always less important than her relationship with people. “She could maintain the dignity of the office, while inviting everyone to “Call me Joy”. Through open governance and the inclusion of all sectors of the community in the life of Newcastle, she gave the office back to the people.”
In 1974 a road was put through West End’s Birdwood Park, 17 trees were also removed at dawn, which angered the community. Joy cried on-site, saying she was “ashamed” of being an alderman after the sudden action council had taken.

Many Firsts

  • First woman Lord Mayor in Australia – Australia 6th largest city
  • First President of the NSW Women’s Advisory Council (Wran Government)
  • First woman to enter and address the Newcastle Businessmen’s Club and The Newcastle Club
  • First Lord Mayor to raise the Indigenous flag over a town or city hall
  • First Lord Mayor to hold a civic reception in honour of Indigenous people
  • First woman to be declared a Freeman of the City of Newcastle

    Lord Mayor of Newcastle, Alderman Joy Cummings at the University of Newcastle, Australia.


  • Order of Australia A.M. for services to Local Government
  • Honorary Masters degree from the University of Newcastle for services to the Hunter region
  • Peggy Hill Peace prize for contribution to Peace & Disarmament
  • The Wollotuka Prize from the Aboriginal community for contribution to reconciliation and social and political justice
  • Recipient of the Centenary Medal
  • Nominated by Newcastle City Council for the Peoplescape Exhibition in Canberra
  • Keys to the City of Seoul and Ube


  • Vice chairperson of NSW Bicentennial Committee
  • Member of National Bicentennial Committee
  • Honorary commander of the 2nd Newcastle Regiment
  • Member of the State Government Environment and Planning Authority
  • Member of the NSW Advisory Committee of the then Australian Broadcasting Commission.
NSW Women’s Advisory Council. Chair Ald. Joy Cummings. Newcastle Morning Herald 3 July 1977.


  • Preservation of heritage buildings such as old Police station
  • Patron and supporter of the Hunter Orchestral
  • Glenrock State Recreation area
  • Harbour deepening and development
  • Preservation of Civic Park and Blackbutt Reserve Richley Reserve extension to Blackbutt Reserve
  • Newcastle Mall and the redevelopment of Pacific Park – She derived great joy and satisfaction from the establishment of the Newcastle Wetlands, Richley Reserve, (an addition to Blackbutt Reserve) and resurrected from the pit top of an old coal mine), and the extension of Pacific Park, ironically where the Ayrcourt Flats once stood.
  • World renowned Shortland (Newcastle) Wetlands Kooragang industrial development.
  • During her time in office, the city was undergoing enormous change, and losing much of its industrial base – the abattoirs and the State Dockyard. She fought very hard to retain them, and still managed to turn defeats into triumphs. During her leadership, the harbour deepening – essential for our now thriving port, the Kooragang Industrial
  • Estate and the development of Warrabrook – a place for families to live and thrive, are three that come to mind.
    Refurbishment of City Hall & construction of Civic Administration building Refurbishment of Civic theatre as a live theatre venue – The rejuvenation of City Hall, the restoration and conversion of the Civic Theatre into a place of live entertainment and the building of the Civic Playhouse, home of the Hunter Valley Theatre Company, were very dear to her heart. Few people knew that after Council meetings and supper, Mum and her dear friend Anne Von Bertouch, would head out the back door of city hall and take the leftovers to the Playhouse, to feed the starving thespians.
  • Newcastle Museum, and the preservation of Fort Scratchley as a Maritime Museum – She championed Fort Scratchley and the Maritime Museum and the various Menkens buildings – The Frederick Ash, the Cohen Building, the Air Force Club. Precious heritage buildings were considered safe under her leadership.
    Construction of Hunter theatre for the HVTC and council sponsorship of the performing arts – Joy was a passionate patron of the arts, the Hunter Valley Theatre Company, the Hunter Orchestra, the Art Gallery Society and many others. She identified closely with the creative people of our city. We actually believed that mum would have been equally content to “tread the boards”, instead of the life she chose.

“If our childhood shapes the adult we become, this was surely the case with Mum. A life nurtured by love, surrounded by a beautiful, natural environment, a sense of history and a broader worldview, and a destiny in politics – all were there in her early life.” Helen Cummings

Joy embraced not only the arts community but the ethnic and aboriginal communities, the churches, the sporting and disabled organisations, the service groups and she particularly valued her relationship with the returned servicemen’s groups.

Most enduring and significant achievement

A harbour foreshore for the people of Newcastle a place of beauty in conjunction with a thriving industrial port, a true legacy for generations of Novocastrians to come.
Joy negotiated nationally and internationally to achieve a modern and lasting base for Newcastle as a thriving, beautiful city.
Joy crossed political boundaries and was admired and respected on both sides and at all levels of political life.

Later Years

On Friday, the 13th April, 1984, after turning the first sod on the harbour foreshore park, and whilst hosting a reception for the Deputy Prime Minister, Lionel Bowen, Joy suffered a severe stroke. She had just been popularly re-elected Lord Mayor for the third time by the people of Newcastle. The response from the community was instant and overwhelming. Friends and family gave offering unconditional love and support. Community grief was reflected in the actions of people like former Lord Mayor, Frank Purdue who sat, day after day with Dad, and Anne Von Bertouch who brightened Joy’s hospital room with paintings. “The walls of Newcastle Hospital crumbled to the sound of Anne’s hammer and drill and to the consternation of hospital staff, Mum came back to us, laughing in the humour of the moment. Thankfully her personality and happy disposition were unaffected.”

The stroke left Joy with all her faculties intact except for her remarkable ability to communicate. Joy had no regrets. She accepted equally the great gifts and the suffering life dealt. She returned to Bruce Street Cooks Hill and settled into a quieter life with Ray. With a family raised, and now both in retirement, Joy and Ray found time to share with each other several good years of grandchildren, picnics and family celebrations.

Ray passed away in 1990, this had a significant impact on Joy, yet she faced it bravely with a simple faith that they would one day be re-united. After Ray’s death, family wanted to fulfil Joy’s wish of remaining independent in her own home. She never made any demands or complained about her situation. It was, in fact, the opposite.

“To see her and talk to her over these years was to be convinced by her smile and warmth that her life was rich. It was always Mum whose advice we sought when with our problem. She had this uncanny knack of making you rise above pettiness and give you strength.”

Many of Joy’s grandchildren and all of her great-grandchildren never heard her speak, but managed to connect with her, each one had their own special relationship with her. Words were not important – love has its own language.

“Mum did not fear death, she was at ease with the outcome. Her final lesson to us in life was not to fear death. It may have been the rain on the day of her passing, or just our imagination but the pulse of city seemed quieter that day. Some of us tread softly upon this earth, content to leave a modest mark. Some make an entrance and exit and a life, full of sound and fury. Others seem to almost glide above the ground spreading light and love. Mum flew. And in the souring of her flight she inspired us all.” Ray Cummings

A delightful interview with Ray Cummings about Joy’s life was conducted by Phyllis Southall in 1988 as part of the UON Open Foundation history program.  It is particularly moving because Joy is present at the interview, however is unable to speak due to having a stroke, instead her husband leads the interview and speaks honestly and warmly about his beloved wife. The interview was recently digitised by Cultural Collections at the UON Library as part of the Margaret Henry Oral History Project. CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO INTERVIEW

“Solemn service farewells legend” Newcastle Morning Herald

NEWCASTLE buried a legend yesterday with the funeral service of former and much-loved lord mayor Joy Cummings. The solemn 70-minute service was held in the grandeur of Christ Church Cathedral on The Hill, as befitting the status of one of the city’s most popular citizens. In her heyday 20 years ago, before a stroke cruelly cut her down and robbed the city’s greatest communicator of her speech, Mrs Cummings was truly the first lady of Newcastle. Mrs Cummings, aged 79 years, died last Wednesday in John Hunter Hospital after a short illness. Newcastle City Newcastle City Council will discuss with the family what permanent memorial would be the most appropriate to honour her memory.  More than 400 people, a virtual “who’s who” of Newcastle, attended yesterday’s simple but dignified cathedral service, which was also marked by Aboriginal community member Mick Davison briefly playing on didgeridoo.And afterwards 15 police, on foot, on motor bikes and in patrol cars, formed a guard of honour as the funeral procession left the grounds of the cathedral. Outside the cathedral, the crews of three large fire engines were parked on Church Street in a further silent tribute to Mrs Cummings. Her late husband, Ray, who died in 1990, had been a Newcastle district fireman. Australia’s first female lord mayor was finally laid to rest in a private ceremony at a family burial plot at Stockton, beside her late husband.

It was away from the glare of publicity and attended by only about 20 immediate family members. These included the four Cummings children and close relatives, such as grand-daughter and now Hollywood star Sarah Wynter. At the cathedral service, the Cathedral Dean, the Very Reverend Graeme Lawrence, publicly thanked the family for allowing the rest of Newcastle to share in their grief but also celebrate the extraordinary life of Mrs Cummings. Newcastle Lord Mayor John Tate broke with his normal tradition and was resplendent in the black and gold flowing mayoral robes in her honour as he delivered his address. Cr Tate reminded people that the late Mrs Cummings had been a quiet achiever and a listener. She set a benchmark since her entry into Labor politics in 1968 and her smile would light up a room whenever she entered it, Cr Tate said. Besides her achievements over The Foreshore, Blackbutt Reserve and Pacific Park, Cr Tate said Mrs Cummings had been the first to fly the Aboriginal flag over City Hall. Cr Tate said she was Newcastle’s longest-serving lord mayor and popularly elected as lord mayor for three terms from 1977 until her stroke forced her to suddenly quit local government in mid 1984.Mrs Cummings had also been the first woman to be honoured as a Freeman of the City in 1987.

But it was her children who revealed more of the human side of the late Mrs Cummings. They closely shared in her life for almost another 20 years after her departure from public office. Son Ray Cummings said he remembered how his mother had not feared death and continued to be an inspiration to the very end. “In life, as in death, mum was always ahead of us on the road,” he said. Daughter Helen Williams said her mother inherited her great spirit of adventure and courage from her father, a retired sailor.

The service ended with Dean Lawrence saying Mrs Cummings “was now part of legend”.


Pioneer who kept her city close at heart. Sydney Morning Herald.  August 28, 2003
Joy Cummings, Lord mayor of Newcastle, 1923-2003

Joy’s greatest asset, and lesson for those who followed, was that being a representative of the people was about listening. Not about talking or debating or ideology. It’s about being a listener. Lesson number two was that once you have listened to all the points of view you must take action. Not once in all the time I shared the chamber with Joy did I witness her back away from making a decision once all the listening had been done. – Newcastle Lord Mayor John Tate – Newcastle Herald 3 July 2003

If most people in politics are honoured at all, it’s after their death. For Joy Cummings, the tributes paid to her now are simply the things people were happy to say about her in life – friends and opponents alike. There can be no greater tribute. – NSW Premier Bob Carr.

It saddened me to hear news today of the passing of Joy Cummings AM, a woman who dedicated her life to her beloved Newcastle – as citizen, councillor and Lord Mayor.

Mrs Cummings’s achievements are many, however, her role as Newcastle
Lord Mayor, the first female mayor in Australia, clearly demonstrates her determination to represent her community. I also acknowledge her great courage and bold commitment to environmental issues – her passion and commitment have left a lasting impact on Newcastle. Mrs Cummings will be greatly missed – she was one of the true pioneers of this nation. Her life is an inspiration to us all– Opposition Leader Simon Crean.

Joy loved the people of Newcastle and they loved her. She was reliable in her deliberations and dedication to her role in office. – Alma Tate, former Newcastle Councillor.

I knew her in the Labor Party and I dealt with her as lord mayor. I had a very great respect for her political skills but also as a person she was very genuine and humane and well loved certainly by the people of Newcastle. Barrie Unsworth, NSW premier 1986-1988.

Joy possessed those rare qualities which enabled her to treat people with dignity, warmth and respect, regardless of their station in life. Sharon Grierson, Federal member for Newcastle.

Joy was a trailblazer for women in community leadership. She was an outstanding lord mayor who did so much for Newcastle, a city she absolutely loved. – Neville Wran, NSW premier 1976-1986.

She was a wonderful woman, great Novocastrian and a role model for people like myself. Jill Hall, Federal member for Shortland.

Joy Cummings was immensely popular as lord mayor.This immense popularity can be partially explained by the variety of causes she supported and her extensive contacts with the community while she was lord mayor. Margaret Henry, Newcastle councillor.

I [am] the only [current] member of Parliament to have served with her while she was lord mayor of Newcastle. Joy was a local icon, she received an OAM [Order of Australia Medal] during the time she was lord mayor of the city. John Price State member for Maitland.

It’s a passing of an era really because she was so outstanding, taking the seat of her husband when he wasn’t well. She had a vision that the city had to keep pace with things in the rest of the state rather than be insular in the way the Hunter was at that time. Richard Face, Charlestown MP.

I remember Joy Cummings as a very good friend long before she went into council. Our paths seemed to cross … church and charitable functions.She was at those functions long before she was lord mayor because that was where her heart was, helping people. Milton Morris, Former Liberal Party member for Maitland.

To our first lady, Joy. You were an inspiration to all of us in local government, both elected and appointed. I was privileged to know you so briefly and will miss you at our civic functions. Janet Dore, Newcastle City Council general manager.

“She rose above her suffering” By Norman Barnwell

OUR beloved Joy Cummings is dead and it is as if a light has dimmed in our city life. The stroke she suffered while Lord Mayor happened nearly 20 years ago but in all those years the genuine love we citizens felt for this most gracious lady continued undimmed. Joy Cummings was inspiring in sickness as in health. Her behaviour and bearing since that stroke have been an inspiration to us all as an exemplar of the true dignity of a beautiful human spirit. It was always the same if Joy recognised you she would give that beautiful smile, hold out her unparalysed hand and hold yours for a minute or two to let you know that she liked you and remembered the good times, without a hint of despair. Joy Cummings, dear lady, we will miss you so much. It was a rare privilege and a great honour to have been a friend. Farewell, dearest spirit.

“A mayor for all the people” By Margaret Henry

NEWCASTLE has always been a man’s town. But in 1974 Joy Cummings became Lord Mayor of Newcastle. The first woman Lord Mayor in Australia. A Labor Lord Mayor. She was to be Lord Mayor for almost 10 years and immensely popular. That popularity remains today and can be partially explained by the variety of causes she supported and her community contacts. She was a passionate conservationist, a feminist, a supporter of peace, of Aboriginal advancement, the arts, heritage and sport. She won the confidence of a significant sector of the business community.Her ability to communicate with people explains the deep affection in which she was held.

Many thanks to Joy’s family, including her son Ray and daughters Margaret, Helen and Kathy for providing important information that has contributed to this story- it is warmly appreciated.

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