The Merv and Janet Copley Collection is held in Special Collections and the Janet Copley Bequest funds undergraduate and doctoral scholarships and provide funding for researchers across the Humanities and Social Science disciplines to access the University’s historical archival and visual collections. The following has been compiled by Thomas Romanis (Museum & Heritage Studies, University of Sydney) who has looked over parts of this vast collection, liaised with communities to find out more about the Copleys to better understand why they collected what they did.
Merv and Janet Copley were Novocastrians who played a significant part in the development and expansion of the Newcastle Unionist Movement from the 1940s to the early 2000s. Members of dozens of leftist societies and committees, the Copleys were instrumental to the development of anti-air pollution legislation in the 1960s, the International Women’s Day celebrations held in Newcastle, and increased union rights within New South Wales. The Copleys also provided unique insights into the historical and social developments occurring during their lives. Keen amateur historians, the couple were heavily invested in writing down the history of the world around them and providing a snapshot of the events occurring in their everyday lives.
As a teenager, Merv began recording events he witnessed or was aware about in high detail, writing extensive journals and reports on locations he visited. Large amounts of newspaper clippings, government reports and similar literary materials were also stored by the historian, hoping his collection would make an impact and educate following generations. Janet quickly adopted her husband’s fascination with recording history and soon the couple developed an extensive archive over the years. Janet would compile the research while Merv completed the writings. Through these snapshots, they provided extremely detailed depictions of life experiences of groups not often shown, such as Indigenous communities.
After Merv’s death in 1978, Janet continued his work of documenting the world and collecting considerably large amounts of archival materials. As well as this, Janet continued petitioning for increased rights for women, low socioeconomic groups, unions, and minorities. Towards the end of her life, Janet donated 800 boxes worth of historical, social, political and media materials made or collected by the pair to the University of Newcastle (Australia). Post Janet’s death in 2017, the Copleys have left an extensive legacy associated with community involvement, fighting for equality and a strong commitment to the education of others. The pair demonstrated the impact a strong dedication to community can have to discriminated and underrepresented members of society. Through their commitment of increasing the standard of living within Australia, numerous Indigenous, environmental, feminist and unionist causes furthered. Due to this, the Copleys had a substantial impact on Newcastle and continue to do so, as their legacy lives on.
Mervyn ‘Merv’ Percy Copley was born in Western Australia on March 25, 1914, to Alys Copley and her husband, and was the older brother to Brian Wally Earl Copley. Growing up within the working class during the 1910s and 1920s, Merv witnessed the growing conflicts between workers and business owners in the wake of increasing growing financial hardship within Australia. The low quality of life for low socioeconomic groups and social minorities, such as Indigenous communities, confronted Merv and his interest quickly grew in ways of resolving these challenges.
The Copley brothers were quite adventurous as children, joining numerous youth organisations such as the Young Australia League and eventually exploring the world together as young men. The pair travelled extensively throughout Australia and the rest of the world, visiting places such as Kalgoorlie, Magill, Wangaratta, Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide as well as Singapore, China, Thailand and Java. It was during this time that his political interests expanded, especially in relation to how lower socio-economic families and blue-collar workers were treated. The ideology of socialism and the works of Karl Marx, in particular, drew Merv’s attention and soon he became deeply interested in union work, civil rights and other leftist areas of discussion. The growing power of the USSR and communism within global politics also garnered much of Merv’s attention and he swiftly aligned himself with the communist ideology. Several of his personal diaries were filled with Russian language learning resources and pages from translation books, emphasising how interested in the USSR he was.
It was also during his travels that his passion for chronicling history and cultures flourished. Despite lacking any formal education or training in being a historian, Merv wrote extensive journals and historical pieces on locations and peoples he visited. These texts were often hundreds of pages long and displayed a very analytical mind that was deeply interested in the origins and development of towns and settlements, and the people that lived there. He often populated his journals with extensive discussions on things such as politics, racial relations and the local and national economy. Viewing his writings as a way to pass on historical fact, he attempted to remove as much bias and subjectivity from his works as he could. For example, in almost all of his writings he wrote entirely in the third person and rarely, if ever, put overtly personal opinions into word. In this sense, many of his works, including even his autobiographical materials and diaries, read more similarly to a historical textbook than a traditional emotional or thought-based personal log.
After completing school, he joined the Public Service and became a clerk of Petty Sessions for several years. During this career, he served as secretary of two Royal Commissions, including the 1948 Royal Commission Appointed to Inquire into the Midland Junction Railway Workshops and the Supply of Local Coal to the Western Australian Government Railways. Feeling dissatisfied with the work and desiring a role more suited to his community interests, Merv began to travel throughout Australia once more. By this time, he had joined the Communist Party of Australia and several unions, and soon found himself travelling to Sydney. Several months later, he moved to Newcastle in late 1948 to stay with likeminded acquaintances, the Cants. It was here that he met Janet Cant, a social activist with a deep interest in improving the rights of women in the workplace and in the education system. By this time, Janet was also a member of several leftist organisations, such as the Eureka Youth League.
Despite a stark difference in personality, with Merv being noted as serious, determined and, at times, hard to approach whilst Janet was overly warm and socialised, they developed a romantic attachment. The pair married in 1950 and became dedicated to activism for the remainder of their lives. Janet took a strong interest in Merv’s practice of writing historical journals and preserving literary materials, soon contributing heavily as well by adding her own writings and archival materials to their growing collections. The pair were extensive travelers as well, exploring Australia and visiting places such as Japan and the USSR during the 1950s.
He worked as an organiser for the Clerk’s Union during the late 1940s and followed this by becoming a tally clerk for the Newcastle waterfront. Soon after, the newly founded Union of Australian Women (UAW) asked Merv and Janet for assistance in the administration of the organization. With the both of them having several decades of experience in various positions of numerous unions, the UAW were eager to have their assistance. In a rather interesting turn of events, Merv became the first male president of the UAW whilst Janet assisted in several other capacities, primarily as the UAW’s first treasurer. Despite a lukewarm reception by many of the women within the union, Merv’s organisational abilities and the fact he gained support from male dominated unions for the UAW garnered great respect from the UAW members. Merv held this position for a short while, assisting with the development of International Women’s Day celebrations in Newcastle and fighting for equal pay for women. This did not last indefinitely, however. A rift was growing within the UAW in relation to how to interpret the feminist cause, with a faction becoming increasing dissatisfied with male leadership being present within the UAW. In order to avoid any escalated conflicts, an uncomfortable Merv stepped down from his position but continued his stern dedicated to female rights.
Other causes he and his wife were steadily focusing on were environmentalism and Indigenous rights. Merv protested heavily against air pollution in the Newcastle region during the 1950s, which during this period was so severe it caused health problems for locals. He regularly petitioned government for change and challenged large companies such as BHP to reduce their air pollution, publishing the booklet “Eliminate that Smoke” in 1957. His actions, as well as those of likeminded environmentalists, aided in causing the NSW Government to pass legislation to minimise the amount of air pollution companies and factories were allowed to produce.
Many of his archival materials and personal notes were dedicated to documenting the development of Indigenous communities throughout Australia. During his national travels as a young man, Merv visited and interacted with many Indigenous communities, becoming disheartened and frustrated at how they were treated compared to other ethnic communities. He kept detailed accounts on land rights matters as they progressed over the years and regularly assisted in protesting for increased rights and pay. Due to this, the Copleys were well-known amongst Newcastle Indigenous groups and viewed as being strongly dedicated to Indigenous affairs.
A strong advocate for communism at a time where leftist groups were being targeted as highly suspicious, Merv found his political ideologies challenged with the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The leftist community in Newcastle was split on how to view the invasion. Having been a strong supporter of many elements of the USSR and having visited the country several times previously, Merv found himself disavowing the actions recently taken by the USSR. Whilst many moderate leftists strongly condemned the USSR’s invasion, many of the strongly leaning left supported, or at least defended, the actions. A split occurred within the leftist community, resulting in the socialists and communists and, to a lesser extent, the Maoists, forming and separating from each other. Despite having very similar policies and goals, a strong animosity existed between the groups, something which greatly saddened Merv. In an attempt at bridging the two groups together, Merv joined both societies in an attempt at restoring communication. Restoration between the factions never occurred and throughout Merv’s lifetime, a strong animosity continued to fester between them.
In 1978, Merv passed away, leaving a strong legacy of activism and the documentation of history. Through his sharp intellect, he was able to compile and store thousands of documents and records to provide a unique and very detailed depiction of the world he lived through. These efforts were well known to the community as well, earning him a position as honorary research officer for Newcastle Trades Hall Council. Although he was known as a blunt and very closed person, his passion and determination earned him the admiration of large groups of people. Many of these groups, such as women’s rights groups and indigenous groups, were directly helped by Merv’s endless efforts.
Janet Copley (nee Cant)
Janet Cant was born December 21, 1926, in Cardiff, Newcastle, as the sixth child out of nine who were raised in Hamilton North. Her mother was Clara May Dean, born 7 May 1897, and her father was George Cant, who was born in Scotland before coming to Australia when he was 19. George worked as a timber worker and a railway fettler before returning to England during WW1 to work as a housing worker. He returned to Australia to become a retort worker in the gas industry before becoming a kitchen attendant. Eventually, he became vice president of the Gas Employees Union (GEU) and then the President of the GEU for 13 years. Similarly, Clara was deeply invested in unionist work, particularly the feminist cause, and often took part in protests and marches for things such as equal pay and birth control. This upbringing gave Janet a strong passion for unionism and exposure to the administration of many committees and unions, something that would aid her as an adult.
As a young woman, she had already joined several unions, such as the Eureka Youth League. She left school at 14 to work as a telephonist and was even working on a switchboard the day it was announced that WW2 had ended. During the late 1940s, her family hosted a likeminded individual known as Merv Copley, a quiet, somewhat antisocial yet passionate and vastly intelligent man. The two had very similar interests in promoting equality, protesting against fascism, wanting a better standard of living for minority groups and increased rights for unions. They became romantically attached and in 1950, they married. They complemented each other in many areas; Merv was quiet, intense and deeply passionate whilst Janet was warm, sociable and determined in her ideals. She took a deep interested in Merv’s writings and soon joined him in documenting events and communities in Newcastle and the areas in Australia and the world that they travelled to. Her excellent memory aided in the historical research she conducted for Merv, who would take this information to write up his journals and notes.
A main source of Janet’s focus was improving the opportunities and treatment for women. Due to this, Janet became strongly invested in the Union of Australian Women, Newcastle Branch. Janet joined the UAW as it first began in 1950, filling the role as treasurer which she held for several years. She later became the president of the union, as well as several other roles, such as secretary, over the course of her long life. A second group she was heavily involved with was the Newcastle branch of Waterside Worker’s Federation Committee. She held the position of secretary for several years until she became the secretary of NSW Branch of Waterside Worker’s Federation Committee, then got involved in the NSW branch at a federal level.
In another capacity, Janet would go door to door to sell petitions and copies of Our Women, a feminist paper outlining issues women were facing on a global scale.
It was through these organisations that she was outspoken about the lack of equality women faced. She heavily protested unequal pay and was loud in her beliefs that women should be allowed any opportunity, such as to join the army or enter the construction workforce. She also strongly believed in more representation of women in places such as business and government. But Janet was not hostile or overwhelming in these beliefs. Her beliefs were that women should be equal and should not have rights or current opportunities in life taken away from men in order to achieve that. Due to this, she was heavily respected by many of the male dominated unions and committees but sometimes drew the ire of some of the more extreme feminist groups. Her pleasant personality made it easy for her to negotiate with people she may not have gotten on with. “We’re here to discuss the issue, not the person” would often be said by Janet when encountering a hostile or contrasting situation during a meeting or protest. Her ability to communicate with people she may not have agreed with on issues can also be noted in the fact she joined the contrasting political party, the Liberal Party of Australia. Despite not sharing many political or social opinions with LP members, she enjoyed talking with those that contrasted her and often acted as a way to communicate between the two sides of politics.
Janet was also a strong believer in women’s history, often writing many notes and documents outlining the experiences women faced and what contributions they had in society. Many of the journal entries she wrote with Merv and post his death outlined the history of female groups in Australia and the progression of female rights in Australia. Janet’s dedicated and interests in leftist ideals could be noted in the extensive amount of societies she joined and assisted in managing, often concurrently:
• Union of Australian Women
• Combined Pensioners Regional Council
• Combined Pensioners Branch
• LP Branch
• Eureka Youth League
• Communist Party of Australia
• Waterside Workers’ Women’s Committee
• International Women’s Day committee
• Cooks Hill Progress Association
• Newcastle Peace Committee
• Hunter Consumers Association
• Right to Choose
She held a wide variety of roles within these positions as well: President, Vice President, Secretary, Assistant Secretary, Treasurer, Minute Secretary, and Committee Member. This wide scope of involvement emphasises the strong dedication she had for women’s unions, willing to aid in any capacity to allow them to expand and achieve their goals.
Janet was fiercely invested in the education of women, especially Indigenous women. Many of her national travels with Merv involved meeting and engaging with Indigenous women. She took great interest and enjoyment with trying to assist in generating more awareness for the issues many Indigenous groups faced. When she passed, her estate was left to the University of Newcastle for the sake of improving the education of women. Similarly, both the archival collections Janet and her husband had accumulated over the years was left to the university for the sake of educating future generations.
Towards the end of her life, she felt a level of sadness towards the state of unions in Australia. Many of the rights she had spent decades fighting for were being repealed under conservative legislation, particularly under Prime Minister John Howard. By 1988, many of the leftist committees she had joined or helped develop had disappeared due to legislation or urban development removing meeting places. This caused her to lose some steam as she was nearing the end of her life, witnessing many of her successes having slowly been undone more and more.
Janet passed in 2017, leaving a strong legacy behind in the fight for women’s rights and improvements in the quality of life for minority groups. She was well regarded for her pleasantness, incredible memory and her ability to mediate problems professionally and calmly. She continued her husband’s documentary work post his death, display a very keen eye for detail and impressive writing talent. The records she donated to the education of women highlight her strong dedication to her causes, even post life, and the value she held in the improvement in the quality of life for others.
Compiled by Thomas Romanis (Museum & Heritage Studies, University of Sydney)
11 December 2020
I would like to thank the following people for assisting in the research of this biography, many of whom knew the Copleys personally:
Belic, P., Eklund, E. (2015), Novocastrian Involvement in the One Big Union in Bennett, J., Cushing, N., Eklund, E. (eds.), Radical Newcastle, pp. 106 – 114.
Copley, J., Copley, M. (1971), Aborigines – 1970 – 1971 – Miscellaneous Archives, Newcastle.
Copley, J., Copley, M. (1977), Travel Writings – North America, Newcastle.
Copley, M. (Date Unknown), Copley Writings – General Manuscripts + Log Books 1975 – 78 + Social Events + Russian Language Writings, Newcastle.
Copley, M. (1939), Small Boy in a Sunburnt Country, Vol. 1, Newcastle.
Copley, J. (1957), Eliminate that Smoke, Newcastle.
Gibson, A. J. (1948), Final Report of the Royal Commission Appointed to Inquire into the Midland Junction Railway Workshops and The Supply of Local Coal to the Western Australian Government Railways, Vol. 2, Perth.