A Snapshot of ‘Golden Age Newcastle’ – The Merv and Janet Copley Slides

Over 500 images capturing Newcastle in its ‘Golden Age’ have been digitised and are freely available through the University of Newcastle’s Living Histories.

These images are from a collection of over 3000 slide images captured by the late Merv and Janet Copley and were digitised by Emily Connell, the University’s Inaugural 2022 Vera Deacon Intern.


The Donor

Sandra Saxby, the niece of the late Janet Copley, generously donated the insightful Merv and Janet Copley Collection. Three boxes of slides, handwritten diaries and a manuscript were retained by Sandra after Janet Copley passed away and wished these to be repatriated with our collection.

The donation of notebooks, scrapbooks and boxes of slides was made in early 2022. These were intended to join a huge collection of materials already in UON custody. See listing here


What Was Donated?

“These all complement materials we have from the Copley’s; the most significant are the slides, which look to be the photographic record of their travels described in the diaries and autobiographical works.”


Diaries – Janet Copley. Date Range: 13/5/92 to 9/8/93 [11 notebooks]

Colour Slides (All are individually labelled with location information)

  • Box 1: Slides 1-625; 625-1250;
  • Box 2: Slides 1251-1875;1876-2500;
  • Box 3: Slides 2501-3080;
  • Shoebox Box (Hush Puppies) Unnumbered Slides.

Copley Scrapbooks – Waterside Workers Women’s’ Committee 1951-1965 (News clippings and related ephemera)

Copley Scrapbooks – Waterside Workers Women’s’ Committee 1966-1972 (News clippings and related ephemera)

Autobiographical Works – A Small Boy in a Sunburnt Country Vol.1 1932-1939 (Inscribed “To Alex from Janet and Merv”)

Community Files – Gloucester Electorate Campaign Organiser, 1953-1978.


The Rehoused Collection

Over the past seven months, Emily worked on rehousing the extensive collection of slides into mylar sheets, archival barrier paper and archival quality folders. More than 3000 slides captured by Merv and Janet Copley were rehoused. Currently, they are located in the University of Newcastle’s Special Collections. Subsequently, she selected a number of the more important images for digitisation. Within these slides, Merv and Janet had captured many aspects of local history and culture, with many relevant to Newcastle, the Hunter.

Newcastle’s Golden Age

What Did Merv and Janet Record?

Merv and Janet have provided a snapshot of their political activism and efforts within the Unionist movements, providing photographic accounts of groups such as the Waterside Workers Federation, Pensioner’s Deputations, Women’s Committee’s, Trade Unions, Worker’s Clubs and Wharfies.

The slides also provide a fantastic opportunity to observe the changing architecture and community spaces within Newcastle and the Hunter, with Merv and Janet taking particular care to document hotels, pubs, clubs, parks, industrial projects, and buildings across the area, with many vastly different today.

Over 495 of these pieces of history have been uploaded, available for viewing and recollection here


“[The Merv and Janet Copley Collection] can build up a picture of 1964 or 1965 that you can actually put yourself back in to, and that’s a really rich experience…” – Associate Professor Kate Senior quote from interview with Special Collections.


The Merv and Janet Copley Slides Collection are a fantastic resource. They provide terrific insights into parades, protests, wineries, BHP, architecture, industry, and the landscape in the era that Novocastrian’s have coined ‘Newcastle’s Golden Age’.


Who Were Merv and Janet Copley?

Merv and Janet Copley were at the forefront of Newcastle’s Unionist movements and political activism ventures from the 1940’s up until the early 2000’s. Meeting each other in 1948 and bonding over their shared passion for equality, increasing the standard of living for minorities and increasing union rights, Merv and Janet married in 1950. They would both dedicate their lives to preserving the Union voice in Newcastle and collating a rich archive documenting the people, culture and history of Newcastle and the Hunter.

Merv Copley (1914-1978)

Merv Copley was born in Western Australia, and from a young age had been concerned by the poverty and inequities that he witnessed. This concern came through his experiences as a clerk of Petty Sessions, and, secretary serving two Royal Commissions throughout the Great Depression. From this, he drew strong connections to the Communist Party and Socialism, joining the Communist Party of Australia in Sydney and moving to Newcastle where he worked as an organiser for the Clerks Union and a waterfront tally clerk. Merv spent his adult life as an activist, fighting always for the people of Newcastle.

Janet Copley (1926-2017)

Janet Copley (nee Cant) was born in Cardiff, Newcastle and raised in Hamilton North. She had always been surrounded by activism. Her mother Clara protested throughout Janet’s youth for the feminist cause, particularly birth control and equal pay. Into her young adult life, Janet had joined several unions across Newcastle. In the late 1940’s, Janet’s family hosted the likeminded Merv Copley whilst he was in Newcastle. Merv and Janet shared similar passions for unionism and fighting for the people of Newcastle.

Merv and Janet

Together, Merv and Janet Copley joined and led several Unionist groups and committees. These included:

  • Union of Australian Women (Newcastle)
  • Newcastle branch of Waterside Worker’s Federation Committee
  • Combined Pensioners Regional Council
  • Combined Pensioners Branch
  • International Women’s Day Committee
  • Cooks Hill Progress Association
  • Newcastle Peace Committee
  • Hunter Consumers Association

The pair fought to reduce air pollution in Newcastle. This issue was affecting the respiratory health of those in the area at the time. The Copley’s driven environmental activism led to the passing of legislation by the NSW government. As a result, legislation efforts greatly minimised air pollution by companies and factories such as BHP.

Merv and Janet’s Archive

The Copley’s also kept rich archives and journals, documenting through accounts, slides, and newspaper clippings.

These highlighted the issues, culture, landscape and social scene of Newcastle and the Hunter. Further, the archives also expanded to their travels across Australia and overseas, meticulously preserving detail into what life was like at the time.

Merv and Janet’s archives are particularly fruitful in the reservation of information regarding the land rights activism of Indigenous communities across Australia. The ill-treatment suffered by Indigenous Australians extremely frustrated Merv and Janet. The Copley’s detailed archives and accounts are a fantastic timeline of the progression of land rights led by Indigenous Australians and have been greatly beneficial for Associate Professor Kate Senior’s research on the activism of Dexter Daniels.

Merv and Janet Copley’s Legacy

Merv and Janet Copley have left behind a rich legacy, full of increased rights for workers, for women, for minorities and for the people of Newcastle. The Copley’s encompassed hard work, dedication and passion for people. This is reflected through the detailed records of activism recorded in their archives. Merv and Janet Copley have left a legacy of a cared for and treasured Newcastle.



Click to access mervjanetcopley11.pdf



Viewing the Copley Slides

Link to the entire Merv and Janet Copley Collection:


The Copley Slides can be viewed under the ‘photographs’ section of the Merv and Janet Copley Collection on the Living Histories website.

4 thoughts on “A Snapshot of ‘Golden Age Newcastle’ – The Merv and Janet Copley Slides

  1. Fabulous and valuable record of changing Newcastle. The University should encourage more photographic collections be donated to them for their archive of the city.

  2. As well as the May Day slides, I especially liked the slides of Cooks Hill in the 1960s. Janet Copley would have been secretary of the Cooks Hill Progress Association at that time.

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