May Day 2023 – Hunter Living Histories Showcase

Hunter Living Histories Showcase

Monday 1st May 2023 (1.00pm-2.30pm)

Hybrid meetings are held via ZOOM and Room L326 at the Auchmuty Library, Callaghan Campus, Newcastle, NSW.
(Type Room no. into ONLINE MAP)

Warning to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People: This Showcase recording contains the names and images of Aboriginal People who are deceased. We pay respect to all Aboriginal Elders, past, present, and emerging, and fully recognise and honour their intellectual property, knowledge, and traditions.

(ZOOM link available HERE)


Online showcases are held on the first Monday of every month (except January and public holidays) and open to staff and students of the University of Newcastle, the community, bona fide community researchers, industry partners and professionals to share their research.

Begin (1.00 pm):  

Acknowledgement of Country 

Welcome – Gionni di Gravio OAM (Chair HLH & University Archivist)

Musical Performance by “Newcastle People’s Chorus” – a Hunter Valley-based social justice and union choir. VIEW HERE

The People's Chorus - a Hunter Valley-based social justice and union choir performing at the Auchmuty Library 1 May 2023
The People’s Chorus – a Hunter Valley-based social justice and union choir performing at the Auchmuty Library 1 May 2023

Showcase 1. Rod Noble:

On the Visionary work of the Newcastle Trades Hall and the push for the establishment of a “University” VIEW HERE

Aspects of the history of Hunter Region Trade Union Movement

Rod Noble – Notes from a talk delivered at UoN Living Histories, 1 May 2023.

  1. Background from 1869 – 1920s, some highlights.
  2. The connection to the formation of a University in Newcastle 1940s – 1960s.
  3. The connection to the rights of aboriginal people 1930s-1970s.

Background: Summary points

Eight Hour Committee was formed in 1869. It consisted mainly of craft unions.

The nature of craft unions and industrial unions tended to be different, industrial unions had a greater ability to mobilise large numbers of people.

Example: the military occupations of Newcastle in 1879 and 1888. The 1879 strikes involved an industrial union, the miners, and up to 6,000 attended mass demonstrations. It drew a 95 day military occupation of Newcastle by the NSW Permanent Military Force along with their artillery. An equivalent percentage of population in the streets demonstrating in present day Newcastle would be more than 40,000 people.

Widespread Shearers Strike supported by other unions (Maritime and Coal) in 1891.

Formation of Political Labour Leagues in early 1890s – forerunner to Australian Labor Party.

Growing militancy from early 1900s onwards. Due to:

  1. Influence of IWW particularly from 1907 to 1921. Peter Bowling militant Socialist miner’s leader arrested in Bolton St at a meeting in 1909 and dragged off in chains, imprisoned for 12 months.
  2. 1916 and 1917 – conscription divisions and major industrial conflict.
  3. Russian revolution 1917.
  4. Formation of Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in 1920.

Early versions of peak labour organisations, the Newcastle Trades and Labour Councils (TLCs) – tended to be more conservative and dominated by craft unions and had varied life spans, e.g. 1885-1887 and 1904 – 1920. For different reasons the more militant peak body, Newcastle Industrial Council (NIC), had a broken and limited life span between 1917 and 1926. The Eight Hour Committee maintained its continuity during this period as a peak body.

Unification of the Trade Union Movement in Newcastle occurred in 1926. The Eight Hour Committee, which had been formed in 1869, changed its name in 1926 to Newcastle Trades Hall Council and Eight Hour Committee (NTHC for short) which became the new peak labour movement body in the Hunter Region.

During its history the NTHC was continually active on workplace issues such as: wages, conditions, hours of work, work health and safety. The NTHC campaigned for these things on behalf of unions and often co-ordinated regional action. However broader issues were taken up from time to time, such as regional development, protection of the environment, education to the highest level as a right, anti-war and peace, aboriginal rights, civil and human rights, and independence for East-Timor. NTHC while still being legally registered as such, is now called “Hunter Workers”.

I wish to focus on just two of these issues today.

The role of NTHC in the establishment of the University of Newcastle

The NTHC had discussed the need for “University Facilities” in Newcastle for many years but in July 1942 a more determined effort got underway. In that month, Ross Mearns, the Headmaster at Newcastle Boys High School (and an NTHC delegate), attended a meeting of the Parents and Citizens Association of that school. Flowing from this meeting there was a proposal to approach number of city organisations with view to setting up a ‘University Committee’. Mearns addressed the NTHC in August 1942 and this resulted in the NTHC being one of the first organisations to be involved in the University Committee. At this point the NTHC preferred a university attached to, but not controlled by Sydney University. This position reflected the power residing in the Sydney University Senate to decide where new universities were to be established.

Eight months later, in April 1943 the leadership of NTHC changed with the emerging “New Left” of CPA and Left ALP supporters gaining control of the NTHC. In the 1930’s many of the people active in the NTHC at a rank-and-file level had worked together in the “Socialisation Units” of those times.  At this same meeting where the CPA and its allies gained control, delegate Mearns again addressed the NTHC. He said, “Universities in Australia were not democratic and that is why unions are not represented on their Councils”.

Mearns praised Henry Scanlon (Pres. of Northern Miners Federation and a CPA member), for his work on the University Committee and urged unions to, “raise money to ensure that they would be represented when the university council was established”. This was supported by R.C. Morgan, (Secretary of the Ironworkers Union and a CPA member), who noted that, “the system of higher education in Australia was such that only the children of affluent parents could take advantage of it”.

Morgan urged all unions to contribute to a library fund for the Newcastle University Committee. NTHC carried a motion along these lines. The first large donation came in from the Iron Workers Union.

The NTHC kept campaigning regularly for the next two decades for a university in Newcastle. During that time and accused the Senate of Sydney University of being a “conservative body that was opposed to a university college being set up in Newcastle”. The University of Newcastle biographer Don Wright confirms that the attitude of the Sydney University Senate was very cool on university development outside Sydney.

By April 1944 the call for a university college affiliated to Sydney University had turned into a call for a full university in its own right serving from the Hawkesbury to Taree. In that year delegate Ross Mearns successfully moved at a NTHC meeting, that the NSW State Government should amend the University Act to enable the establishment of a university in Newcastle without requiring the consent of the Sydney University Senate. Mearns quoted a Professor from Sydney University as saying, “it was stupid to assert that university education is the right of all”, and that, “the extension of university education would lower the standard of Sydney University to mediocrity”.

Mearns mentioned that there was no cry of mediocrity when university colleges were announced for Canberra and Armidale, only when one was proposed for a community of working-class people in Newcastle. It meant no democracy, no equality of opportunity and what the Sydney University Senate were really saying was, to let the children of workers stay workers.

The University Establishment Committee met monthly from the late 1940s and four of five members associated with NTHC were on the committee along with representatives of the Education Department, local community, and local politicians. In the early 1960s, Morgan became Secretary of the University Establishment Committee.

The role of the NTHC became pivotal during this period part due in part to Alex Dowling the NTHC Secretary who was a highly respected tough negotiator and a very experienced and capable advocate with knowledge on a wide range of subjects. He was considered the de facto leader of many delegations to Sydney on the issue of the university.

A college of the University of NSW was set up at Tighes Hill in the 1950s, and in July 1960, a delegation of students from the UNSW college had circulated a petition at NTHC asking for support for an autonomous university to be established in Newcastle. NTHC gave them support and time on the NTHC radio program to promote the petition. As we know, Newcastle finally got its fully fledged university in 1965, but that’s another story and Don Wright has covered it well.

The fight for Aboriginal Rights – those that wanted a radical change in society found common purpose

Growth of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in the 1930s and 1940s led in turn to the spread of influence of the Communist International (Comintern) in relation to Aboriginal affairs in Australia.

In September 1931, the CPA published in its newspaper “Workers Weekly” a list of 14 demands in relation to Aboriginal affairs. They stemmed from the Comintern and these demands (Abridged) included:

  • Full and equal rights, of all Aborigines and half castes, with white races.
  • Political Freedom for Aborigines and half castes.
  • Removal of all colour restrictions.
  • Cancellation of all licences to employ Aborigines without pay.
  • Prohibition of slave and forced labour.
  • Unconditional release from gaol of all Aborigines and no further arrests until aboriginal juries can hear and decide cases.
  • Abolition of the Aborigines Protection Boards (APB) – capitalism’s slave recruiting agencies and terror organisations against aborigines.
  • Prohibition of the kidnapping of aboriginal children.
  • Liquidation of all missions and so-called homes for aborigines.
  • Hand over to aborigines large tracts of land.

Most Communist Parties in the world followed the leadership of the Comintern hence the CP of Australia did as well. The growing CPA was therefore very active from at least the 1930s onwards in fighting for the rights of Aborigines.

In April 1943, what had been a growing influence of the CPA in the Hunter regional union movement became the leadership of that movement when the CPA gained control of the NTHC at that point.

Given these political developments it is no surprise that a number of Aboriginal people were attracted to the CPA because it supported them and fought for their rights. Some became members or supporters and sought support in their various struggles directly from the CPA, or from CPA led union organisations.

Similarly, it is no surprise that the CPA approached and offered help to aboriginal communities. These processes explain the subsequent connection between the CPA and Aboriginal communities and the particular interest of Australia’s secret police in the relationship between them.

Carrying over from the 1930s and 1940s there are references, in NTHC minutes and ASIO files, of Aboriginal matters from late 1950s – 1960s. This shows that in the mid to late 1950s the NTHC was actively supporting Aboriginal rights (e.g. reference from NTHC minutes in 1957). ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation), colloquially known as the secret police, had files recording that Newcastle unions formed an Aboriginal Welfare Committee. It seems that ASIO was very concerned about the linking together of Aboriginal activists and the CPA. We now know that ASIO was not only spying on activists and organisations but also undertaking spoiling operations to undermine them when they could.

Over the months of June-August 1960, the NTHC set up a community oriented Aboriginal Advancement sub-committee of NTHC. It was established by this process:

On 23 June 1960 correspondence was received by the NTHC from the CPA led Union of Australian Women (UAW) on the matter of poor conditions and the lack of rights at the Purfleet Aboriginal Mission near Taree. Delegate T. Potter (CPA) of the MWU Union spoke on the issue and moved: “that a committee be formed to investigate the situation at Purfleet Mission Reserve and that the UAW be co-opted. Seconded by delegate T. Hoare. Further supported by Delegate Aarons (CPA). Motion Carried. Given the way that the CPA leadership operated in co-ordination with the NTHC, it is almost certain that this issue would have been brought to the NTHC by the CPA.

On 21st July 1960 correspondence was received by the NTHC from the ‘Aboriginal Sub-Committee’. NTHC Secretary Alex Dowling (CPA member) said that the committee had met and he moved that they should give a report. Barbara Curthoys (CPA member) reported that she has been co-opted from the UAW and that the committee was ad-hoc and had its first meeting on 13 July. Curthoys, gave a detailed report on matters relating to Purfleet and noted who was on the committee and that delegate Potter was President of the committee and further, suggested that the committee be called the “NTHC Aboriginal Advancement Committee”. One delegate Jack Onslow (CPA member) asks if there have been any cases of children being taken from their mother? Answer from Mrs Curthoys – it will be investigated. The report was adopted.

In 1962, the committee was involved in an attempt to prevent an eviction in Taree at the Purfleet Aboriginal settlement. NTHC Executive member and MWU union organiser, Tom Potter, led a union delegation of 15 people to Purfleet on that occasion.

It appears that the initial ad-hoc committee may have lapsed sometime after 1962 because in 1968 it was reformed (and formalised), with Stan Masterson (CPA) as President and Jean Bailey (CPA) as Secretary. There is a photograph of Jean Bailey carrying a banner during May Day 1975 promoting Aboriginal Land Rights.

In late March 1970, Dexter Daniels an Aboriginal leader from the Northern Territory said at a CPA National Conference, that he believed the Federal Government wanted the Aboriginal movement separated from its friends in the trade union movement. It was soon afterwards  that Daniels visited Newcastle, hosted by the NTHC, as part of a tour of various centres seeking support for the Roper River struggle in the Northern Territory, but that is another story.


  1. Of Human Right and Human Gain, Peak Labour Organisation in the Hunter Valley of NSW, Rod Noble, HWRC, 2008.
  2. Newcastle Trades Hall Council (NTHC) Minutes
  3. Radical Newcastle, Ed. James Bennett, Nancy Cushing, Erik Eklund, UNSW Press, 2015. (a) Pages 39-47, Chapter by Rod Noble. (b) Pages 162-176, Chapter by Ann Curthoys.
  4. Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Dexter Daniel file, Volume 3. p.125
  5. Looking Back, A History of the University of Newcastle, Don Wright, UoN, 1992. Ch.
  6. Personal correspondence, Rod Noble, October 2018.


Inspiring and amplifying Aboriginal political voices that has had ramifications from remote regional Australia to the world. Sources from the Stan Masterson Collection
Inspiring and amplifying Aboriginal political voices that has had ramifications from remote regional Australia to the world. Sources from the Stan Masterson Collection

Guest 2 Professor Kate Senior:

Inspiring and amplifying Aboriginal political voices that has had ramifications from remote regional Australia to the world. Sources from the Stan Masterson Collection


Guest 3 Annabel Senior:

Miss Porter’s House collection UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register  VIEW HERE

Miss Porter’s House documentary Heritage Collection 1910-1997


Radio Scrapbook

Scrapbooks in the collection deal with the leisure activities of the Porter family (radio, movies, theatre, knitting, gardening, and personal development). These were noted as ‘an unusual record of the detail of early twentieth century social history…unusual in their survival and reflect the preoccupations of a lower middle-class household of women.’ The radio and cinema scrapbooks especially were identified as both unusual and rare. Apparently, the National Film & Sound Archive has only two radio scrapbooks in its collection. These are from the 1980s while the MPH one covers 1935-38.
Scrapbook containing newspaper and magazine clippings about radio people and programs 1935-38


The MPH notebooks record everything from grocery purchases, craft materials and pet expenses to excursions and the schedule of light globe replacement. They are of importance because they provide detailed insights into the domestic life of a household of women across most of the twentieth century.

Below is the Exercise book recording expenses for Cooee the dog 1984-90, pages 26-27. They show how Ella and Hazel allocated a recurring sum for dog expenses then recorded purchases. They calculated expenses against allowance and adjusted allowance if it didn’t meet expenses! Amazing. When Cooee died in 1990, they had $25.39 cash in hand.
Exercise book recording expenses for Cooee the dog 1984-90, pages 26-27.

Celluloid Card

Part of the collection of greetings post cards and cards. The celluloid variety are rare perhaps because they were expensive but extremely flammable. This MPH card was made in Germany.
This stunning example is embossed celluloid bifold card with scalloped edging and large paper suede flower. It was sent To Florrie from Herb with best wishes for a very Merry Xmas, probably before their 1910 marriage.

Stencil/fabric/show certificate group

One of 38 stencils made of light card. Used to create patterns on fabric which was then made into household textiles. The complete stencil collection is rare and unique and a key component of the craft theme in the MPH collection. Show certificates for original stencil design mostly won by Ella Porter.
Stencil 42758, fabric, brushes and certificate group by Ted Lovelock


Included as a representative of the photograph collection and for its uniqueness, rarity and beauty.
Ann Baldwin/Jolley/Hilder mother of Florence Porter


Updates:  VIEW HERE

End : (2.30 pm)

Next Showcase –  5 June, 2023


CREDITS: “Newcastle Trades Hall Council ‘May Day’ Committee presents MAY DAY Demonstration. 1947. A Labor College Production. Filmed in Colour By Les Freeman and Tom Hall. Directed by Cec. Freeman. Titles by Roy Lee.” Produced by Newcastle Trades Hall Council ‘May Day’ Committee Courtesy – Special Collections, University of Newcastle (Australia) Original 16mm film held at the University of Newcastle Library (Identifier UON AF111)


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