'Citizen of the world': Betty Downie 1912-2007

Issue 

The unforgettable tabloid headline "Greenie granny goaled" accompanied a picture of a smiling, backpack-toting Betty Downie being led away by two policemen from the Franklin River blockade sums up the fighting spirit of this wonderful activist. Betty died, aged 95, in a retirement home in Launceston on December 5, 2007.

After this arrest in the early 1980s, Betty spent about 10 days in Risdon prison along with other (mostly younger) blockaders and made a powerful impression on them. By chance, I recently met one of her cellmates, then a young woman on her very first protest. She recalled Betty inspiring her and other young and frightened detainees with a sense of confidence. Betty described that spell as a "guest of the government" to her son Simon as "somewhere between a girls' boarding school and summer camp" where she could relax and read.

In the 1980s, Betty was a central activist in the Committee Against Repression in the Pacific and Asia (CARPA), a protesting "paddler" in the Sydney Peace Squadron and in the 1990s she became a member of the Democratic Socialist Party. She spent many days as a volunteer in the Resistance Bookshop in Abercrombie Street, Chippendale.

Independent journalist Max Watts, a fellow Peace Squadron activist, recalls fishing Betty out of Sydney harbour after one of several David-and-Goliath clashes with visiting US warships. "We had to struggle to restrain a very sodden Betty from jumping back into the fray", he recalls.

Betty was born in the Indian state of Gujarat to British parents whose ancestors had lived as colonials on Mauritius. She spoke English, Urdu, French, Italian and some Indonesian and over the course of her life lived in India, Mauritius, England, France, Italy, Switzerland, Greece, Indonesia and Australia. She was a citizen of the world and a most conscientious one!

In 1963, widowed and with two young sons, Betty moved from England to Australia and, overcoming painful personal loss, rebuilt a life. According to her son, Simon, Betty had been "variously a physiotherapist, nurse in the armed forces during the Second World War, diplomat's wife". Late in life she studied archaeology and anthropology, with a focus on Indonesia. She worked on archaeological sites and in museums and obtained a Masters of Arts in anthropology.

"She was her own woman", Simon adds, "one of strong opinions and not averse to expressing them and, even more importantly, a woman who would and could act on her opinions and beliefs to make the world a better place."

Betty was also an extremely generous and open person. Her little one-bedroom terrace in Rochford St, Erskineville became a home to many people. Betty's guests (short and long-term) used the bedroom while she would often sleep in a little veranda out the back.

Helen Jarvis, like myself a fellow activist with Betty in CARPA, says: "Never judgmental, Betty always afire with outrage. Betty was a wonderful, wise and whacky woman who made a difference on this earth." So true.

Betty left behind two sons, Simon and Nick, daughters-in-and-out-law, seven grand children and seven great grandchildren, but also much a bigger "family". It was a privilege and joy to have been her friend, comrade and part of this seriously extended family.

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