Vale Jean Hale 1912-2009

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Jean Hale (nee Heathcote) was born on July 29, 1912 in Brisbane. Her grandfather, Wyndham Selfe Heathcote, was an Anglican clergyman who opposed the Boer War. His opposition to the Anglican Church's social policies and his opinions, such as this from one of his essays – "The death of Jesus, as a social reformer using direct action, has been transmuted into the death of a God dying for the world" – found him at loggerheads with the Church and resulted in his leaving to become a Unitarian Minister.

His public speaking skills, which Jean inherited, were considerable. In October 1916 the Woman Voter reported that, "despite the large seating capacity of the building, thousands of people were turned away" from a debate between himself and Adela Pankhurst (the youngest member of the British suffragist family).

Wyndham McDonall Heathcote, Jean's father, is described on her birth certificate as a conjurer, that is, a stage magician. No occupation is recorded for her mother, Kathleen, but she was, in fact, the magician's assistant and was regularly sawn in half by him.

Jean's father died when she was seven, and her mother remarried and had another daughter, Zelma. The family moved to Sydney but the collapse of this marriage meant that Kathleen had to work and Jean was sent to Monte St Angelo to board – an experience that confirmed her life-long loathing of the Catholic Church. Not only was she scolded because her mother smoked, but when on one occasion her mother returned her late to school after an outing, as punishment she was locked in total darkness under the stairs for the entire night.

Jean left school at 15 and attended a business college, but with the deepening of the Depression work was often hard to find and she was very grateful to find a job as a maid or waitress. The hard times, her grandfather's dissenting views, and her own inclinations led her to her involvement in left-wing radical activity. She joined the Rationalist Association, volunteered in the office of the Unemployed Workers Movement (UWM), and mixed in Young Communist League circles.

Here she met many people, some of whom were to become long-standing friends such as Edna and Jack Kavanagh who had migrated to Australia in 1925. Kavanagh was a founding member of the Canadian Communist Party and a leader of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike – perhaps the most momentous event in Canadian working class politics. He became editor of the Workers Weekly (forerunner of the Tribune) and secretary of the NSW Labour Council. Others included Jack Simpson (uncle of former High Court Judge Michael Kirby and later Treasurer of the Communist Party), Stan Moran, J. N. Rawlings, Jack and Edna Ryan, and Jack Henry.

Charlie Dickie was another friend. He had grown up in appalling poverty in the Gorbals in Scotland, become a member of the International Workers of the World, migrated to Australia, and, among other things, was active in the anti-conscription struggles of World War I. He was one of the defenders of a Newtown terrace when the police arrived en masse to enforce an eviction order on 20 June 1931.

The Sydney Morning Herald wrote the next day: "The most sensational eviction battle Sydney has ever known was fought between 40 policemen and 18 Communists at 143 Union Street, Newtown, yesterday morning. All the defenders were injured, some seriously." The battle lasted for more than an hour, with police firing at the residents, while outside a crowd of several thousands booed, hissed and threw stones at the police.

But in the 1940s, so far as Jean's family was concerned, he was the kindest, gentlest person. He would come to the family home in Arncliffe for Sunday lunch and, along with copies of Tribune and China Reconstructs, produce balloons and other knick-knacks for the children. Invariably the whole family and Charlie would then go to the Dom – the Sydney Domain – to listen to the speakers and the hecklers.

Back in the 1930s, however, Jean was on the soapbox, usually in the Domain. Every Friday night outside the Kings Cross Fire Station in Darlinghurst Road, she, Kavanagh and others would speak to huge crowds. Of course, there was competition, often from followers of Jack Lang, the then Premier of NSW who had been dismissed by Governor Philip Game. Jean would recollect, with some pride, that she could draw a larger crowd than Eddie Ward, the "Firebrand of East Sydney" who later became a Minister in Curtin's wartime cabinet, but was then proclaiming "Lang is greater than Lenin".

Jean spoke at many public meetings. At the close of one, a very tall young man asked if she needed help carrying her books. He might have been six foot and she only four foot eleven inches, but her immediate reaction was to wonder how on earth anyone would think she needed help.

It's a moot point as to whether he did end up carrying them, but suffice to say on July 19, 1934, Jean Heathcote and Ronald Hale were married at the Sydney Registry Office. They were too poor to afford a ring, had to borrow the money for the licence, and asked a taxi driver to act as the witness. They lived in an abandoned shack in Ryde in what is now the Field of Mars cemetery. They had a goat and some ducks. One duck, Cuthbert, became a particular pet and eventually a roast dinner – but so guilty did they feel, they couldn't bring themselves to eat him.

Ron's grandfather had been a baker in England and Ron had helped him in the bakery. When Ron and his brother Bill migrated to Australia in 1924 in search of a better life, the two of them spent many years on the track seeking whatever work they could find. His first job here was pruning a vineyard, which he got by assuring the owner that he had lots of experience and knew exactly what to do. Of course, he'd never pruned a grape vine in his life! The years travelling looking for work put him off bananas and rabbits for life, but also radicalised him. He soon learnt that it was prudent to wear a tin plate underneath his hat whenever he went to a demonstration.

His bakery skills were put to good use and he and Jean started a cake shop, first in Bexley, then in King Street, Newtown, and much later in Ramsgate. Jean's first child, Ilene, died at birth and she was told that she would never be able to have other children. Some five years later, however, she proved them wrong, with Ron being born in 1940, Sylvia in 1942, and Lesley in 1944.

The business did very well, but it was hard for Jean who served in the shop. The three children all attended the Sydney Day Nursery in Redfern. Ron always left for work in the early hours of the morning, so Jean would have to feed and dress three very young children, walk them to the station to catch the train, and then shepherd them to the kindergarten, and repeat the exercise each evening. Saturday afternoon was reserved for house cleaning, Sunday morning for washing, and Sunday afternoon for the Domain.

But the Newtown shop became a meeting place for many on the left. During the war, someone painted a sign on a wall saying, "Hales are communists". Jean and Ron debated what to do about it, and eventually decided to do nothing. After all, trying to remove it would be tantamount to resiling from their views. Jean was, however, very upset to see a sign on a shop urging people to "shop here before the day goes" – a less-than -subtle appeal to racist sentiment about Italian refugees who had fled in the wake of Mussolini's rise to power.

During the 1949 coal strike over poor wages and conditions on the coalfields, Jean and Ron regularly sent food to the striking miners. The miners reciprocated by sending them wood for the shop's ovens. Fifty years later, in April 1998, Jean was on the picket lines during the Patrick's waterfront dispute. She wanted to make a donation, but the wharfies concluded she was a battling pensioner and declined to take it.

At another protest, when she was in her 80s, after she had been standing for a long time and was thirsty, she saw a first aid tent and went over hoping for a drink and thought she might take the opportunity to sit down. The first aid people took one look at her, bustled her onto a stretcher, and it was only with great difficulty that they were persuaded by her daughter not to send her off in an ambulance.

She was very tough, something her family attributed to all those years of standing in the shop, walking in a protest marches, and handing out leaflets.

Neither Jean nor Ron ever joined a political party. Jean was always outspoken and did not welcome the restrictions imposed by any requirement to toe the party line. The experience in the 1930s and 1940s of seeing old friends whose views differed from those of the leadership of the Communist Party being expelled, subjected to personal slander and abuse, and ostracised no doubt confirmed the wisdom of this decision. To their credit, they maintained those friendships. It was a source of great amusement to them one May Day to see Jack Ryan, an expelled member of the central committee of the Communist Party, marching in the procession under a banner that read "Ryan is an agent of the boss".

It must have been their personal friendships, despite their non-membership, that persuaded the leadership of the Communist Party during Menzies' attempt to ban the CPA to ask them to hide the party's financial records. Her children recall a mysterious briefcase hidden at the bottom of a wardrobe and being under strict instructions that, should any strangers knock at the door, they was to take it, go out the back door, and hide it in the nearby church. They think at one time they may have been buried under the roses at St David's Anglican church in Forest Road, Arncliffe.

Even though she was acquainted with Sydney members of the Fourth International and had copies of pamphlets by Leon Trotsky at home, Jean was deeply disturbed by Khrushchev's 1956 speech to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, the first official acknowledgement of the atrocious crimes committed by Stalin. She relentlessly questioned everyone she could and did not shrink from or try to excuse what had happened. But neither did she abandon her hopes and struggle for a better, fairer, more just society or her condemnation of capitalism.

She became actively involved in the Australia-China Friendship Society and in the movement for East Timor's independence. In 1960 she was part of a peace delegation to Japan and, before returning home, visited China and briefly met Premier Zhou Enlai.

In 1998 she described the origins of her anti-war convictions in a letter to Green Left Weekly: "My feelings on war were the direct result of a remark by my mother when we saw and heard a legless returned soldier of the first world war sitting in the gutter in Pitt St. We stopped and she gave me a coin to put in his begging bowl and remarked as we walked away, 'Somehow, Jean, it doesn't seem right for them to have gone through all that and come back and beg on the streets.'"

After her husband's death in 1970, Jean moved to Balmain and became an enthusiastic supporter of Nick Origlass (whom she had known since the 1940s) and Issy Wyner in their efforts to make Leichhardt Council an "open council" genuinely representative of the interests of the community.

Her son Ron recalls her volunteering to mind her grandson Damon, a pre-schooler, for the day. The offer was readily accepted. Jean collected him, duly notified the media, then chained herself and Damon to a tree in Balmain scheduled for removal. When asked by his father what he had done that day, Damon cheerfully responded that it had been one of the best and most exciting of his life. The tree was saved, and Damon had an early introduction to his grandmother's political enthusiasms.

Jean's last public political act took place in early 2007 when she was 94. She had recently moved to a nursing home. It was lunchtime when she stood up in the dining room, asked everyone to be silent, and then declared in the loudest voice she could muster, "David Hicks must be freed!"

She is survived by her children, Ronald, Sylvia (Greens member of the NSW Parliament) Lesley, and their families, including six great grandchildren.

Abel Gutteres, Timor Leste consul-general for Australia spoke at her funeral on June 1. She was described in an email notifying Australia-East Timor Association members of her death as "AETA's oldest and most revered activist".

[Sylvia Hale is one Jean's surviving daughters. She is also a NSW Greens MLC.]

Tags: Australia Comment and Analysis