Dymphna Cusack, school milk and Australian literature abroad

Remember school milk. Personally I always enjoyed it at Trangie Central, because the milko would usually deliver the little glass bottles just before 11.00 playlunch, so the milk was cold even on the hottest of days. It was a special bonus when your class was on milk duty and you got out a few minutes early to organise the crates for each class, so that way you got your pick of strawberry, banana, a strange green one, and plain.


OK even if you only remember the milk being warm and sour, it was a huge success for malnourished children in many parts of Australia. The campaign was spurred by writer, teacher, social activist Ellen Dymphna Cusack.

Dymphna Cusack should be a name in the highest echelons of the pantheon of great Australian writers. Come in Spinner (with Florence James), Caddie, and Jungfrau were some of the novels, while her plays and television adaptations made her a huge name in Europe and the USSR in the 1960s.

Mining towns seem to have been in her blood. She was born in Wyalong, a place that nowadays doesn’t give much of a hint of its goldmining origins, when the entire ton was pegged out with claims.


(Wyalong Eight Hour day march late 1890s. Amalgamated Miners banner)

Cusack herself had been truly radicalised by her time teaching at Broken Hill. In this period she was on the merry-go-round of transfers that the education department put teachers through. As Marilla North put it, “In Broken Hill, Cusack developed a fierce, Irish-strength hatred for BHP. In the two years she spent in the town she was at the centre of much radical activism. with the working class fighting back against the injustices imposed on them by the Great Depression.

Some of her comrades in arms included Morrie Bannister, former miner turned librarian. Bannister was one of the many in Broken Hill who revered the memory of Percy Brookfield. Others were Bill Gollan, a protege of George Arnold Wood who had taught Cusack at Sydney University and Bill and Edgar Ross through the WEA.

Perhaps tainted by the accusation levelled at many pro-communist writers, that she was a “social realist, her legacy has been overlooked. Her writing was very much informed by her experiences at the coalface. The satisfaction that she derived from opening a “window in the dark” for school students whose parents had been part of the massive struggle of 1919-20 in Broken Hill. The big strike won shorter hours and recognition of dust iseaes in mining, but the physical demands on people who lived through the deprivation were all to apparent in 1928. “I began to realise the ruthlessness of the industrial world. I began to realise that the Strike was the only weapon the worker had against it.”

Her time in Broken Hill, a place she called “hell on earth” was the most interesting and rewarding of all her teaching life, and the time was reflected in all her writing and activism for the rest of her life. She despaired of the utter irrelevance of the curriculum she was forced to teach, a despair that continued in many battles over the years with department until her resignation (to the depts relief) in the 1940s.

Despite the system which regarded female teacher as second class citizens , she was a great teacher who loved teaching and the people she taught, an she valued colleagues who did not share her social and political views but who were prepared to support her I her numerous battles with authority.

The pupils of Broken Hill in particular, valued their independence far more than students elsewhere who had similar conditions.

“I shall always remember my second year class standing in the corridor.

Shouldn’t you be inside waiting…?”

“No Miss…”we’re on strike”

The teacher said she had reproved the class for misdemeanours. The students said she had insulted them and refused to be taught by her. The head of school agreed with the students!!. Dymphna agreed with them too. So she got to take the class for history as well as English. I think the class made a great tactical move here. Cusack wrote 50 years later that the ‘children’ still visit her.

A few years after she left Cusack red reports of the seniors at the school running the Red Flag on the school flagpole. A proud moment.

Her reflections on her teaching life were not published until well after her death.

Leaving Broken Hill she went to a different sort of country town – Goulburn – where the contrast to the working class atmosphere of Broken Hill was stark, Squarely amongst the squattocracy here. The town lived on the founding fathers nostalgia for wool and a mere “high school teacher” was not part of the milieu that was socially accepted.

From Goulburn it was off to Parramatta and then to Sydney Girls High, which was where Woodcock recruited her to the Federation.

The Departments’ prejudices against her became a much larger factor in her life not long after. Her introducing students to Marx, John Stuart Mill and Mary Wollstonecraft saw the red lights flashing at the head office.

Her move to the Federation came after Sydney Girls High. The NSW Teachers’ Federation enlisted her as a researcher on the impact on the welfare of children of unemployment. The Depression was still hovering and unemployment very high. The campaign started because of the appalling conditions that Lucy Woodcock, Senior Vice President of the Federation found when she was teaching in Cessnock in 1930. The same issues of malnutrition and generally poor health were apparent in the Cessnock mining community as they were in Broken Hill.


A big dispute at the Abedare Colliery in 1937 brought this issue to the fore. The local ALP MP John Baddeley reported that 30% of the children were malnourished. The Minister Drummond said that he would send a Department Medical Officer to test the children. However “a Mrs D Cusick [sic] of Sydney who had been engaged in educational research’ proposed that local Hunter Valley doctors, with their long-term observations of the coalfields’ families, would provide far better advice to the government than a one-off test.’

Cusack happened to be in Cessnock when the local MP John Baddeley (ALP) had arranged a meeting with the Minister Drummond. The meeting was an appeal by a group of the unemployed to get school milk. The Minister would only agree to speak to the group if they promised there would be no speaking to him after his pronouncement on the milk issue.

Cusack saw the well fed, well-dressed minister and the local MP looking over the threadbare clothing of the unemployed miners and families, and watched as he deigned to listen to their appeal. The large well fed Minister stood and derided the appeal and said it was ridiculous and said the appeal had obviously been prompted by communists. He sat and the agreement was that no one could answer him.

It was too much. Dymphna stood and her “rage and pain boiled over in coherent blistering words. “ The minister was stunned but rose and sneered at her. Cusack was wrong according to him. The malnutrition argument was wrong. The NSW definition was based on the British one and the people in the Hunter did not meet it. She jumped up once again, and the people demanded she be heard once more. By a stroke of good fortune Dymphna had just read that the British Health Ministry had stated that four out of five boys recruited from depressed areas were malnourished. “If the minister was satisfied with these conditions that reduced our youth to creatures not fit for cannon fodder, she was not”.

They didn’t get the milk then, but Menzies, obviously feeling the pinch from the communists, did introduce free school milk nationally in 1951.

Dymphna was convinced, probably quite correctly, that Drummond had her firmly in her sights from that time. Apparently Drummond had asked Baddeley for the the name of the Federations researcher and upon hearing it commented “…Ah, Cusack! Not the Dymphna Cusack from Sydney Girls High?”

miners fed banner newish

(Miners’ federation banner from Northern District, Cessnock, NSW)

Cusack’s association with the left would have been well known to the dept at this time, and a conservative state government would not have been looking with much regard upon a red. Her literary output by 1937 included an unpublished novel and three plays performed from 1935. Her novel Jungfrau was runner up in the Bulletin Literary Prize in 1935 and commercially published in 1936. The subject matter – three young women debating the morals of abortion and women’s rights –would have ha the orange lights flashing in the bureaucracy. The novel reflected her first hand experiences of deprivation an the economic depression on communities

Her writing was done whilst teaching but she had to fight the dept for a number of years after the Cessnock episode, after a fall at Sydney Girls High and a refusal by the dept to grant workers’ compensation. It was during the war, when teaching first at Bathurst, surrounded by army training camps, and then, while living in Kings Cross witnessing the impact of servicemen on leave after experiencing the horrors of war in the inner city that the seeds of Come In Spinner were sown. It became a TV series in the 1980s.

her return to Newcastle in 1942 saw an accommodation crisis and teaching at Newcastle Girls, as well as becoming active in Army Education an Newcastle technical High. Southern Steel, her novel of this time (not completed until the early 1950s) recalled the shelling of the steelworks in 1942 and the community response to this. The SMH published some her stories about this time.

The ABC produced a radio drama of the home front – Shoulder the Sky – in 1943.

Her fragile health caught up with hr after she left Newcastle and in 1944 she was medically pensioned out of the teaching service. Unemployed at last, she lived in the Blue Mountains for some time with Florence James, and Come in Spinner was born,

The publication of Southern Steel saw her in the trenches again, fighting for the Fellowship of Australian Writers against the Colonial Royalties system. The British publishers of authors from the “colonies” or the Commonwealth would pay royalties based on the publisher’s price to the bookseller, not the retail price. Cusack won this battle too.

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