newsletter of Sydney Trades Hall, home of the largest trade union collections in Australia
This Month: Paul Robeson’s seat; Peggy Middleton and Hannah Middleton; Bertha McNamara: her long commitment and her memorial
Paul Robeson’s Ashanti chief’s stool: An update
A gift from Hannah Middleton of Paul Robeson’s Ashanti style seat was highlighted last year but the story deserves more.
Paul was presented with the stool by Ghanaian students in London.
Paul and Eslanda Robeson lived in London from 1928 to 1939. Their son, Paul Robeson Jr., was born in 1927. At the time, London was a rallying point for African and Caribbean intellectuals and anti-colonial movements. It was here that Robeson met the influential Trinidadian intellectuals C.L.R. James and George Padmore, as well as prominent African activists who were to become leaders of their countries on independence, e.g., Nnamdi Azikiwe (President of Nigeria, 1963-66), Jomo Kenyatta (Prime Minister then President of Kenya, 1963-78), and (later on) Kwame Nkrumah (Prime Minister then President of Ghana, 1957-66).
These same radical influences also stimulated and fed his growing interest in African civilizations, cultures and languages, and eventually led him to take classes in Swahili and phonetics at SOAS in 1934. Robeson was an accomplished linguist, and studied other major African languages such as Igbo, Yoruba and Zulu, in addition to important Asian languages, eg, Chinese and Hindi.
Hannah Middleton tells the story of how she, and now Trades Hall, became the custodians of the Ashanti style stool.
“In the 1960s my mother Peggy Middleton had been one of the leading figures in the British [there were campaigns all round the world] campaign to get Paul’s passport restored and in that process had worked with and become close to Essie. Peggy was a regular visitor to the flat [at 45 Connaught Square] and I often accompanied her.
I was a university student at that time, studying African Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University. My course covered linguistics and phonetics, anthropology and history of west Africa and the Hausa language. Paul and Essie were really approving and supportive of my choice of study and the fact that I spent one month in Nigeria to do field work for my degree.
I also got close to them in two other ways. At concerts Paul would have to change into a dry shirt at every intermission. He wore cufflinks and his hands were so big that he found it really difficult to get them in or out. Everyone else was usually busy so it became my job at his London concerts to silently remove the cufflinks when he came off stage and to put them into the new shirt just before he went back on stage.
The other thing was that their granddaughter Susan came to visit and I often took her to play in Hyde Park, to feed the squirrels and the deer, and so on. We got on well and Paul and Essie were grateful for some relief as Susie was a gorgeous, gregarious, energetic child, about 8 or 9 then (born in 1953), but needed lots of attention and entertainment.
“Unfortunately I do not recall exactly when they gave me the stool to encourage me in my studies and my wish to go to West Africa to work at some time in the future. It was in the family home in Blackheath (London) for some time before I took it with me when I moved to Australia in 1965. It has remained with me ever since until I reached the age of 77 and decided that, together with the rest of my Robeson archive material, it needed to have a safe new home and so it came into Neale’s hands for safe keeping.”
Peggy Middleton, according to Martin Bauml Duberman, author of a terrific biography of Paul Robeson (London: Pan, 1989), was on the London County Council as member for Greenwich and was executive director of the London Paul Robeson Committee. She co-ordinated many events in 1958 for Paul’s 60th birthday. These happened in 27 countries including Mexico, India, Japan, East Germany, Moscow, Sweden, Haiti and China. Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru issued a proclamation hailing the tribute. Saying that it was fitting “not only because Paul Robeson is one of the greatest artists of our generation, but also because he has represented and suffered for a cause which should be dear to all of us – the cause of human dignity.”
Peggy took on a large role with the Robeson’s and took on a lot of correspondence for Eslanda when she was very ill. They were close friends for life.
She was also a member of Greenwich Borough Council and was Mayor of Greenwich for 1961-62: at forty-five she was the youngest person to hold the office. Following the amalgamation of councils under the London Government Act 1963, she was a member of the new Greenwich London Borough Council. Peggy represented Greenwich on the London County Council from 1955–65 and on the Greater London Council from 1967 until her death. She died in 1974, and Greenwich Council’s new civic offices (since demolished) were named Peggy Middleton House in her honour.
Hannah gave us, along with the stool numerous other Robeson pieces and a photo exhibition she put together. We will display it at Trades Hall when we can.
Hannah has been a long term peace and anti-nuclear campaigner and continues her action now with her strong role in the anti- AUKUS campaign – the ridiculous nuclear war machines being dumped on us by the USA. Building any war machines, including the French subs is bad enough, without massively increasing the horror by taking on nuclear powered vessels.
Carol Putland’s honours thesis Bertha McNamara: Mother of the Labour Movement (1994) is an excellent look at Bertha’s life and achievements. Thanks to Flinders University Library for providing a copy, and for their collection of documents in their Evatt Collection, provided to them by Mary Alice Evatt. Much of what follows is from the thesis.
Born in either 1853 or 1856, Bertha McNamara grew up in the 1860s, the decade in which Otto Bismarck united the German Empire under Prussian aegis. According to McNamara’s son, William, this left her family with economic difficulties which broke up their home driving Bertha, at the age of fifteen, to Australia. She was first in Melbourne, then Bairnsdale with her Aunt. Here she married Prussian born Peter Bredt, a farmer. They had nine children, three of whom died very young. Bredt died in 1888 leaving Bertha with a large family and few resources.
She moved back to Melbourne and made a living as a travelling salesperson, selling jewels and sewing machines. This seems to have been where socialist ideas became central to her life. When in Hobart in the early 1890s (years of depression) she published the first of many socialist pamphlets Home Talk on Socialism.
Bertha met William McNamara in Melbourne and married him in 1892. They moved to Sydney and established their bookshop, reading room and later boarding house, which became the focal point for radical politics in Sydney for many years.
Before they became members of the Social Democratic Federation of Australasia and of the
Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales, the McNamara’s were part of the Australian Socialist League, an early socialist organisation that was a disappointment to many socialists as it settled on a path of reformism via the ALP early on . Verity Burgmann’s In Our Time: Socialism and the rise of Labor 1885-1905 Sydney: Allen and Unwin 1985) covers this well.
Her eldest daughter Bertha married Henry Lawson in 1896 (both Bertha senior and Louisa Lawson were not that keen apparently). Another daughter, Hilda, married John Thomas “Jack” Lang, also in 1896. According to Bede Nairn Hilda and Jack lived with Bertha and William for some time.
Her concern for the unemployed and homeless, and working class conditions was exemplified in another pamphlet – Workingmen’s Homes – where she sets out the case for decent communal housing.
“The existing cramped and dirty conditions, inimical to physical and mental well being, are contrasted with a vision of clean and spacious communal dwellings where
domestic tasks are shared and thus less onerous, and the working man returns from his day of labour to physical comfort, convivial surroundings, pleasant company and
facilities for leisure in the form of a library and music room. The achievement of such a vision lay with the abolition of the current economic system, when, according to Bertha,
… we shall have towns of palaces, health, cleanliness, and comfort, instead of tumbled-down, dilapidated, fever-breeding dens, now called human dwellings, and Workingmen’s Homes.“(as quoted by Putland).
Bertha sought to get the Labor Party, which she remained a member of until her death, despite the many failings she saw, to engage a mass based “propaganda army”. She thought that the constant distribution of leaflets directly into homes would ensure “Labor’s message would reach many more people than did organs like the Labor Daily. She said that, … this movement is an attempt to tap that well of Enthusiasm and Idealism that has for so long been muddied by personalities and apathy; it is an attempt to recapture that early Pioneer Spirit that brought the Labor Party to birth and made it grow into a lusty fighting force. “
“The results of the LPA would be an enlightened Labor electorate who would not be fooled by the capitalist press and who, … through a study of Labor’s basic ideals, [would] come to look beyond the petty personal differences that bulk so largely even in our own Party discussions.” (Putland)
Bertha did not toe the party line as this letter from 1897 of harsh criticism of the actions of ALP Leader McGowan shows. The church and state sought to reduce or remove Sunday trading. Bertha attacks McGowen’s favouring the clergy and the middle classes, stating he has forgotten his roots and the need for small pleasures that working people need on their one day of rest.
In keeping with Bertha and William McNamara’s socialist philosophy, the Castlereagh Street shop was also a place of refuge. Bertha, described by Kylie Tennant as ‘Polish, fiery, [and] warm-hearted ran a boarding house above the shop where many new migrants found a home while they looked for employment. It was also a place where the unemployed could find a bed and a free meal, and as
Tennant put it, ‘Men who later came to high office had had their trousers mended by her [McNamara] when they had only one pair. ‘ Henry Lawson is reported to have quipped,
“Tell your hard-up friends to learn the names of the seven Chicago martyrs. It’s the password for a meal and bed at the little mother-in-laws. McNamara’s ‘shabby little bookshop’ remained a feature of Sydney labour circles for thirty five years.”
Her daughter Clarice provides a great image of her at the shop:
No picture in my memory could be clearer than those overcrowded shelves bulging with lively books and journals, and behind the counter the compelling personality of the little proprietress. No-one who did not know her would have guessed, from her sparkling periwinkle-blue eyes, her beautiful skin and soft white hair and her general air of maternal tenderness mixed with a lovely sense of fun, that this was one of the most dogged fighters for human rights and social justice in the history of Australian politics.
(quote from ‘All our strength, all our kindness and our love’: Bertha McNamara, bookseller, socialist, feminist and parliamentary aspirant by Michael Richards in Diversity in Leadership: Australian Women Past and Present edited by Joy Damousi, Kim Rubenstein and Mary Tomsic; ANU Press, 2014)
The Bookshop was “an unofficial headquarters of the labour movement for thirty five years. Even the tables and chairs used for Domain meetings were provided by the bookshop.
The bookshop was used for meetings, debates and as a refuge. She would have spoken to thousands of customers and probably influenced them politically. Bertha ran a boarding house above it for many years for homeless people and for new arrivals to Australia.
The shop moved around a bit:
(all letters and advertisements from trove.nla.gov.au)
Her death came after she braved some miserable Sydney weather to go to the Domain so that she could upbraid her erstwhile comrade, Adela Pankhurst, who had left the Communist Party and progressive politics to associate with right wing groups. Bertha got pneumonia and died not long after.
The labour movement established a memorial fund after her death. The work, by sculptor Lyndon Dadswell, is in the Goulburn-Dixon St entrance of Sydney Trades Hall.
AND after Covid hold ups Bayside Council are about to open a great exhibition about Jack Mundey, the BLF and Green Bans, in particular the ban that saved some massive overdevelopment at Eastlakes. They have named a park after Jack too. Get along to Mascot Library at 4 Hatfield St Mascot when you can. They are using much of the material we developed plus a great deal of information on the Eastlakes actions.
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