Wait, who owns these?

By Teresa Singh
This week I followed a lead for my exhibition to the Trades Hall labor museum in Haymarket. As I was walking there through the fringes of China town, past retail stores and office buildings I almost missed the entry twice. Shouldered between a Glue store and a high rise sits a historic building, once a bustling unionist headquarters, a place where the ‘8 hour day’ was literally won, where the first industry guilds hung their banners… and now?
I walked around the empty museum mystified. My guides voice drifting in and out, the picture of trade unionism himself; I envisioned the room as it initially was in the 1800’s. Long tables filled with intellectuals, anarchists, disgruntled workers…the ‘buzzing proletariat’ for whom, someone as fond of Russian history as I am, has an irrevocable affection for.
Their collection on anti-conscription was kept in a corner swarmed by the banners they had assembled “don’t conscript our daddies”, “no more conscripts” and the moniker which brought me here “Save our sons”. When I asked my guide how it was they came by these signs, some of which were over 100 years old, having been used in the petitions against conscription in WW1, he said many were found in junk stores – on their way to the tip. I was visibly shocked, it was to be the theme of the day.
We began to move off topic from anti-conscription efforts, to the nature of the institution itself. Its own history providing hours of conversation. Neale and his colleague sighed, the funding of this precious site was virtually non-existent, and developers had already bought out a significant part of the building, which had survived since the early 1870’s. They conceded they had taken to buying certain items together, in order to spare them from disposal. The same tragedy almost befell their library. This library was a small room lined floor to ceiling with glass cases full of 19th century books, truly unbelievable relics. This collection was the work of the original Trades hall occupants, determined to create a body of literature which would educate the working class they devoted their lives to. I climbed up ladders to classical anthropological texts I myself recognised from my studies at Uni. A sea of worn and tattered time capsules stacked the cases…Darwin’s social theories, totemism, the American Revolution, poetry, ancient encyclopedias. The collection was a testament to the pioneers of the institute. I drank in their century-old literary choices; confident it did educate, confident it did now. I had never seen books this old in mere shelves, not displayed in glass boxes or guarded with airport level security such as those at the state library.
The idea that a room filled with classic texts this precious was threatened with dismantling seemed impossible. But indeed they had only just succeeded in saving it. ‘State and Federal significance’ is the way he phrased it, with many other beautiful Trade Halls Australia-wide having their libraries dismantled and contents disappearing, it was one of a few of its kind left.
Who did OWN these? Does anyone come here and help in the preservation of this important, priceless collection? No, he replied, they do what they can with the display and have a paper restorer on staff that volunteers her services but funding has not made its way to the trades Hall yet, they seemed doubtful it ever would.
When leaving the museum with copies of the material from the display and banners etc. I was again struck by their incredible willingness to share, their eagerness to lend me original items and their obvious joy in sharing union history. Stewardship over the past was entirely absent. Union history was, all at once, theirs to protect, share and impart. It was mine to take and repurpose in a peacemaking exhibition as I pleased. It dawned on me as I walked out, the building may be changed or come under attack, but as long as men with as great a passion for what it represents, remain, this history can never truly be endangered.

The Burial of Recent History

My project for the Addison Road Community Centre seeks to memorialize and honour the women who protested the ‘death ballot’ conscription for the Vietnam war in the late 60’s to early 70’s. These mothers were present at every single intake of soldiers, predecessors to the radicals and students from Sydney Uni who joined the resistance later on in the war when public sentiment was flailing. They held vigils, they wore gloves and reverently upheld signs marked “remember Nuremberg”. Despite being branded as communists – these women, mostly 40 and over, took on the job with unfettered determination.
When speaking with the centre’s historian, the scope of the project began to dawn me. Tracking down the descendants or associates of a group of older women who campaigned in Marrickville 50 odd years ago, to create an oral history, would not prove an easy task. Her words sunk in, ‘this is primary research’, ostensibly no one has ever tried to collate these diminishing second-generation accounts and recreate the dynamic political scene. I was left with a barrage of unanswerable questions. Where would i find them? How would i get them to agree to speak with me? (having expressed her own trouble in doing so) What were my hunches? What specifically did i want to find out? Who may know-someone-who-would-know-someone who could refer me? How many of this ‘x-john doe’ lived in the broader area according to the white pages? I was left perplexed and filled with dread. This was an ambitious undertaking.
After all, these protests were within living memory. Why then, was this contemporary history left uninterrogated? Whilst the annals of white, colonial Australian history, as evidenced by our lecture from Judith, remain seared in public memory and actively pursued. These women and their fight to save the nation’s sons competes with the carnival-like celebration of Anzacs and all who have served in the military for Australia. Upon further research, peacemaking, at home and internationally, is one of the few public arenas in which women have always had a decisive and initiatory role. These themes simmer above my research, recasting the information i find. This history is important. Not only as a landmark in social justice for Australia, but for the human rights issues we encounter today. No movement ever succeeded with only the anarchists, the radicals, the scholars. Ordinary Australians and older generations imagined outside the parameters of social rebellion need to be included. The women of S.O.S remind me of a group I see rallying today, dismantling the idea of what a protester is. The ‘grandmothers against the detention of refugee children’. They never miss a rally, they come in impressive numbers, they wear matching shirts and they bear witness.
Noreen Hewett, the groups lead organiser in one of her final recorded interviews, when asked as to why she founded Save our sons, said, “I have always had a general interest in the question of peace.” Indeed this is all one should need.
Teresa Singh