University of Melbourne Archives

Archiving Community Activism

by Les Dalton

(from the UMA Bulletin no. 14, March 2004)

Stored alongside the kilometres of company and trade union records in the specially conditioned repository of the UMA is a lesser known dimension of records that document community activism. Reflecting the less formal nature of community activity than occurs within company and trade union structures, documents relating to community activism have generally been filed less systematically, probably with a current campaign in mind, rather than providing for long term reference, let alone the curiosity of posterity. (Possibly some thought could be given to offering guidelines to community groups similar to the Guide and Schedule recently developed for trade unions.)

This, however, is not to diminish the worth of community activism collections. These archival records are a valuable resource for reflection on the nature and challenges of community activism that can be helpful in pursuing contemporary causes. We find over the years that these challenges have not changed all that much.

A number of valuable collections of groups and individuals, who have been active in peace and anti-war movements, have been donated to the UMA. Among the groups are: United Peace Council, Victorian Peace Council, Australian Peace Pledge Union, Movement Against Uranium Mining and Congress for International Cooperation and Disarmament. Among individual peace activists are: Vivienne Abraham, Frank Coaldrake, Kenneth Rivett, Dorothy Gibson and the ‘peace parsons’ Alf Dickie, Frank Hartley and Victor James. The John Ellis collection of photographs holds records of anti-war and antinuclear weapons protest by some of these, and other, community groups.

Together these community collections reveal some of the diverse influences which interact within the movement. This is no more evident than in the contributions to world peace of two prominent peace activists, the Reverend Frank Coaldrake and the Reverend Alf Dickie. Coaldrake was inspired by the pacifism of Gandhi and his doctrine of non-violent disobedience. Dickie was much influenced by Christian radicals like the Dean of Canterbury, the Reverend Hewlett Johnson, who preached social justice through radical political change in the social order.

Although Coaldrake and Dickie came from such different understandings of their Christian mission each in their own way dedicated themselves to work for world peace. Each suffered hostility for their actions not only among the public but within their own churches. By their integrity and principled stand on what they truly believed both won the respect of their Christian brethren. Both were elected to high office within their churches.

In 1942 Frank Coaldrake was ordained a minister of the Anglican Church. He played a leading role in pacifist and social justice campaigns. He helped establish the Brotherhood of St. Laurence and played an active role in its mission to provide welfare and social justice for the poor. During World War Two he campaigned for more enlightened legislation to protect the rights of conscientious objectors to refuse military service. In this campaign, as his correspondence files show, he involved himself personally in assisting individuals brought before the court. In the face of the bitter feelings of Australians against the Japanese he persisted throughout the war with the call for reconciliation with the Japanese people.

In 1939 he founded the pacifist journal The Peacemaker. Published monthly, the journal served to keep the various pacifist bodies in touch nationally at a time when their cause was unpopular. The journal later became the official organ of the Federal Pacifist Council and was published until 1958 (the UMA holds a complete set). As the censor’s stamp on the journal’s copy and Coaldrake’s correspondence with the censor’s office show, The Peacemaker was kept under close scrutiny.

In 1944, following the non-violent civil disobedience principles of Gandhi, Coaldrake took part in ‘sit-in’ protests with other members of the Brotherhood of St. Laurence to highlight the unfairness to tenants of the Landlord and Tenant Regulations. Under these regulations a widowed tenant was threatened with eviction. Coaldrake sat on the veranda of the widow’s house for over 30 days. The action was featured in the tabloid press.

In 1947 he fulfilled his desire to enter Japan to serve with the Japanese Anglican Church and to pursue a mission of reconciliation between the Australian and Japanese people. To this end he and his wife Maida published a newsletter to further reconciliation between the Australian and Japanese people. The UMA hold an incomplete set of this newsletter, Nippon Seiko Kwai.

Returning to Australia in 1957 Coaldrake took up the post of chief executive officer of the Anglican Board of Missions to guide the work of the church among the people of the Pacific and the Aborigines in the Northern Territory. Sadly, just 12 days after he was appointed Archbishop of Brisbane, he died of a heart attack.

Alf Dickie worked as an engineering tradesman until he reached the age of 30 years, when he answered the call to join the ministry of the Presbyterian Church. Notebooks reveal a deep interest in biblical studies from a young age. After ordination he served in several parishes before coming, in 1943, to the Parish of North Essendon. It is not evident as to the influences that moved him towards a radical political viewpoint. In 1947, he took part in a May Day march with a group of clergy led by the Anglican Dean, Henry Langley. The following May Day he addressed a Yarra Bank gathering identifying himself with trade union calls for a more equitable economic system.

In 1949 the Australian Peace Council was formed and Dickie became its first chairperson. This was at an early stage of the Cold War. The council’s policy came under the influence of communists and Dickie was publicly vilified as a ‘fellow traveller’ of the Communist Party. However, it would seem from the records that while Dickie encouraged dialogue with Marxists he sought his own directions, in the light of his Christian beliefs, on how to create a more peaceful and just world. His special concern was the nuclear arms race. He saw his mission as mobilising ordinary people against the war-like policies of governments. He believed that if governments were to exercise the immense power opened up to them by nuclear science ‘they will bring doom on God’s creation’.

In 1951 Dickie was among a group of clergy who set up the Peace Quest Forum to ‘provide an opportunity for conflicting views upon politics that made for war and peace’ to be heard.

It was not only in the media and parliament that Dickie was accused of communist leanings and being disloyal to his country. His parishioners were disturbed by not only what they read in the media but heard personally in his weekly sermons. He faced his parishioners with a willingness to discuss their concerns, setting down his beliefs in a tract, Should Such a Faith Offend, in order that his parishioners ‘may judge the truth or error of the rumours’. He was not, he said, a communist by affiliation or philosophy but one who believed ‘Christians should be working to change the present order of society’.

Like Coaldrake, Dickie slowly won the respect of his Christian brethren. He was elected to serve as Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, from 1965 to 1966, and he held the post of Executive Officer of the Presbytery of Melbourne, from 1968 to 1972.

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