Obituaries Australia

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: use double quotes to search for a phrase
  • Tip: lists of awards, schools, organisations etc

Browse Lists:

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Kondelea (Della) Elliott (1917–2011)

by Rowan Cahill

from Age

Della Elliott, n.d.

Della Elliott, n.d.

ANU Archives, NBAC N409-111-13

Della Elliott didn't just join unions, she worked hard for them, from the days when she was often the ''first woman'' to hold a position to her retirement helping researchers piece together union histories.

In 1943, Melbourne-born Elliott became assistant secretary of the New South Wales branch of the Federated Clerks Union, the first woman to hold high office in the union. And, as a delegate to both the NSW Labor Council and the ACTU, she pushed the status of women and their right to equal pay.

During the 1949 Australian coal strike and 1951 New Zealand wharf strike she had clandestine roles at the militant Waterside Workers Federation (WWF) in the supply of strike support funds deemed illegal at the time by authorities.

Elliott, who had progressed from the Young Communist League (YCL) to being a member of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), was working as secretary to the general-secretary of the WWF, Jim Healy, in 1949 when the National Emergency Act was about to be used to freeze union funds to prevent them being used to help striking coal miners.

Some left-wing unions had quickly withdrawn money from banks — the WWF withdrew £8000. Healy and another official, Ted Roach, were given jail sentences for refusing to say where the money was and although Elliott was subpoenaed, the prosecutor, Bill Dovey (father of Margaret Whitlam and later a NSW Supreme Court judge) never directly asked her if she knew where the money was during his cross-examination. She had hidden it in jars of rice in a storeroom under her parents' house.

In 1951, when some Australian unions provided finance for their counterparts involved in a crippling waterfront strike in New Zealand, the WWF's books were taken in a police raid. On their return, officials noted how well kept they were but Elliott was not amused. ''If they'd warned me they were coming,'' she said, ''I'd have messed them up a treat.''

Born Kondelea Xenodohos, her father, Nicholaos, was a Greek migrant who had worked his way from Queensland's cane fields to a Melbourne fish and chip shop. Her Australian-born mother, Agnes, had left school at age eight and had variously worked cleaning floors and as a multi-skilled performer in a travelling circus.

By the 1920s, the family had moved to Sydney, where her father became proprietor of two cafes near Circular Quay. The Depression brought an end to her schooling when she was 14, and she trained as a shorthand typist, but had to work as a waitress and did paid housework.

She was already, as she later put it, ''an adherent of the socialist credo'' and became involved in YCL activities. Her parents had been members of the Socialist Party in Victoria; many of its members later became members of the CPA.

She joined with her mother, sisters and brother in left-wing amateur theatre activities and later became the first in her family to join the CPA. She also spoke on the CPA stump in Sydney's Domain on Sundays.

When she found clerical work, it was variously on voluntary and paid terms with a succession of left organisations. Then she met a young communist activist, Laurie Aarons, future leader of the CPA. They married in 1937, but the marriage lasted only a few years.

During their union they were active in organising young people, and in illegal underground activities after Robert Menzies' government used a regulation of the National Security Act to ban the Communist Party in 1940. (The ban was lifted by the Curtin government in 1942.)

After joining the NSW branch of the Federated Clerks Union in March 1936, she was elected to its central council in 1940 and became an organiser in 1942. The following year she made history, becoming assistant secretary.

She resigned the position in 1948, a casualty of internecine union politics. Throughout this phase of her life, she was known as Della Nicholas.

The status of women and the right to equal pay were issues of great importance to her, and she pursued these vigorously as a delegate to the NSW Labor Council during the 1940s, and as an ACTU delegate in 1945 and 1947. She was also involved with the trade union equal pay committee, established in 1946 and chaired by Jessie Street.

During the New Zealand wharf strike she met Eliot Elliott, leader of the Seamen's Union of Australia (now amalgamated with the Maritime Union of Australia) from 1941 to 1978. They began a partnership and married. He died in 1984. From 1955 until she retired in 1988, she was administrator of the SUA's federal office in Sydney, and edited the union's lively, monthly Seamen's Journal.

In retirement, she helped historians with their research, tended roses, bred Scottish terriers, and helped establish the Jessie Street National Women's Library. Her last act was the gift of an annual scholarship to Sydney University's women's college to help female Aboriginal students.

She is survived by her sisters Sylvia and Merle.

Original publication

Other Obituaries for Kondelea (Della) Elliott

Additional Resources

Citation details

Rowan Cahill, 'Elliott, Kondelea (Della) (1917–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024