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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.

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John Callanan (Jack) Hartley (1920–1964)

Jack Hartley is dead — and the Sydney waterfront will never be quite the same again.

As news of his death on the job spread from Glebe Island to Walsh Bay last Monday morning a pall of gloom seemed to settle over the cold rainswept waterfront.

Among thousands of his mates no one could really comprehend the tragedy that "Big Jack" was dead.

He had collapsed with a heart attack at 3 o'clock in the morning while working on a "mid-nighter" and died soon after in hospital.

John Healy one of his closest mates and one of his many comrades in the never ending struggle on the job, looked along the "Hungry Mile" on Monday morning and said:
"I think that's how he would have liked it. To die in harness."

John was probably right because Jack Hartley had been in harness since he was a 13-year-old boy and he was 45 when he collapsed and died on the waterfront he both hated and loved.

From boyhood he had experienced savage exploitation, particularly on the waterfront, not only in his native Australia, but in many countries of the world — and he hated it body and soul.

But he began to learn that, if the workers were organised and stood together they were invincible and from his early teens he threw himself unflinchingly and often with great sacrifice into this struggle.

Understanding the human weaknesses of the workers, but above all their great strengths he learned to love his class and his life in their interests moulded him into a real working class hero.

Jack was always proud that he was first a member of the great American Communist Party and later a member of the Communist Party of Australia.

As a mate of his put it, "He never said he was a Communist — he PROCLAIMED it.

And everyone who knew Jack Hartley knows that this was true.

Jack Hartley was indeed a proud Communist and the Communist Party was proud of him.

The life of Jack Hartley could well be the subject for a best-selling working class novel and it's impossible to cover it here, but these facts must portray him as an outstanding member of the working class.

In the "hungry" thirties of the great depression he carried his swag at the age of 13 years. At 15 he shipped out of Sydney as a deck boy on a British tramp steamer for the Argentine.

He left the ship in Uruguay and decided to see South America.

He did it on foot with a swag on his back, picking up jobs where he could.

He learned Spanish and came to know work with, and take part in the struggles of the South American workers and peasants.

When he arrived in Santos he became a dock worker and was finally jailed for his part in a strike. He was now 17 years old.

When he was eventually released he was deported to England from where he sailed on tramp ships, finally settling in Jamaica where he again worked on the docks.

He soon became prominent in the struggles of the West Indian workers and was jailed again for his activities.

After he had served his second sentence for trade union activity, before he was 20, he was deported from Jamaica to England.

Finally came the war and Jack was back at sea again sailing out of America on the most dangerous of all runs — the North Atlantic to the Soviet Union.

With his heroic shipmates he sailed these freezing, U-boat infested waters for months until his ship was torpedoed, ironically enough off the Jamaican coast in 1942.

Some survived and Jack Hartley was one of the fortunate.

For most this would have been enough of the war and risk of a cruel death, but not for Jack Hartley.

Fascism was trying to overrun the world and his job as he saw it was to fight it the best way he knew how, to keep open the life line to the beseiged Soviet Union.

So back on the Atlantic run he went, by now he was a second engineer, as he commented once about this—
"It's funny you know, in peace time they pelt you in the boob for fighting and in war time they promote and decorate you."

It wasn't long as he described it himself — "before they gave us another swim."

This time it was out of the Soviet port of Murmansk when the German torpedo struck and Jack was lucky, again he survived.

And again and again he went back to sea in the freezing Atlantic in ships loaded to the gunwale with arms, food and medicine.

For his heroism during the war he was presented with a Presidential Citation from President Truman, whose Government was later to deport him for trade union activity.

After the war he sailed out of American ports on American ships and was active as a ship's delegate and in the National Maritime Union.

He earned the enmity of the right-wing in this union for his struggles against them.

During a seamen's strike in the late 1940's Jack Hartley was a member of the Strike Committee in New Orleans and worked hard to build trade union organisation in the gulf ports of Mexico.

He was on a ship in the port of Le Havre, in France, when what today is the mighty World Federation of Trade Unions, held its inaugural meeting.

With others he organised a walk-off from all ships in the port to attend this historic meeting.

For some years after this he worked as a docker on the New York waterfront and stood up in the picket lines against the hired thugs of Murder Incorporated who bossed the New York docks.

He had a long ugly scar down one cheek as a reminder of those days, when American dockers stood shoulder to shoulder against the violence of the American underworld and the ruthless shipping cartels.

He was finally deported from America as politically undesirable by the same Truman administration, which a few years before had decorated him as a hero.

On the way back to Australia, he was dragged off the boat in Manilla and jailed for good measure.

The Australian authorities were eventually able to secure his release and he returned to Australia — the country he had left at 15.

Drawn as always to the sea and docks, Jack became a seaman for a while and eventually a wharfie.

He soon established himself as a leader of great ability and courage.

As a fighter on the job he had no peer and even those who may have differed with him politically would not deny that.

He helped form the Job Delegates' Association in Sydney in 1951 and it is now established in all Australian ports.

He was a member of the Federal Council, governing body of the union.

He survived the German U-boats, the cruelties of foreign jails, now he is dead and the world is a sadder place, but maybe John Healy was right when he said: "He would have liked it that way. He died in harness."

Let us make sure his harness is not hung on the wall. Jack Hartley wouldn't like that.

(Jack Hartley left a wife and six children. A few weeks ago his father died and is survived by his widow.

To Jack Hartley's wife, his family and his mother, the Communist Party of Australia and Tribune Editorial take this opportunity to express their profound sympathy and regret at his untimely and tragic death.)

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

'Hartley, John Callanan (Jack) (1920–1964)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/hartley-john-callanan-jack-33992/text42608, accessed 20 May 2024.

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