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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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Laurence Jeremiah (Laurie) Jarmson (1888–1982)

by Laurie Aarons

The death of Laurie Jarmson in the Queensland city of Mackay just before his 94th birthday breaks a link with the working class movement that goes back 75 years.

He joined the Social Democratic Federation in 1907, the Carpenters Union in 1913, and the Communist Party of Australia in 1921.

A comrade told me that Laurie Jarmson was living in Mackay when I was there in July last year. I called on him and by dint of some hard talking — he was a deeply modest person — he agreed to tape his recollections of his lifetime in the movement.

"I'm not keen on publicity", he said. "It's alright for politicians, and people who want to be. I want peace and quiet".

Yet he was a truly remarkable person, well-read and cultured, with the largest library I've ever seen. An active unionist, a busy communist, he found time for active work in bodies that established the Newcastle Cultural Centre, the Art Gallery (his wife was a talented painter) and the Conservatorium.

Not long before his death he was re-reading his favorite poet Robbie Burns and had revised The Tempest preparatory to watching its recent TV production.

Born at South Voxter in the Shetland Islands on December 5, 1888, he came to Australia in 1912 and married his wife Nell in 1921 at Newcastle. After his wife's death he lived with his daughter Nellie, her husband Jack Ramsay and their son.

At 15 he won the Aberdeen School Board Medal out of 3,000 exam candidates, and could have taken up a scholarship. Instead, he became an apprentice carpenter and worked at that trade all his working life.

Laurie told me about the lifestyle of the Shetlands people in the late 19th century, crofters and fisherpeople living close to nature. He returned many years later, noting the great changes caused by the discovery of oil.

He sketched their history, a Norse people whom the King of Norway "gave" to James I of Scotland as part of his daughter's dowry, and their struggle against imposition of the feudal system upon a free peasantry.

He recalled his early days in the Social Democratic Federation, which had a branch of 200 on the Shetlands, laughing at the story of their local councillor who got through a resolution for nationalisation of the land. "It was reversed as soon as the businessmen found out what it meant" he recalled.

He knew the editor of the SDF paper Justice, a man who had helped Lenin print the Bolshevik paper in London to be smuggled into Russia. A fellow-member of the SDF from the Shetlands, Fred Pottinger, had known Karl Marx personally.

Laurie remembered the great interest Keir Hardie created among working people in his campaigning for unionism and election to the House of Commons.

Laurie came to Australia in 1912, "to look around". He went to Newcastle because he was told there was plenty of work, then moved on to Darwin where he worked through the First World War. He became secretary of the Carpenters' Union's Darwin branch.

He returned to the Northern Territory during World War II, working with the Allied Works Council. On his return to Newcastle, he did most of the reconstruction of the CPA's new offices at 186 Hunter Street.

His recollections of the CPA's early years are fascinating. The Newcastle branch was active in reestablishing the Trades Hall Council which had collapsed in the 1917 General Strike. There were about 30 members who sold 15 dozen copies of the party paper The Communist.

The party suffered a severe reverse in 1922 when BHP almost totally closed down its steelworks and mines (How history repeats itself!) Many members had to leave in search of work.

Laurie recalled the party's growth during the Depression and the struggles fought out in the district, including the 1929 Lockout, the Rothbury shooting and the Tighes Hill eviction case.

'The people's furniture was put on the street and the unemployed put it back again," Laurie recalls. "Then the police started some rough stuff and put it out the second time. Wharfies and other workers heard about it and there was a general melee.

"A witness said that a dozen men were spreadeagled around the building at the time, and the reason was a police baton in every case. The police won eventually and the eviction stood".

A trial followed, held in Singleton because no Newcastle jury would have convicted, but even that didn't succeed. The prosecution dropped the case after many months of trying.

Laurie gave me a tattered notebook, 60 years old, containing pencilled notes of a CPA National Conference held at Easter 1922. Among the delegates attending were J.B. Miles, Norman Jeffrey, Hetty Weitzell, Christian Jollie-Smith, Ted Docker and Mrs Houghton.

The conference elected Harry Dcnford, later an Ironworkers union official, as secretary-treasurer and editor of the paper. Jack Howie and Hector Ross were elected as trustees, while other personalities present included Jock Garden, Tom Walsh and his wife Adela Pankhurst. The latter two later became extreme right-wingers.

Laurie Jarmson was deeply interested in marxism and in all aspects of human knowledge, growing up when scarcely a single working class child could even think of a university education. Yet he knew more than many university graduates, conducting the first CPA classes held in Newcastle.

"I've had the three volumes of Marx's Capital for over 60 years," he told me. "I often take them out and have a read and study of them. Each time you read Marx you learn something".

That could be his epitaph. Laurie never stopped thinking and learning, from people, from work, from books, from nature. Perhaps that's why he lived so long; certainly that's what kept him so alert, bright and interesting to talk to, even at 93.

Original publication

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Citation details

Laurie Aarons, 'Jarmson, Laurence Jeremiah (Laurie) (1888–1982)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


5 December, 1888
Cunningsburgh, Shetland Isles, Scotland


11 October, 1982 (aged 93)
Mackay, Queensland, Australia

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