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Ferdinand Charles (Ferry) Korwill (1905–1996)

by Patsy Millett

Ferdinand Charles Korwill. Born Vienna, September 30, 1905. Died Perth, October 26, aged 91.

At the ALP State executive meeting in Perth after his death, 250 people stood in silence to honour Ferdinand "Ferry" Korwill. A remarkable individual, he was also half of a 58-year partnership that had become a West Australian institution.

The era of the Korwills began before World War II, when insular Australia cautiously began admitting European migrants who were fleeing the gathering clouds of political tyranny. That Korwill, his wife Marianne and other members of their immediate family made it to our shores from Vienna in 1938 was due to Korwill's astute and practical nature. His young wife, the headstrong daughter of wealthy Jewish engineer Oska Taussig, was not loath to confront Hitler's bullyboys with reckless contempt.

"They were camped in our country house," she would later recall. "And my summer clothes were still there in the cupboards. So I told Ferry to wait in the car and I just marched in and took them away before they gathered their wits." The Taussigs were not the sort to abandon a scene of political misfortune, but Korwill had concluded by 1937 that the jig was well and truly up for anyone of Jewish extraction. He argued the necessity for an urgent decamp. From the available options, Marianne, as one would pick a horse by form, loftily chose Western Australia. As time passed, with no reply from the relevant immigration authorities, it seemed they had left their run too late. So she asked her father, a long-time Rotarian, to pull strings with that organisation. It worked.

After handing over a thriving plumbing business to his employees, Korwill, his wife and daughter Katrin set out for a new life. The extended family who chose to ride out the storm in Europe were never seen again.

Once in Perth, Ferry set himself up again in his trade, which fortunately crossed all boundaries. But for Marianne, a cultured university girl with sophisticated tastes and political nous, Perth circa 1938 might as well have been Mars. They were "Germans" at best, "New Australians" and, once war broke out, suspect persons. With helpless outrage she saw her husband bundled into a wagon bound for Fremantle. They were humiliated and frustrated, but Ferry breathed easy in the knowledge that, unlike the evil oppressors he had left behind, the Australian authorities of the day were merely stupid.

On his release, Marianne fell into a depression, seeing herself as a castaway on a cultural desert island. Ferry came to the rescue, suggesting she visit "that nice young woman we met who you liked". And so it was that tall, courtly Ferry and charming Marianne, dressed in her Austrian dirndl skirt and bolero with the silver buttons, walked into the life of author Mary Durack, my mother. She established an instant sympatico with the Korwills, introducing them, with some selectivity, to the brighter and more amusing of her friends. The exchange of philosophies, books and endless intellectual discussion proved of great mutual benefit.

Once out of the doldrums, Marianne began to examine the available political threads with an eye to picking up where she had left off in Vienna. She leaned naturally to the Left, through youthful links to the Fabian Society, and eventually she and Ferry gave to the Labor Party their lifelong patronage and support. They were the truest of the true believers, before it became trendy to declare oneself so. While never blind, total commitment often required at least a blinkered view.

In the next four decades, as members of the ALP State executive, the Korwills were up to their eyes in the intrigues, triumphs and defeats of Labor politics. In pursuit of rightful causes, they campaigned against the Vietnam War, capital punishment and nuclear weapons, and for universal insurance, women's rights and environmental protection. Young people were fostered and promoted along the political road — some to play prominent roles in the State and federal arena.

It was hard work, with no reward other than the achievement of their vision of a better world. But there were also fun and games, the parties eagerly attended by a cultured circle and the garden art exhibitions.

Ferry was an artist, and his paintings, at first simply and joyously depicting land, sea and townscapes, grew into works with a social message. Some dealt with the plight of the unemployed, the "transparent people" without identity or shadow.

Ferry never seemed to age. When he recalled seeing, in 1916, the funeral procession of emperor Franz Joseph, listeners were reminded that he was no spring chicken. He was six years older than Marianne. But they were so central to their scene that the inevitable signals of age — an announcement that they could no longer keep up their open-house election headquarters, the conferring of lifetime Labor Party membership — came as a surprise to many.

While Australia gave them a haven, their sharp, focused European personalities gave our community a much-needed injection. Shortly before she died in March last year, Marianne, asked if she had any regrets, gave a characteristic reply: "Bob Hawke was right for the party and he gave us a long run — but oh, Bill Hayden was my boy, he was the one for me. He could have been the best prime minister we ever had."

"Aber, Marianne," said Ferry, whose devotion to his wife was never exclusive of lively argument. "I do not necessarily agree." And it is good to suppose that wherever they are, they may not necessarily be in agreement.

Ferry Korwill is survived by a daughter, Katrin, grandchildren and great-grand-children.

Original publication

Citation details

Patsy Millett, 'Korwill, Ferdinand Charles (Ferry) (1905–1996)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/korwill-ferdinand-charles-ferry-34199/text42912, accessed 20 April 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]

Birth

30 September, 1905
Vienna, Austria

Death

26 October, 1996 (aged 91)
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Passenger Ship
Occupation
Political Activism