Inside Story

Ben Chifley’s pipe

A stalwart supporter of the Labor leader emerges from history’s shadows

Anne-Marie Condé 7 March 2024 2324 words

“As you say, good pipes are very scarce these days”: a signed photo of Ben Chifley in 1948. National Library of Australia

I once had the task of combing through a digitised file of letters to prime minister Ben Chifley held by the National Archives of Australia. Clicking away, I noticed one from a man named W.H. Reece, sent in August 1946.

“Would you please send me one of your pipes that you may have laid aside and you will not be likely to be using again,” wrote Mr Reece. “If it should be a bit strong, no matter. I know of a process that will overcome that. I have not been able to get a decent pipe for years.”

A quick glance was enough to tell me that this was not what I was looking for. But I printed the letter out for a closer look anyway. The writer was an aged pensioner, he said, twenty days short of seventy-five years, living alone in New Norfolk, Tasmania. He has raised a family of six daughters and three sons. All of the sons had served in the recent war, he added, with one still with the occupying force in Japan.

Reece had “battled for Labour” since he joined the Amalgamated Miners Union in 1889. “I started in poverty and I’m ending ditto, but I’ve no regrets and have no apologies to offer for my support of the ‘Grand Old Labour Movement.’”

If Mr Chifley were to visit Hobart during the forthcoming federal election campaign, and if Reece is spared that long, he promises to be in the audience. He is very optimistic that the Chifley government will be returned with a strong majority (it was). “I wish you and your good colleagues all the good luck that wishes can express.”

I was busy that day and so, having studied the letter for a few minutes and enjoying a giggle about the pipe thing (what was that all about?) I tossed it aside and moved on. Fortunately, the pile I tossed it into was the “do not throw out under any circumstances” pile, where it stayed until the inevitable desk clean-up late last year when, at last, Mr Reece finally had my full attention.

This is my favourite thing, the deep study of a single archival record. It could be a letter, a telegram or a bunch of postcards discovered in a junk shop. It is remarkable what can be gleaned from seemingly insignificant clues, especially now that these clues can be run through so many newly digitised sources. Becoming deeply immersed in someone else’s life, trying to see the world through their eyes, must be my form of meditation.

Why this Mr Reece though? What is it about him in particular? Partly it was his surname that guided my hand that day towards the “do not throw out” pile rather than the recycling bin. I grew up in Tasmania and I remember my parents talking about the redoubtable Eric Reece, a former long-time Labor premier known as “Electric Eric” because of his ardent support for hydroelectric projects. Surely it had to be the same family.

But mainly I was captivated by what I perceive as a yearning on Reece’s part to stay connected with the world. It’s unintentionally expressed, but it’s there. Looking back over his long life, this proud and, I think, lonely man tells of the things that most matter to him: his work, his family and the labour movement. Not only that, he also imagines Labor’s next victory even if he is not alive to see it.

And the pipe thing? Chifley made his pipe a signature accessory and was rarely seen without one, but it does seem awful cheek to expect him to simply hand one over on request. Chifley wrote back: “Dear Mr Reece, thanks for your letter… I am sorry that for the present I haven’t a suitable pipe to send you. As you say, good pipes are very scarce these days.” (Actually Chifley usually had several on hand, gifts from family and well-wishers.) “I was interested to read of your lengthy support of the Labour Movement. You must have many memories to look back on.” And he signed off with best wishes.

Reece didn’t get his pipe but I doubt he was disappointed. Pipe smoking was a companionable habit the two men shared but Reece’s request, I suspect, was just an opening gambit. It has been said of Chifley that he used the lighting of his pipe as a stalling tactic while he thought through a response to a problem. And so, preliminaries over, Reece felt perfectly free to address his prime minister as an equal, one Labor man to another, to tell his story.

The letter wasn’t really about the pipe, and — fair warning — this essay is not really about it either.

William Henry Reece (often known even in official records as Will Harry Reece) was born in 1872, and he was indeed an uncle to Eric Reece. Fortunately for me, there is a biography of Reece the younger, Jillian Koshin’s Electric Eric: The Life and Times of an Australian State Premier (2009).

Koshin’s book begins with an examination of the Reece family’s working-class origins in mining towns in the northeast and west of Tasmania. The discovery of minerals — gold, silver, copper, tin — in the 1870s brought a sudden and massive economic boom to the colony based on interstate investment, higher export income, higher wages and increased incoming migration. In his 2012 history of Tasmania, Henry Reynolds describes the 1880s as one of Tasmania’s “sunniest” decades.

Patriarch Owen Charles Reece established himself as a miner in the 1870s but was frequently on the move looking for work. Koshin is at pains to show how the wealth that enriched investors and beautified the cities rarely trickled down to the poorest folk who had laboured to produce it. Across three generations, even in so-called good times, little changed for the Reece family.

Owen and his wife Jane had fourteen children but the first three, triplets, died in infancy. Jane was thirty-eight when she died in Scottsdale hospital giving birth to twins, who also died. Owen was left a widower with nine children to raise; our man Will (“I started in poverty…”) was the eldest. A few brothers down the line was George, eventually to become the father of Eric, who was born in 1909.

The Reeces’ lives were characterised by insecure and dangerous work and the strain and expense of constantly moving from one primitive slab-and-shingle hut to another in remote and isolated settlements. Because these clusters of dwellings were expected to be temporary, authorities would rarely invest in public amenities. Close-knit families relied on one other.

Out of these struggles emerged a writer, Marie E.J. Pitt. Originally from Victoria, she was married to a miner, William Pitt, and for about a decade beginning in the 1890s went with him to mining settlements in the northeast and west of Tasmania. They had four children, one of whom died.

Scribbling by lamplight, Pitt wrote of “an austere land of mountain gorges of ice and snow, and raging torrents of creeping mist and never-ending rain.” The land spoke another language, “superb in its silence, appalling in its melancholy grandeur.” Her pen was also driven by anger. This is how she begins her poem “The Keening”:

We are the women and children
Of the men that mined for gold:
Heavy are we with sorrow,
Heavy as heart can hold;
Galled are we with injustice,
Sick to the soul of loss —
Husbands and sons and brothers
Slain for the yellow dross!

Over nine more bitter stanzas she attacks mine owners, politicians and churchmen for having averted their gaze from the misery right in front of them. “The Keening” was published in 1911, but by then the Pitts had moved to Victoria because William had contracted miner’s phthisis. He died in 1912.

Will Reece, his siblings, nieces and nephews were among those children of the men that mined for gold. All the Reece men became union men. Poetry aside, trade unionism was the practical agent of change, the structure within which to advocate for safer working conditions, better wages and political representation.

Reece was a seventeen-year-old apprentice blacksmith at the tin mine in Ringarooma when he joined the Amalgamated Miner’s Union in 1889, the year of its formation in Tasmania. For some reason, though, he broke away from the family and left the mines behind. His parents were married with Baptist rites but Will appears to have converted to Catholicism, a most unusual thing to do in those sectarian times, and certainly enough to cause a family rift.

From the late 1890s he roamed through several agricultural districts in the northeast and in 1909, at St Mary’s, he married a woman named Catherine Cannell. In 1912 they went south to New Norfolk, a town nestling in the Derwent valley thirty-five kilometres northwest of Hobart. The landscape was far kinder than anything Will Reece had known growing up, and here the family settled for good.

Literate, articulate and gregarious, Reece would join anything. He played cricket and football, would swing an axe at a local woodchopping event and was always ready to chair a meeting, MC a church fundraiser or write a letter to an editor about some local grievance. Forced in 1915 to give up blacksmithing because of an accident, he opened a photographic studio; it failed, and he was declared bankrupt in 1921.

Clearly this man had bucketloads of self-belief. He stood twice, unsuccessfully, for the municipal council and then, undeterred, turned to state politics and was a candidate for Labor in the elections of 1919, 1922, 1925 and 1928. He failed each time.

Meanwhile he became an organiser for the Australian Workers’ Union, and here he found his métier. His nephew’s biographer noticed Will Reece signing up shearers, shed-hands, miners, labourers and roadmen across the state, including in mining centres on the west coast. New heavy-industry projects provided fresh fields for the AWU, and there was Will Reece, visiting the new carbide factory at Electrona in the south and the hydroelectricity works at Waddamana in the central highlands. With regular reports (this one is typical) he made himself well-known to the readers of the AWU’s national paper, the Australian Worker.

But the 1930s brought reversals. In 1931, more than a quarter of Tasmanian trade unionists were unemployed because of the depression. All the Reece men let their union membership lapse. Will Reece returned to manual labour and in 1934, aged sixty-two, was severely injured in an explosives accident while quarrying for gravel. He sustained burns to his face and temporarily lost his sight. In 1935 his wife Catherine died suddenly, leaving him with a clutch of children and teenagers.

In 1939 Will’s fifty-year commitment to the labour cause was celebrated at a special meeting of the New Norfolk branch of the Labor Party. Local MP Jack Dwyer spoke Reece’s work to “uplift” the condition of the masses. Many of the privileges now enjoyed by the workers were due to his efforts, Dwyer noted, and the party was much indebted to him.

At about that time Will’s nephew Eric was embarking on his own (in his case spectacularly successful) political career. After failed attempts in 1940 and 1943, Eric was elected Labor member of the state House of Assembly in November 1946. He was in office as premier between 1958 and 1969, and again from 1972 to 1975, and was federal president of the Labor Party between 1952 and 1955.

His formative years had been similar to his uncle’s: he’d worked in mines and on farms from his early teens — joined the AWU at fifteen — spent most of the 1930s depression unemployed — got a job at the Mount Lyell copper mine in 1934 — was appointed organiser for the AWU there in 1935. Strangely, there does not seem to have been a strong association between uncle and nephew. In his 1946 letter to Ben Chifley, Will could have mentioned Eric as a promising youngster to keep an eye on, but he does not.

Still, Will and Eric Reece — and Ben Chifley as well, of course — were haunted by memories of hardship, and all strove for the same things: economic growth, full employment, increased standards of living, and social welfare for those who needed it.

There was nothing in Eric Reece’s makeup to prepare him for the social upheavals and cultural shifts of the 1960s and 1970s. He had grown up believing that the state’s natural resources — its water, timber and minerals — were there to be used for the common good. Famously, he rode roughshod over opposition to the hydroelectric scheme in southwest Tasmania that was to flood Lake Pedder in 1972–73.

Where some people wept at Pedder’s beauty, Eric Reece was belligerent and autocratic. In 1966 he taunted his opponents with the remark that Tasmania’s southwest contained only “a few badgers, kangaroos, wallabies, and some wildflowers that can be seen anywhere.” (Badgers? Did he mean wombats?) Tough old trade unionists like Reece knew what destitution looked like and were lit with a determination to do more than just overcome personal hardship; they were committed to structural reforms to improve the lives of all working people.

By this time, however, there had begun a great grinding of gears in progressive politics as young, idealistic, tertiary-educated people drifted away from Labor to the green movement. While this also happened elsewhere, perhaps the grinding came earlier in Tasmania.

Will Reece didn’t live to see any of this. Perhaps, as promised, he made it to Hobart in September 1946 to hear Ben Chifley’s two-hour campaign speech given to a capacity crowd at the town hall. “The whole country is prosperous,” Chifley declared that night. “That is the first ideal we have, and we go to the people on that record.”

Labor’s election loss in 1949 and Chifley’s death in 1951 must have saddened Reece. He died in 1953, with his boots on (so to speak) I hope, and his certainties still intact. •