Clarice Brown joined both the CPA and the Eureka Youth League (EYL) in 1944 at the age of 22 and remained a CPA member until the Party disbanded in 1991. After initially working at Brisbane Trades Hall, she worked for the Party and the EYL and took an active role in many of their campaigns. She was a lifelong activist, involved in many progressive organisations and campaigns, and a long-term member of the Union of Australian Women (UAW).
It was inevitable that Clarice would have an early exposure to the world of politics, with a father like Curley Tonkin. In 1932 he took Clarice, then aged 10, to CPA meetings at a Longreach home called “Moscow House” by the locals. She grew up with talk around the meal table about Joe Stalin, the Bolsheviks and the Great Russian Revolution. Her first job, at 15, was typist and proof-reader at the Longreach Leader newspaper for 17/6 a week. Her boss wrote that “She is not the average girl that goes into an office. She is always that step ahead, plenty of initiative and is thinking out and planning things”.
After they moved to Paddington in Brisbane, Clarice was well-loved and welcomed everyone to her circle of friends. She had various clerical jobs before starting work in 1944 at Trades Hall as a stenographer for the Storemen and Packers’ Union (SPU), then a left union with several Party members in top positions. Clarice joined both the CPA and the EYL on 10 October, 1944, at the age of 22. She later wrote that she joined them both during the war years as she wanted to see a better life for young people and help defeat the fascist threat, and she “never regretted joining either organisation!”
During the war years, the young CPA women working at Trades Hall, known as ‘the Party girls’ (a different meaning then to what it would mean now), were very active raising money to send books, tobacco and food parcels to servicemen.
Along with comrades Babs Godbold and Olive Ling, Clarice represented the Brisbane Party at a Women’s Conference in Sydney, where speeches by Jessie Street and Katharine Susannah Prichard made an indelible impact on her.
In 1945, at a Clerks’ Union meeting, Clarice met Ron Brown, a union functionary doing publicity work and assisting Fred Paterson, the communist State member for Bowen. Clarice and Ron married, and she hoped to continue working in the union office as Ron’s wage was low, but they found out to their cost that old-fashioned and sexist views were held not only by right-wing unions. The supposedly left-wing SPU sacked Clarice because its leadership, which included some communist officials, was opposed to married women working.
Clarice Brown aged 68 marching with the Communist Party of Australia contingent at the 1991 May Day march in Brisbane
After she left Trades Hall, Clarice became even more involved with the Party and worked for a time at the CPA State office in Heindorff House with comrades Claude Jones, Doug Olive and Albert Robinson. She then moved to work at the Party’s Wartime Welfare Office in Edward St, joining comrades Collie Rolleson, Babs Godbold and Eva Bacon who “were doing a mighty job keeping in contact with hundreds of [Party] servicemen during the war years”.
During the post-war housing shortage Clarice, with Laura Hansen and comrades Ron Haas, Mavis Tippett and Alma Hubbard, led the Party initiative to encourage homeless families to squat at the army barracks in Victoria Park – the famous “Haas for Houses” campaign.
When the war ended, the bosses went on the offensive against the workers who had done so much to maintain production during wartime. 1946 saw the major meat strike, followed by the 13-week Queensland rail strike in 1948. Looking back in 1980, Clarice said that she and Ron would never forget that meat strike:
Being “pure”, we swore off meat and went on to a solid diet of rabbits. We tasted rabbit every way it could be cooked and some ways it couldn’t. However, our love affair with rabbits came to an end (fortunately at the end of the meat strike) when we bought a bad one from Coles. We haven’t tackled rabbit since.
During the rail strike, EYL members were very active, distributing thousands of leaflets and selling the Party and EYL papers. Together with many older comrades, they would get up at dawn to get out onto the picket lines. Clarice remembered:
"As police viciousness increased during the strike, so did police brutality against those, particularly the women, on the picket lines. Some big demons made a speciality of kicking we women on the ankles as they would walk by. They called us all types of filthy names and often we would have to limp home with badly bruised ankles and shin bones."
The violence culminated in the bashing of Fred Paterson in front of Trades Hall on St Patrick’s Day 1948. Fred was the first Australian communist ever to be elected to parliament and Ron was very proud to be his parliamentary secretary. Between 1946-48 “it seemed at times as if Trades Hall had been permanently surrounded by police”.
Clarice Brown, aged 24, marching with the Eureka Youth League at the Brisbane 1946 May Day March
Before leaving for Darwin in 1949, Clarice worked for the EYL, then quite a big organisation with strong links to the union movement. With some union assistance, EYL members organised several well-attended inquiries into youth working conditions, which were instrumental in winning daylight training for apprentices, significant wage increases for young workers and, in some industries, adult wage rates at the age of 19. The national EYL paper Youth Voice, was used to great effect in that campaign; EYL members would stand on one street corner selling the paper while the reactionary Young Christian Workers would be selling theirs on the opposite corner. The young EYL women were particularly successful at this; they were prominent in all EYL activities and were equally represented in its leadership.
In 1949 Ron and Clarice moved to Darwin, where Ron edited the North Australian Workers Union (NAWU) paper, the Northern Standard. Clarice joined the newly formed Housewives’ Association, later called the Union of Australian Women (UAW), which took up the struggle around the exorbitant price of milk imported from the south by ship or overland, and flour so old it contained weevils. In 1951, when the Dean of Canterbury, Dr Hewlett Johnson (the “Red Dean”) visited Darwin, he was enthusiastically welcomed by progressive organisations including the UAW. Clarice got the job of pressing his clothes for the gathering!
Clarice Brown aged 27, with Darwin Housewives Association banners, Darwin, 1949
When the Industrial Groupers looked like winning the NAWU elections, Ron indicated that he wouldn’t run Grouper policy in the paper. He and Clarice had been living in a house owned by the union and, recognising that a Grouper victory was inevitable, they took action before the result was declared. “We did one of the fastest shifts we ever had to do…half the Darwin waterfront helped us shift and we were newly installed in about two hours at another house at Fannie Bay.” When the election was declared, Ron was given five minutes’ notice of dismissal and told to leave the Territory immediately. Despite a black ban against him, he got a gardening job at the Darwin Botanical Gardens, which supported them for six months until they returned to Brisbane in 1952.
For nearly 60 years Clarice’s life revolved around the Fortitude Valley area, going to activities at the UAW rooms in Ann Street, meetings at Dot Rass and Bill Sutton’s house in Wren Street, or the Party building in St Paul’s Terrace. She walked everywhere.
Paul Robeson’s 1965 visit to Brisbane was a great highlight. Robeson sang to a capacity crowd at the old Stadium in the city, a truly inspiring experience for Clarice and the many other comrades in the audience.
Clarice had re-joined the UAW on her return to Brisbane and, with UAW comrades, demonstrated in 1969 against the Vietnam war and in 1971 against the Springboks tour.
After Ron’s death in 1974 she found comfort and purpose in the comradeship of her many friends in the UAW, the Party, the unions and the peace movement. She took part in the 1984-85 struggle when the South East Queensland Electricity Board (SEQEB) workers stopped work during the Bjelke-Petersen reign. She was an ever-reliable presence with her brightly coloured umbrella at marches for May Day, Hiroshima Day, the Palm Sunday Rally, International Women’s Day and events for People for Nuclear Disarmament, Children by Choice and Abortion Law Reform. Clarice was involved in the Grass Roots organisation with her dear friend, Norma Nord, and also the Rally for Peace and Just Peace. She was always seen making tea at functions but it was far from the case that this was her only contribution!
Clarice became one of the SEARCH Foundation’s first members and continued her involvement with social and political causes right up to 2008. In failing health, she then moved to the Moreton Bay Nursing Care Unit at Wynnum, the final home of quite a few of her old mates, including Stella Nord, Bert Nord and Allie Elder, where she died on 7 October, 2012. Her last words to her niece, Juleen, were “Always remember me!”
Juleen Clarke is Clarice’s niece. She joined the EYL in Brisbane and then the CPA. She and her family lived for a time in New Zealand. She then moved to the UK where she was a Communist Party candidate in local government elections in the 1970s. She now lives in Brisbane.
Brown, Clarice, Unpublished reminiscences, Brisbane 24 July 1980.
Clarke, Juleen, Personal and family reminiscences, June 2020.