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Cluff, Florence Amy (Flo) (1902–1990)

by Danny Blackman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Florence Amy (Flo) Cluff (1902-1990), trade unionist, communist and pensioner activist, was born on 4 November 1902 at Chillagoe, Queensland, fifth of nine children of Frederick William Davis, an English-born railway carpenter, and his Victorian-born wife Florence Emma, née Nightingale. Flo attended primary schools at Chillagoe and Einasleigh, and Cairns District High School from 1917, returning home to Einasleigh in 1919 as a pupil-teacher. After her father’s death in a railway bridge accident in 1921, she left teaching to look after her mother and brothers, but within months her mother also died. Unable to return to teaching, she married Robert Dawson Kershaw, a labourer, on 29 November 1921 with Anglican rites at Einasleigh. In 1931 she went to Brisbane, where she worked in hotels to support herself and her two youngest brothers; in 1932 she and Kershaw divorced.

Moving to Sydney in 1935, Flo worked at a Pitt Street café, sometimes for thirteen or fourteen hours a day, for a weekly wage of about £2. During the Depression union membership had dropped dramatically, award conditions were seldom observed, and activists were dismissed. At meetings of the Hotel, Club, Restaurant, Caterers, Tea Rooms & Boarding House Employees’ Union of New South Wales, she met the communists Topsy Small and Vic Workman. Flo, `a friendly pretty woman with a gentle air who, in the past had been more interested in dancing than in union affairs’, returned to part-time work after the birth of her daughter and, in February 1937, joined the Communist Party of Australia. On 29 November 1940 at the registrar general’s office, Sydney, she married Geoffrey Davis, soldier, former waiter and father of her child. They later divorced.

In 1940 Flo Davis was elected to the HCRU executive. She then became an organiser, assistant secretary (1941) and secretary (1945). One of the first women elected as secretary of a union, through her leadership she radicalised the HCRU. Equal pay was achieved for women cooks in the larger hotels; later the five-day working week in the catering industry, sick leave, and weekend penalty rates for club workers were won. The HCRU endorsed the 1946 boycott of Dutch ships during the Indonesian independence struggle; supported the 1949 miners’ strike; worked with other left-wing unions in 1948 to fund a full-time country organiser; protested against encroachment on Aboriginal land for nuclear testing at Maralinga, South Australia; opposed the Menzies government’s Communist Party dissolution bill (1950) and the Korean War; and helped establish the New South Wales Peace Council in 1949. Davis stood unsuccessfully for the Senate on the Communist Party ticket in 1955 and 1958. Following absorption of the HCRU into the Federated Liquor & Allied Industries Employees’ Union of Australia, New South Wales branch, in 1961, she was assistant secretary until 1968. On her retirement she was named Woman of the Year by the Australian International Women’s Day Committee.

A delegate to the State Labor Council and the Australian Council of Trade Unions for over thirty years, Davis was also prominent in the campaign for equal pay for women. She represented the HCRU on the Council of Action for Equal Pay which Muriel Heagney had helped to establish in 1937. Davis became the council’s assistant-secretary and also served on the Labor Council equal pay committee established in 1941. As vice-president of the New South Wales section of the Union of Australian Women, she participated in a delegation attending a Women’s International Democratic Federation congress in Denmark in 1953, returning through the Soviet Union and then China, where she spent a month as a guest of the Chinese women’s movement.

Flo Davis married Eric James Richard Cluff, a retired cleaner, on 9 October 1975 at the registrar general’s office, Sydney. After travelling around Australia, they joined the Petersham group of the Combined Pensioners’ Association (of New South Wales). Mrs Cluff enjoyed the social activities, but her skills were again in demand: in 1979 she became assistant-secretary and in 1980 secretary of the State branch. She worked long days, lobbying State and Federal governments for better pensions, health and welfare services, utility rebates and transport concessions. In 1983 she led the campaign against the assets test on pensions.

Mrs Cluff was awarded the OAM in 1984. After a lifetime working for social justice, she resigned as secretary of the Combined Pensioners’ Association in 1988. Survived by her husband and her daughter, she died on 20 September 1990 at Kogarah and was buried in the independent section of Rookwood cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Johnson, Bread & Roses (1990)
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 17 Mar 1968, p 115
  • Sixty Years of Struggle, vol 1, 1980, p 35
  • Pensioners Voice, Nov-Dec 1982, p 1, Oct 1990, p 2
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Sept 1983, p 3, 16 Mar 1985, p 3, 22 Sept 1990, p 6
  • Tribune, 3 Oct 1990, p 11
  • R. Raxworthy, interview with F. Cluff (typescript, 1985, National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Danny Blackman, 'Cluff, Florence Amy (Flo) (1902–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cluff-florence-amy-flo-12330/text22149, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 15 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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