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McNamara, Matilda Emilie Bertha (1853–1931)

by Verity Burgmann

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Matilda Emilie Bertha McNamara (1853-1931), socialist agitator, feminist and bookshop-owner, was born on 28 September 1853 at Posen, Prussia (Poland), daughter of Karl Frederick Kalkstein, civil servant, and his wife Paulina Wilhelmina, née Berndt. Economic difficulties broke up the Kalkstein home and Bertha migrated to Victoria, via England, in 1869. After six months with an uncle in Melbourne she went to Bairnsdale as governess to the children of her aunt Mrs Drevermann. There she married Peter Hermann Bredt, a 34-year-old Prussian-born accountant, on 26 February 1872 at St John's Church of England. Bertha was diminutive, with strong facial features, an aquiline nose and twinkling blue eyes. While Bredt worked as Bairnsdale's shire secretary, she reared their three surviving sons and three daughters; three children died in childhood.

Bredt's death in 1888 left Bertha with few resources; moving to Melbourne, she provided for the children by working as a travelling saleswoman, selling mainly jewellery and sewing machines. At this difficult time in her life, she turned to radical politics. In Hobart in 1891, though her English was still imperfect, she published Home Talk on Socialism, one of the earliest socialist pamphlets produced in Australia.

On 9 July 1892 she married William Henry McNamara at Collingwood Registry Office. She returned with him to Sydney, where they opened a bookshop in Castlereagh Street that became a famous gathering-point for radicals. Bertha ran a boarding house in conjunction with the shop. Practical and kind, she fed and housed many new migrants from Europe until they found employment. The back room and the reading room above the shop were scenes of almost constant activity and discussion by socialists, feminists, anarchists, rationalists, Laborites and literary Bohemians. In this milieu two of her daughters met their husbands—in 1896 Bertha married Henry Lawson and Hilda married J. T. Lang; the Langs lived with the McNamaras for a time. Bertha McNamara was herself producing a second family: a son in 1895 and a daughter in 1899.

In the 1890s Bertha was a leading member of the Social Democratic Federation of Australasia and of the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales. In 1894 she published three pamphlets: Commercialism and Distribution of the Nineteenth Century, Forgery and Workingmen's Homes. In the first she advocated a decentralized form of socialism, where working-class people would create a better society by assuming control of their immediate environment, as producers and as consumers. Only when socialism had already been built up from below would it be safe to direct the state to nationalize the means of production, distribution and exchange—Labor politicians could not be trusted.

In 1897 she campaigned vigorously for imprisoned labour-movement activists in Spain. Using the bookshop as a command centre, she organized protest meetings in the Domain, collected money for the prisoners' families and wrote angry letters to the press. During the South African War she and William faced hostile crowds when voicing their opposition. She always spoke with a pronounced German accent. She was a founder of the Labor Women's Central Organizing Committee and was a frequent delegate to State Labor Party conferences. After William died in 1906 Bertha conducted the bookshop on her own, and published more pamphlets, How to Become Rich Beyond the Dreams of Avarice (1908) and Paper Money (1910). During World War I the shop was more than ever in demand as an organizing centre for radical activity. Bertha assisted in many ways, especially by selling banned anti-militarist literature.

In 1920 Bertha McNamara wrote another pamphlet, against money-power, called Shylock Exposed. In the early 1920s she devoted much energy to the launching and support of the Labor Daily. In 1922 the bookshop was demolished, but Bertha and her son William ran two bookshops in Park and Oxford streets for four years and were back in Castlereagh Street in 1926-29. She worked relentlessly within the Labor Party, hoping to win it to the cause of socialism, and often led women's deputations to Premier Lang, her son-in-law, who reputedly was afraid of her.

One wet and cold Sunday in 1931, suffering from a severe cold, Bertha visited the Domain to confront her former friend Adela Pankhurst with her apostasy. She contracted pneumonia and died at North Sydney on 1 August 1931. Her eight children survived her. Hundreds of leading Labor, radical and literary figures attended her cremation after a Rationalist service. The Bertha McNamara Hostel was opened at Miller's Point, and a sculptured portrait plaque by Lyndon Dadswell in her honour as 'The Mother of the Labour Movement' still adorns the entrance foyer of the Sydney Trades Hall. It reads:

Kindly and gracious in her splendid way
She knew no nationhood
And her religion each and every day
Was that of doing good.

Select Bibliography

  • ALP Golden Jubilee Committee, 50 Years of Labor (Syd, 1940)
  • J. T. Lang, I Remember (Syd, 1956)
  • J. T. Lang, The Turbulent Years (Syd, 1970)
  • M. Dixson, Greater than Lenin? (Melb, 1977)
  • V. Burgmann, ‘In Our Time’ (Syd, 1985)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Aug 1931, 28 Mar 1932
  • Bulletin, 5 Aug 1931
  • Herald (Melbourne), 28 Mar 1932
  • private information.

Citation details

Verity Burgmann, 'McNamara, Matilda Emilie Bertha (1853–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcnamara-matilda-emilie-bertha-7431/text12935, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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