Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Nyhan, Carmel (1893–1962)

by Jane Timbrell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Carmel Nyhan (1893-1962), trade union organizer, was born on 8 July 1893 at Kellys Creek, Grenfell, New South Wales, fourth of at least five children of Irish-born James Nyhan, farmer, and his wife Ellen Mary, née Clifford, from Victoria. The family moved to Western Australia during Carmel's childhood. She was employed as a shop assistant at Boan Ltd's store in Perth before the Nyhans went to Sydney in the 1920s. Carmel worked as a shop assistant at Grace Bros Ltd, Broadway, then joined the staff of the Shop Assistants' and Warehouse Employees' Federation of Australia (the 'shoppies') as an office assistant. She was later promoted to organizer of women, becoming one of the first women to be thus employed by an Australian trade union, for which she worked for forty-one years. A staunch advocate of reforms for female employees, she fought for improved ventilation and lighting and roomy lunchrooms as well as for earlier closing of shops. She was elected employees' representative on the Confectioners' Wages Board in 1926.

Described as 'a fine platform speaker', Nyhan was the first woman to be president of the organizing committee of the six-hour day demonstration (1933). From October 1937 to January 1939 she ran the 'Women's Page' in the Shop Assistant, the quarterly journal of the union. The page focused on female members' engagements and weddings and department store social functions, but also addressed questions such as long shopping hours, low wages and poor employment conditions. The secretary Ernie O'Dea tightly managed the shop assistants' union, however, and individual organizers were rarely mentioned by name in publicity.

A member of the North Randwick branch of the Australian Labor Party, Nyhan was a long-serving delegate of her union to the A.L.P. State Conference and the Labor Council of New South Wales and an executive officer of the Trades Hall Association and the Labor Day Committee for thirty-five years. In addition, she was an employee representative on the New South Wales Retail Industry Conciliation Committee, which considered award applications under the Industrial Arbitration Act of 1901. She was a member of the Council of Action for Equal Pay, founded in 1937 by Muriel Heagney and others under the auspices of the State branch of the Federated Clerks' Union. The report of the C.A.E.P.'s first annual general meeting in the Shop Assistant acknowledged the political climate that made it necessary for the shop assistants' union to participate in the C.A.E.P. but demonstrated the lack of real commitment to any broad-based, progressive political action for equal pay for women.

Nyhan lived for many years at Randwick and never married. She gave her hobbies as swimming and travel, but was devoted to her work. In the course of her duties as an organizer, she was struck by a motor vehicle when crossing the Pacific Highway at Turramurra on 14 June 1962. She died that day in hospital at Hornsby from the injuries, and was buried with Catholic rites in Randwick cemetery. A plaque in the foyer of the Trades Hall, Sydney, commemorated her.

Select Bibliography

  • Labor Daily Year Book, 1933, p 173
  • Australian Women’s Weekly, 7 Oct 1933, p 3
  • Shop Assistant, Oct 1938, p 10, Aug 1962, p 4
  • Labor Daily, 13 Jan 1927, p 7
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Mar 1933, p 3, 2 Oct 1933, p 11, 23 Apr 1956, p 3
  • private information.

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Citation details

Jane Timbrell, 'Nyhan, Carmel (1893–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nyhan-carmel-13139/text23779, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 2 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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