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Palmer, Helen Gwynneth (1917–1979)

by Robin Gollan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Helen Gwynneth Palmer (1917-1979), by Lina Bryans, 1969

Helen Gwynneth Palmer (1917-1979), by Lina Bryans, 1969

National Library of Australia

Helen Gwynneth Palmer (1917-1979), educationist, was born on 9 May 1917 at Kew, Melbourne, younger daughter of Edward Vivian ('Vance') Palmer and his wife Janet (Nettie) Gertrude, née Higgins, both Australian-born writers. Helen attended Presbyterian Ladies' College (dux 1934) and won a scholarship to the University of Melbourne (B.A. Hons, 1939; B.Ed., 1952), where she co-edited and wrote for Melbourne University Magazine. From 1940 she taught in state schools, first at Port Fairy and then at Terang. On 18 February 1942 she joined the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force. She served mainly in Melbourne, at the School of Administration and Air Force Headquarters. Rising to flight officer, she took charge of educational services for W.A.A.A.F. personnel. After being placed on the Retired List on 16 October 1946, she worked in Sydney, briefly for Edwards & Shaw, publishers, and later in the Commonwealth Office of Education. Returning to Melbourne in 1948, she taught in private schools and completed her second degree. In 1952 she joined the New South Wales Department of Education as a casual teacher.

Skilful and creative, Palmer was greatly appreciated by her students. With her friend Jessie Macleod, she wrote a number of books: the two most important were The First Hundred Years (London, 1954) and After the First Hundred Years (Melbourne, 1961). While academic historians were still talking about the importance of social history she was writing it. Her books emphasized 'the elements of the everyday lives of ordinary people'. Readable and informative, they appealed both to children and adults.

An active member of the N.S.W. Teachers' Federation, Palmer made significant contributions to campaigns for equal pay and improved working conditions. She saw that, for education to continue throughout life, there needed to be an adequate foundation in the instruction of children at the primary and secondary levels, which could only be provided by a strong public-school system. Although she had attended a church school herself, she defended secular and humanist education, believing that teaching which was not directed towards encouraging inquiry was simply indoctrination. 'Human relations', she wrote, 'will fare better in the hands of adults who have read Pride and Prejudice, Cry the Beloved Country, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony and Catcher in the Rye than of those whose acquisition of literacy has been interrupted by talks of ''life-adjustment" and ''how to get on with people"'.

Palmer belonged to the generation which had grown up during the Depression and the slide to war in 1939. She accepted the Marxist view that the economic malaise and the emergence of Nazism were features of a general crisis in world capitalism. Convinced of a socialist alternative, she had joined the Communist Party of Australia while a student and remained a member for two decades. Despite the atmosphere of the Korean War and the opposition of the Australian government, she attended the Peace Conference of the Asian and Pacific Regions, held in Peking (Beijing) in 1952. In a small book, Australian Teacher in China (Sydney, c.1953), she wrote warmly about the changes for the better which she thought were taking place in post-revolutionary China. On her return, the Department of Education refused to re-employ her for eighteen months; in 1955 she was appointed a temporary teacher of French and general studies at Fort Street Girls' High School (Fort Street High from 1975).

Her enthusiasm for communism in China was balanced by a growing disillusionment with the Soviet Union. It came to a head with the publication in 1956 of Nikita Khrushchev's secret speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. For Palmer, who believed that socialism should lead to the freeing of the human spirit, this was the moment of truth. The leadership of the C.P.A. declared the speech a forgery and banned any discussion of it.

In the two years following the secret speech and the Soviet invasion of Hungary there was a mass exodus from the party by expulsion and resignation. Palmer was expelled after announcing her intention to publish material designed to open up discussion on socialist issues. For her, the discovery of the evils of Soviet communism did not remove the evils of capitalism. In mid-1957, with the support of an editorial board, she began the publication of Outlook, an independent socialist journal. From its earliest issues Outlook carried articles on the social conditions that were generating revolutionary upheavals in underdeveloped countries. In the complex anti-war movement led by peace groups, students, radicals and civil libertarians, Outlook was one of the voices of protest. Palmer did the detailed work of editor, as well as achieving the consensus of an editorial board comprising people with a wide range of specialized knowledge.

An active member of the Sydney committee of the South African Defence and Aid Fund, Palmer was the object of a scurrilous attack during a committee-meeting in 1963. Although she had been publicly expelled from the Communist Party, she was required to state whether she was a communist. As a matter of principle she refused, and was expelled by the committee, which was itself split by the issue.

From the age of 11 Palmer was an occasional poet. 'The Ballad of 1891', which she wrote (1951) in collaboration with Doreen Bridges (who composed the music), celebrated the struggle of Queensland shearers against the pastoralists and the government. It has become an important part of Australian folklore, albeit often mistakenly assumed to be anonymous and to date from the time of the shearers' strike.

A sturdy woman of middle height, Palmer had green eyes and dark hair. Her brisk and efficient manner belied her warmth, humour and sensitivity. She died of cancer on 6 May 1979 in the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, North Sydney, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Bridges (ed), Helen Palmer's Outlook (Syd, 1982)
  • H. Radi (ed), 200 Australian Women (Syd, 1988)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 Oct 1966
  • ASIO, A6119/XR, item 178 (National Archives of Australia)
  • teachers' records, Dept of Education (New South Wales) archives
  • V., N., A. and H. Palmer papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Robin Gollan, 'Palmer, Helen Gwynneth (1917–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/palmer-helen-gwynneth-11333/text20237, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 31 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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