Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ross, Hedwig (Hettie) (1900–1971)

by Martin Sullivan

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

Hedwig (Hettie) Ross (1900-1971), teacher and socialist, was born on 17 September 1900, at Palmerston North, New Zealand, daughter of German-born settlers Friedrich Gustav Weitzel (d.1917), a brass-founder later farmer, and his wife Maria, née Benninghoven; three children had been born in Sydney in 1888-91. By 1912 the family had moved to Wellington. Hettie attended Wellington Girls' College from 1914 and then Victoria University College (B.A., N.Z., 1920), where she 'was a wonderfully brilliant student' according to the future prime minister Peter Fraser. She majored in Latin, English and philosophy.

Weitzel enrolled at Wellington Training College in 1921. That year she joined the Socialist Party and subsequently was a founding member of the Communist Party of New Zealand. In these circles she met Fintan Patrick Walsh (born Patrick Tuohy), a handsome seaman and firebrand atheist influenced by the Industrial Workers of the World, who probably became her lover. On 19 August 1921 Weitzel was convicted and fined for selling seditious literature — the Communist, an Australian newspaper—and consequently was dismissed from the training college. That year Hettie's mother and two siblings migrated to the United States of America.

Experiencing difficulty in obtaining a passport to join them, in February 1922 Weitzel moved to Sydney — which she described as 'this rotten city' — where she immersed herself in the Communist Party of Australia, edited a broadsheet, the Young Communist (which lasted for nine issues), and spoke at and chaired meetings in the Domain on Sundays and in Bathurst Street on Friday and Sunday evenings. She also taught at a Communist Sunday school that drew the hostility of the minister for justice T. J. Ley. Despite her retaliation in the Communist, from February 1923 the Department of Public Instruction employed her at Bondi Domestic Public School before she was transferred to Maitland West Girls' High School. She married Hector Ross, builders' labourer, another Communist Sunday school teacher, in the Paddington registry office in Sydney on 15 December 1923. Nonetheless, she started the new school year at Newcastle, where she stayed until her transfer to Gladesville Public School in September 1925. She gained a diploma of education in 1926 at the University of Sydney. In the summer of 1924-25 she and Hector went to New Zealand to help to reorganize the ailing local communist party.

During her first decade in Australia Hettie was on the central committee of the C.P.A., responsible for the party's women's committee. She edited the Working Woman (Women Today) and, during the absence of Hector in the Soviet Union, edited (in his stead) the Workers Weekly, the official organ of the party. In 1926 when the C.P.A. felt the need for a separate women's association, Hettie was the acknowledged leader of the Militant Women's Group and was most responsible for the pamphlets Hands off China (1927) and Women's Path to Freedom. 'The Rosses are heroes', Esmonde Higgins wrote to Harry Pollitt in England.

After nearly three years at Canterbury Domestic Public School in Sydney, Hettie resigned in April 1928. She did not return to teaching until she was employed at Cleveland Street Boys' Intermediate High School in August 1929 whence she was transferred to the Cowra Intermediate School in central western New South Wales. Her marriage was childless and ended in divorce in 1931. That year at a special meeting of the Cowra Parents and Citizens' Association, she was one of two teachers charged with being closely identified with communism. Amid the subsequent clamour she was transferred to North Sydney Intermediate High School. The recently formed Educational Workers' League supported her cause and she subsequently became one of the league's active members and a close associate of S. P. Lewis.

Hettie taught at various schools in Sydney and maintained her membership of the C.P.A., but her time was increasingly committed to the Women Assistant Teachers' Association within the New South Wales Teachers' Federation. She was 'for ever at Federation House, not only to attend endless meetings, but to put the cases of those people who thought they had been unfairly treated'. During the Depression she led campaigns against salary reductions and the Married Women's Dismissal Act and chaired the Equal Pay Committee from 1936. For twelve years she represented the W.A.T.A. on the federation's council and was the council's delegate to the Labor Council of New South Wales; for ten years she was on the executive of the Teachers' Federation and for seven years she was a vice-president. She retired in 1956. That year Ross began corresponding with the New Zealand poet and Chinese resident Rewi Alley. In 1957 she visited China.

Described by Audrey Johnson as a 'Jenny Wren with sparkling eyes', Hettie Ross battled Parkinson's disease in the last years of her life. She died on 26 October 1971 at Mortdale, Sydney, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 4 (Auckland, NZ)
  • G. Phelan, Women in Action in the Federation (Syd, 1981)
  • A. Johnson, Bread & Roses (Syd, 1990)
  • C. Macdonald et al (eds), The Book of New Zealand Women (Wellington, NZ, 1991)
  • G. Hunt, Black Prince (Auckland, NZ, 2004)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New Zealand), 1921, vol 191, 28 Oct 1921, p 953
  • Australian Studies, no 17, Apr 1992, p 25
  • M. Sullivan, ‘Hetty Ross Formerly Hedwig Weitzel’, Hecate, 22, no 1, 1996, p 127
  • Conrad Bollinger papers, folder 442, MS-Papers-2151(National Library of New Zealand)
  • Rewi Alley papers, outwards correspondence, Read–Ross, MS-Papers-6533, items 244 & 250 (National Library of New Zealand)
  • A402, item W286, A6119, item 269, A8911, item 172 (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Martin Sullivan, 'Ross, Hedwig (Hettie) (1900–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ross-hedwig-hettie-13176/text23851, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 23 August 2014.

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

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