Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Shelley, Cecelia Moore (1893–1986)

by Linley Batterham

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Cecelia Moore Shelley (1893-1986), trade unionist, was born on 3 February 1893 at Norwood, Adelaide, sixth of nine children of Francis Peter Sheehy, brewery worker, and his wife Honora, née O’Callaghan.  Her father lost his job after protesting for better wages and working conditions.  Moving his family to Esperance, Western Australia, in 1897, then to Kalgoorlie, he changed the family’s surname from the Irish 'Sheehy' to the English 'Shelley'.  He started a cordial business which failed, and again took employment in a brewery.  Honora struggled on his meagre wage to provide for the children.

Cecelia attended St Joseph’s Convent School, Boulder, leaving at 14.  Her first job was as a kitchen maid in a boarding-house near her home.  Her second, as a live-in maid for a family in Perth, gave her first-hand experience of the tough working conditions experienced by many unskilled women.  When her employer refused to pay her she went to a lawyer for assistance.  She moved frequently from one job to another in the hotel and catering industry and, while working at a tearoom in central Perth, participated in a protest over the lack of a tea break.  Soon after, encouraged by her father, she joined the Hotel, Club, Caterers, Tearooms & Restaurants Employees’ Industrial Union of Workers.  Within two years she was elected organiser and in 1920 became paid secretary.  She led three strikes in 1919, 1921 and 1925; the union became known as 'Miss Shelley’s Union'.  Despite her dainty physique, she gained a reputation for toughness which, together with her fiery personality, struck fear in many employers and male union leaders, who dubbed her 'the Tigress of Trades Hall'.

Shelley was an active member of the Western Australian Organisation of Labor Women and the Australian Labor Party.  In 1924 she unsuccessfully nominated for vice-president of the ALP State executive and for preselection for the Senate.  She was influenced by her father, a keen unionist, and George Ryce and Katharine Susannah Prichard, both members of the Communist Party of Australia.  Her association with the Communist Party, her refusal to obey directives from the State executive of the ALP and her public criticism of the party led to her expulsion from both Labor bodies in 1925.  She was re-admitted in 1929.

On 17 April 1935 at the Perth district registrar’s office Shelley married Robert Jack Boniface, a clerk.  They had no children and were to be divorced in 1957.  Together they worked for the union which by 1950 supervised fifteen awards.  Membership peaked at 2600 in 1965.  Shelley’s last years as secretary provided some of her greatest battles as she fought to retain control of the union; she eventually lost her position at an election in 1968.

Shelley had a genuine concern for the oppressed, particularly women.  With Prichard she helped to found the Unemployed Girls and Women’s Defence Committee (1932), the International Women’s Day Committee (1936) and the Modern Women’s Club (1938); she also supported the long-running equal pay and equal opportunity campaigns.  In 1979 she was made a life member of the Trades and Labour Council of Western Australia.  She died on 6 May 1986 at Warwick and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Carter, Nothing to Spare (1981)
  • B. Oliver, Unity is Strength (2003)
  • Studies in Western Australian History, no 7, December 1983, p 33
  • L. Batterham, 'Cecilia M. Shelley', Papers in Labour History, no 14, November 1994, p 30
  • West Australian, 12 May 1986, p 45
  • C. Puls, taped interview with C. Shelley (1976, State Library of Western Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Linley Batterham, 'Shelley, Cecelia Moore (1893–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/shelley-cecelia-moore-15414/text26622, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Boniface, Cecelia Moore
Birth

3 February 1893
Norwood, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Death

6 May 1986
Warwick, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation