Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Ellen Imelda (Mel) Cashman (1891–1983)

by Heather Radi

This article was published:

View Previous Version

Ellen Imelda (Mel) Cashman (1891-1983), union organiser and arbitration inspector, was born on 19 November 1891 at Gladesville, Sydney, third and youngest daughter of the four children of Irish parents Edward Cashman, hotelkeeper, and his wife Ellen, née Manning. Mel was educated by the Sisters of St Joseph at Hunters Hill, before starting work at an early age. She was employed in the trades of meat preserving, upholstery, tailoring and bag-making before moving into printing, where she worked for William Brooks & Co. Ltd and W. C. Penfold & Co. While still under 21 she was told to 'put her hair up' as she was to be made forewoman.

President (1915-17) and secretary (1917) of the Printing Trades Women and Girls’ Union, when that union amalgamated with the Printing Industry Employees’ Union of Australia, New South Wales branch, she became organising secretary of the women and girls’ advisory committee (section) on 31 March 1917, and from 1919 of the box and carton advisory committee (section). She was a member of the board of management, a federal councillor on several occasions, and regularly a delegate to the eight-hour (later six-hour) association and to Labor conferences. Appearing frequently as a witness before the Living Wage (Adult Females) inquiries, she worked on the union’s case in 1918, and served as an employee representative for the inquiries in 1919, 1926 and 1927. In the printing trade’s 44-hour-week case she appeared for the union in the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. She had a column in the union’s journals, the Printer and the Printing Trades Journal, and she helped organise a social club, which provided debating, excursions, and physical culture for women members. A fine mezzo-soprano, she also organised singing classes. She stood for the position of president of the union twice, losing narrowly in 1923 and again in 1940 despite leading on first preference votes.

Although Miss Cashman believed that men’s wages should be sufficient to support a family, she objected to the 54 per cent rate for women. She was concerned about the readiness of men to work with non-union women when they would not work with men who refused to join. Her success in organising the women led to moves from other sections of the union to limit the voting rights of the women and girls. When another attempt to do so involved the union in proceedings before the Industrial Commission in 1940, she applied for the position of Commonwealth arbitration inspector. She was one of the six inspectors appointed in August 1940 from over six hundred applicants. A confidential report said she was 'a good type, moderate, and competent'. From 1940 to 1946, she was a member of the State board of the Women’s Australian National Services, formed to mobilise and co-ordinate women’s war effort. She was reprimanded for allowing attendance at WANS daytime meetings to interfere with her work as inspector. In December 1941 she was seconded to the Department of Labour and National Service to survey conditions in the clothing industry.

In April 1942 Miss Cashman was appointed to the Women’s Employment Board, which regulated the conditions of employment for women in jobs which in peacetime were undertaken by men. After criticism by employers of her appointment as their representative, in June she was named as the Commonwealth’s representative. When there was disagreement about the rates to be paid, she voted with the majority: in the State Electricity Commission of Victoria clerks’ case she supported a rate of 85 per cent for women even though the employees’ representatives wanted 100 per cent. The Women’s Employment Board was disbanded in October 1944.

Miss Cashman’s job as an arbitration inspector involved extensive travel. In 1952, after a period in hospital, she resigned. Retirement left her with 'time on her hands' and she returned to printing on a casual basis. Short, stout, intensely vital and a great talker, she had a fund of anecdotes about her union experience, which she had greatly enjoyed. Her philosophy was summed up in her statement: 'There is a lot of good in the best of us, and it would make up for the bad in the worst of us'. She died on 11 June 1983 at Bexley and was buried in the Catholic section of the Field of Mars cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Printing Trades Journal, 8 May 1917, p 5, 17 Dec 1918, p 286, 11 Sept 1928, p 198, Aug 1983, p 83
  • Printer (Sydney), 26 Aug 1927, pp 120, 123, 31 Aug 1928, p 121, 7 June 1940, p 1, 16 Aug 1940, pp 92, 94
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Aug 1940, p 8, 18 Apr 1942, p 18
  • Smith’s Weekly, 10 Oct 1942, p 5
  • series MP239/2, item ST53/98, part 1 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Printing Industry Employees’ Union of Australia records (Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Heather Radi, 'Cashman, Ellen Imelda (Mel) (1891–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 27 February 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


19 November, 1891
Gladesville, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


11 June, 1983 (aged 91)
Bexley, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.