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Charles Nelson (c. 1896–1948)

by Don Dingsdag

This article was published:

Charles Nelson (1896?-1948), coalminer and trade unionist, was born at Broxburn, West Lothian, Scotland, son of John Nelson, engineer, and his wife Annie, née Watson. Orphaned at 2, he was reared by his grandparents who indelibly impressed him with their anti-militarism. Forced to leave school at 13 and work in the mines to supplement family income, he joined the Independent Labour Party in 1911 and the Scottish Shale Miners' Association in 1913, but migrated to New South Wales next year.

Active in the 1916 anti-conscription campaign, Nelson joined the Industrial Workers of the World while working on railway construction near Mittagong. He had left the I.W.W. by 1917 and went to the coal-shale mines at Newnes, where he organized for the One Big Union. He married a widow Pauline Feltis, née Radecki, daughter of an artist, on 29 December 1919 at the Central Methodist Mission in Sydney. After campaigning with J. S. Garden and A. C. Willis for the O.B.U. in Sydney, he returned to Newnes, but suffered the first of several physical breakdowns from over-work.

After his recovery, in 1925 Nelson went to work in the State Mine at Lithgow where he became a leader of the local Militant Minority Movement, a communist front. There he ran classes on Marxism which attracted William Orr. In 1929 Nelson became president of the State Mine lodge and in 1931 was elected vice-president of the western district of the Australasian Coal and Shale Employees' (Miners') Federation. He also became prominent in the Communist Party of Australia, from which he was expelled briefly in 1932 for placing his union obligations before party loyalties. Nelson attacked the lack of initiative shown by the Miners' Federation's 'oldguard' leadership and the labour movement in general over the 1929-30 northern lock-out and stood unsuccessfully as a M.M.M. candidate for the federation's executive. However, he was resoundingly elected general president in 1934. In mid-1937 the Miners' Federation, under Nelson's guidance, served a substantial log of claims on employers with great success. A supplementary log in 1938 was rejected and in September resulted in the first general coal strike since 1916, which forced concessions.

In February 1938, after a long and involved wrangle between the Labor Council of New South Wales, J. T. Lang and several trade unions over the Labor Daily, Lang lost control of it. Nelson became a director of the newspaper and managing director in August. Next year he continued as managing director of its successor, the Daily News.

In December 1940 Nelson was appointed to the Central Reference Board, one of many instrumentalities created in wartime by successive Federal governments to quell coalfield disputes. In February 1941 he was also appointed to the Commonwealth Coal Board and from August was consultant to the Commonwealth coal commissioner, a position he resigned at the direction of the Miners' Federation. That year he was opposed by rank and file over industrial policy and was denigrated for allegedly accepting a £300 bribe to prevent industrial action. A royal commission on secret funds did not clear Nelson, but neither did it satisfactorily vindicate Attorney-General Hughes nor Prime Minister Fadden, who had ordered the payment. In December 1941 Nelson was narrowly defeated as general president by Harold Wells, another communist.

Suffering from chronic emphysema, Nelson retired to a small orchard near Gosford. Survived by his wife and two daughters, he died there on 26 May 1948 of coronary occlusion and was cremated without religious rites.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Ross, A History of the Miners' Federation of Australia (Syd, 1970)
  • Communist Review, Oct 1937
  • Common Cause, 20 May 1939
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25, 26, 27, 30 Sept, 11, 15, 16, 21, 22 Oct, 12, 13, 25, 26, 27, 29 Nov 1941, 27 May 1948
  • D. P. Dingsdag, Technological Change in N.S.W. Underground Coalmines, 1904-71 (uncompleted Ph.D. thesis, University of Wollongong)
  • Militant Minority Movement and Plebs League, Brisbane, 1927-29 (bound volume of miscellaneous publications, hand-bills and typescripts, State Library of New South Wales)
  • interview by author with Mr W. Parkinson, general president, Miners' Federation, 1955-67.

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Citation details

Don Dingsdag, 'Nelson, Charles (c. 1896–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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