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Frederick Woolnough (Fred) Paterson (1897–1977)

by Diane Menghetti

This article was published:

Frederick Woolnough (Fred) Paterson (1897-1977), barrister and politician, was born on 13 June 1897 at Gladstone, Queensland, sixth of eleven children of William Hunter Paterson, a Scottish-born boardinghouse-keeper, and his wife Edith, née Jeffery, a trained nurse who came from England. Fred attended Gladstone State School, Rockhampton Grammar School (on a bursary) and Brisbane Grammar School. He won the T. J. Byrnes medal (1913) for coming top in the State in the junior public examinations and an open scholarship to the University of Queensland (B.A., 1920), where he read classics and boarded at St John's College. At school and university he proved a successful athlete and Rugby Union footballer; he served in the cadets and in the Militia. A devout Anglican, he hoped to be ordained after his graduation.

On 7 January 1918 Paterson suspended his course and enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. He was undergoing training in England when World War I ended. Returning to Brisbane, he was discharged from the A.I.F. on 18 May 1919. His army service had made him a radical and, when he resumed his university studies in June, he became involved in student politics. In early 1920 he took up a Rhodes scholarship (which he had been awarded in 1918) to read theology at Merton College, Oxford (B.A., 1922). Back in Brisbane, in 1923 he joined both the Australian Labor Party and the Communist Party of Australia. He took a job as a schoolteacher, and was also vice-warden of St John's. On 11 April 1924 at St Philip's Anglican Church, Thompson Estate, he married Lucy Ethel Blackman; they were to remain childless and to be divorced in September 1931.

From 1925 Paterson worked on the family pig-farm at Gladstone. That year the Queensland branch of the A.L.P. introduced an anti-communist pledge. Although Paterson resigned from the C.P.A., the Queensland central executive of the A.L.P. overruled his pre-selection as Labor candidate for the Legislative Assembly seat of Port Curtis. He contested two State elections (Port Curtis in 1926 and Paddington in 1929) as an Independent. A member (April 1927-November 1928) of the Gladstone Town Council, he was deputy-mayor and chairman of the finance committee; he supported striking railwaymen and waterside workers.

Paterson enrolled to study for the Barristers' Board examinations and moved to Brisbane in 1928. He bought a piggery near Caboolture in 1929, but the Depression forced him to abandon his farm. In January 1930 he rejoined the C.P.A. and was arrested for making an allegedly seditious speech in the Brisbane Domain. Shortly afterwards, he failed a Bar examination; when he failed two further attempts, he made it known that he would publish his next set of answers in Smith's Weekly. He was admitted to the Bar on 18 March 1931 and began practising in offices shared with the Friends of the Soviet Union. At Yerongpilly on 30 March 1932 he married, with the forms of the Churches of Christ, Kathleen Claire, a 23-year-old typist.

In December 1932 Paterson moved to Townsville where he built up a substantial, though not lucrative, criminal practice. His ingenious defence arguments entered the mythology of the left in North Queensland. From May 1937 he edited the communist newspaper, North Queensland Guardian. In 1939-44 he was an active and popular alderman of Townsville City Council. He contested Federal and State elections on every possible occasion, and, when he won the State seat of Bowen on 15 April 1944, became the first communist in Australia to be elected to parliament. On 23 August he delivered his maiden speech, in which he presented a vision of his country free from hunger and poverty. His debating style was calm and courteous, and he scorned interjections. Although he lived in Brisbane from 1944, he worked tirelessly in his electorate which returned him to parliament in 1947.

During the railway strike in 1948, the Queensland parliament passed the Industrial Law Amendment Act. It gave the state sweeping powers to intervene in strikes and to prevent picketing. In introducing the legislation, the Labor premier E. M. Hanlon described it as the 'Paterson Bill' because one of its aims was to counteract picketing techniques devised by the member for Bowen. On 17 March Paterson was on his way to court to defend some of the railwaymen when he stopped to write notes on the behaviour of police involved in breaking up a procession in Edward Street. Struck by a policeman's baton, he was knocked unconscious and rushed to hospital. Paterson was absent from parliament for three months. His wife believed that the bashing 'accentuated' his asthma; his own view was that his efficiency was 'diminished'. The redistribution of the Bowen electorate in 1949 split his power base. In 1950 he failed to win the seat of Whitsunday. He stood unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1951.

In 1952 Paterson shifted to Sydney. Lacking a parliamentary pension, he developed a practice in industrial law. He appeared in the High Court of Australia in 1950-51 for the C.P.A. in its challenge to the validity of the Communist Party Dissolution Act (1950), and before a Sydney magistrate in 1953 for Adam Ogston in the Communist Review sedition case. In 1961 the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement retained him to represent two Aborigines at a magisterial inquiry into their mistreatment at Hopevale mission, Cooktown, Queensland. After suffering a coronary occlusion that year, he retired, and eventually lived on an old-age pension.

An idealist and an individualist who rarely compromised his personal beliefs—despite considerable pressure from the left as well as the right—Paterson frequently clashed with leaders of the C.P.A. and took little interest in the party's hierarchy. He was about 5 ft 9 ins (175 cm) tall and slightly built; his features seemed too large for his finely boned face. Quietly spoken, frugal and abstemious, he enjoyed football and gardening, and had a robust sense of humour. While there is no indication that he ever regained his religious faith, he sent his children regularly to Sunday School. Survived by his wife and their two sons, he died on 7 October 1977 in the Repatriation General Hospital, Concord, Sydney, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Menghetti, The Red North (Townsville, 1981)
  • E. O'Neill, Popular Front (Brisb, 1988)
  • Brisbane Labour History Association, Fred Paterson (Brisb, 1994)
  • R. Fitzgerald, The People's Champion, Fred Paterson (Brisb, 1997)
  • Australian Left Review, Aug-Sept 1966
  • A. E. Jones, Electoral Support for the Communist Party in North Queensland: A Study of F. W. Paterson's Victory in Bowen, 1944 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1972)
  • ABC TV documentary, The Legend of Fred Paterson (Crow Films, 1996).

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Citation details

Diane Menghetti, 'Paterson, Frederick Woolnough (Fred) (1897–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 14 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


13 June, 1897
Gladstone, Queensland, Australia


7 October, 1977 (aged 80)
Concord, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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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.

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