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Edward Charles (Ted) Roach (1909–1997)

by Rowan Cahill

This article was published online in 2021

Ted Roach, by Phil Ward Studios, n.d.

Ted Roach, by Phil Ward Studios, n.d.

Australian National University Archives, 1885/48131

Edward Charles ‘Ted’ Roach (1909–1997), waterside worker, trade unionist, and communist, was born on 24 September 1909 at Coledale, New South Wales, second of seven surviving children of New South Wales-born parents Matthew Roach, miner, and his wife Blanche, née Kelly. The family moved to Newcastle following the victimisation of Matthew for his participation in the 1917 general strike. Ted left school at the age of thirteen and worked in a fruit-carting business started by his father. When this enterprise ceased to be viable, he went on the road as a dole recipient and itinerant worker.

From 1928 to 1931 Roach developed political and organisational skills in northern New South Wales, and on the cane fields of northern Queensland. In 1931 in Mackay he joined the Communist Party of Australia, and he became local secretary of the Unemployed Workers’ Movement. Returning to Newcastle, he engaged in CPA work, spreading trade unionism and party influence, and again was district secretary of the UWM as well as of the Militant Minority Movement. In 1934 he became a waterside worker and joined the Waterside Workers’ Federation (WWF). Transferring to Port Kembla in 1936, he campaigned against what he considered to be the harsh and primitive working conditions on the local waterfront. He also led ‘wharfies’ (as they were known) in the development of strong community links and involvement, for example helping out in times of bushfire emergencies. On 28 April 1936 he married Olive Elizabeth ‘Wyck’ Hicks, a laundress, at the District Registrar Office, Glebe, Sydney.

In March 1938 Roach was elected secretary of the South Coast branch of the WWF. Among other improvements, he fought for the introduction of a roster system in place of the ‘bull’ system, under which the workers were selected for jobs each day. That November, despite opposition by his union’s national leadership, he led his members in placing a ban on loading a pig-iron shipment bound for Japan in the SS Dalfram. He argued that the metal could be used for munitions in Japan’s war of aggression in China and in any future conflict with Australia. The ten-weeks-long ban became a major national political and industrial issue, and drew international attention.

Elected assistant general secretary of the Federal WWF in 1942, Roach held that office until 1967. Popular amongst the rank and file, he spent a lot of time in the many branches of the WWF implementing union policies and solving local industrial problems. He was instrumental in bringing the Permanent and Casual Wharf Labourers’ Union, formed in 1917, back into the WWF. With a preference for direct action, he was often at odds with the pragmatism and egos of fellow communists in the WWF leadership. During his incumbency, he served two prison terms, both for contempt of court. The longest, nine months and eighteen days in 1951, was essentially served in solitary confinement at Long Bay gaol. From 1946 to 1949, he was a leader of the bans by Australian trade unions preventing vital Dutch shipping and strategic supplies leaving Australia during the Indonesian independence struggle.

Roach ‘was … a representative of the Industrial Workers of the World strand in the early days of the Party’ and ‘his energies were devoted to job rank and file organisation and militant industrial action’ (Louis, pers. comm.). After leaving office, he returned to the waterfront as a rank-and-file worker and unionist. Following retirement, he assisted interested researchers, spoke at historical and political conferences, and enjoyed billiards, gardening, and brewing his own beer. Denis Kevans described him as ‘a natural general’ whose ‘peals of laughter … seemed to conquer all difficulties’ (1997, 13). He died on 25 February 1997 at Bankstown, survived by his two daughters, and was cremated; his wife had predeceased him by three weeks.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Griffith, Garry. ‘Ted Roach (1909–1997).’ Labour History, no. 72 (May 1997): 245–48
  • Kevans, Denis. ‘Unionist Beat Menzies Over Pig-Iron.’ Australian, 6 March 1997, 13
  • Lingard, Jan. Refugees and Rebels: Indonesian Exiles in Wartime Australia. North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2008
  • Lockwood, Rupert. Black Armada. Sydney South: Australasian Book Society, 1975
  • Lockwood, Rupert. War on the Waterfront: Menzies, Japan and the Pig-Iron Dispute. Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1987
  • Louis, L. J. ‘The Cold/Class War, and the Jailing of Ted Roach.’ Labour History, no. 86 (May 2004): 157–72
  • Louis, Les. Personal communication
  • Mallory, Greg. ‘Ted Roach (1909–1997): Militant Wharfie, Leader of the “Pig Iron Bob” Dispute.’ Hummer 2, no. 8 (Winter 1997). Copy held on ADB file
  • Mallory, Greg. Uncharted Waters: Social Responsibility in Australian Trade Unions. Brisbane: Greg Mallory, 2005
  • Roach, E. C. ‘Menzies and Pig Iron for Japan.’ Illawarra Unity 1, no. 1 (1996): 25–34
  • Roach, Edward C. ‘The Ted Roach Papers: Highlights Connected with the Trade Union Activities of E. C. Roach.’ Illawarra Unity 1, no. 2 (June 1997): 16–29
  • Roach, Ted. Interview by Stephen Rapley, 2 February 1988. Transcript. NSW Bicentennial Oral History Collection. AU NBAC N235-5, Ted Roach Papers, Noel Butlin Archives Centre, Australian National University

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Rowan Cahill, 'Roach, Edward Charles (Ted) (1909–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2021, accessed online 18 July 2024.

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