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Nellie Simpson (1904–2000)

by Melanie Nolan

This article was published online in 2024

Nellie Simpson, October 1945

Nellie Simpson, October 1945

Courtesy of Nina Thomasson

Nellie Simpson (1904–2000), equal pay and peace activist, was born on 8 October 1904 at Turton, Lancashire, England, second of four children of Nina May Sidney Simpson, née Davies, and her husband Thomas Simpson, cotton spinner. The eldest daughter of a working-class family in Lancashire, the centre of Britain’s cotton industry, Nellie started working part time in the mills while she was still at school. Her family’s circumstances were dire and she suffered from harsh working conditions and poor nutrition, especially during World War I. When she turned fourteen, she began working 56-hour weeks on low wages at Tootal Broadhurst Lee Co. Ltd’s Sunnyside Mills, Bolton, where she was initiated into the trade union movement. She also joined the Independent Labour Party and the No More War Movement. From 1924, when her father and brothers were in Queensland for work, she supported her mother and sister on her wage, later securing a white-collar job at the Bolton labour exchange.

In 1928 Simpson travelled to Queensland, to join her younger brother, Keith, who had remained in Australia after her father and older brother had returned to England. She initially worked as a cook and kitchen hand at Aramac pastoral station in central Queensland, before undertaking a series of housekeeping jobs. By late 1930 she had moved to Tanby, north-east of Rockhampton, to help Keith farm pineapples and bananas. They were joined by their mother and sister who emigrated from England after their father’s death. Simpson later relocated to Sydney, where she studied shorthand and typing part time while working; first as a cook at Darling Point (1940–41) and then as a bookkeeper (1942–44). She was also a prices inspector for the Commonwealth Prices Commission (c. 1944–49). In the early 1940s she joined the Darlinghurst branch of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and met Jessie Street, for whom she campaigned when Street stood for the Federal seat of Wentworth in 1946. Street introduced her to feminist and peace circles.

Simpson gradually took on leadership roles in the labour movement. She was vice-president and secretary of the ALP Woollahra State Electorate Council and later a leading member of the State Labor Women’s Central Organising Committee (vice-president 1961, 1964). ‘Tall, greying, [and] well-spoken’ (Truth 1949, 5), with a strong Lancashire accent, she was an advocate for women’s economic rights, especially equal pay and the right of married women to work. She also supported other progressive and feminist causes, such as uniform divorce laws, sex education in schools, and abortion reform. ‘I’ve only tried to get rid of discrimination against women,’ she later explained, ‘if that makes you a feminist well I am one’ (Allan 1974, 58). Between 1949 and 1965 she made radio broadcasts on the Sydney station 2KY on a range of subjects, from inflation and overseas investment to nuclear disarmament and world peace.

In 1949 Street persuaded Simpson to join the New South Wales division of the Australian Peace Council (secretary 1949–51). By this time her factional opponents had begun referring to her as ‘Red Nell,’ although she strongly denied the APC’s activities were a front for the Communist Party of Australia. Nonetheless, in May 1950 she was expelled from the ALP for her involvement with the APC. She remained a tireless peace campaigner, and was a driving force behind the effort to collect signatures for the World Peace Council’s Stockholm Appeal, as well as being a member of the No-Conscription Council. In August 1950, after a number of left-wing organisations were barred from using the Sydney Town Hall, she and five others protested by throwing peace petitions onto the floor of the council chambers. They were arrested for offensive behaviour, but the charges were later dismissed. The stress of these years was immense, and in mid-1951 she suffered a breakdown.

After recuperating with family in Queensland, Simpson returned to Sydney and worked as a cleaner and caretaker for a tenement at Darling Point (1952–54). In 1954 she accepted a job as records officer for the State Public Service Association (PSA) and returned to the ALP as a member of the Double Bay branch. Since the early 1940s she had been a member of the Federated Clerks’ Union of Australia, although accusations of being a communist sympathiser lingered, and in 1957 she failed to win a seat on the executive. The following year, she ran unsuccessfully for preselection in the State electorate of Paddington-Waverley. She also stood for Senate preselection in 1960, on a left-wing ticket headed by Lionel Murphy, but failed after being placed last, allegedly by the ALP general secretary, Bill Colbourne. Finally, in 1963 she stood as a candidate in the Federal seat of Wentworth, but only received 23.9 per cent of the vote in a swing against Labor. She later moved to Bondi and joined the local ALP Bondi branch.

Simpson was an important branch activist and was close politically to women such as Gertrude Melville, Winifred Childs, and Delcia Kite. In 1969 she became a member of the ALP State executive on a steering committee ticket as part of a factional deal for her left-wing grouping. Four years later she retired from the PSA. Though she remained devoted to the fight to raise working people’s standard of living, she was increasingly disillusioned by the ALP’s shift away from its ‘traditional socialist objective’ (Simpson 1957, 2) and its ranking of competitive injustices, which frequently made it indifferent to Labor women’s advocacy. Always regretting that she was unable to finish her schooling, she also fiercely opposed child labour.

A determined, busy, and plain-spoken woman, with an impressive memory and can-do attitude, Simpson had many good friends and remained close with family throughout her life, especially her sister, Joan. Beside her fondness for gardens, she had a lifelong interest in news, politics, and current affairs, and never stopped writing to politicians and newspapers about issues that concerned her, earning herself a reputation as ‘an encyclopedia’ among her niece’s children. She had a particular interest in listening to classical music and attending ballet performances. Despite several health problems in her later years, particularly relating to arthritis, she made several overseas trips, including to England, Europe, New Zealand, and China. In 1987 she purchased a home in North Rockhampton where she lived until 1994, when she moved to Shalom retirement village. She died on 18 July 2000 from kidney failure at Gracemere Gardens Hostel and was cremated at Rockhampton crematorium. In the final days of her life, the State premier, Peter Beattie, awarded her a certificate of appreciation for her service to the ALP and the labour movement.

Research edited by Emily Gallagher

Select Bibliography

  • Allan, Pamela. ‘A Preliminary Sketch of the Role of Women in the N.S.W. Branch of the Australian Labor Party.’ Hons thesis, University of Sydney, 1974
  • Simpson, Nell. Letter to the editor. Sydney Morning Herald, 12 August 1957, 2
  • Simpson, Nellie. Interview by Nina Thomasson, April 2000. Private collection. Copy held on ADB file
  • Thomasson, Nina. Personal communication. Copy held on ADB file
  • Truth (Sydney). ‘A.L.P. Women Urge Sex Education.’ 1 May 1949, 5

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Melanie Nolan, 'Simpson, Nellie (1904–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2024, accessed online 24 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Nellie Simpson, October 1945

Nellie Simpson, October 1945

Courtesy of Nina Thomasson

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Nellie Simpson interviewed by her niece Nina Thomasson