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Wells, Harold Clyde (Bob) (1908–1996)

by Chris Cunneen

This article was published online in 2021

Harold Clyde ‘Bob’ Wells (1908–1996), carpenter, trade union leader, communist, and novelist, was born on 3 November 1908 at Cessnock, New South Wales, eldest son and second of seven children of New South Wales-born parents Albert John Stevens Wells, coalminer, and his wife Elizabeth, née Craft. Harold, who was known as Bob, attended Cessnock Public School. Intending to be an electrical engineer, he passed the Qualifying certificate examinations, but left school in 1922 to support his family, after his father was blinded in a mine accident. Initially employed as an office boy, he was then apprenticed to a builder.

As a young man, Wells was dark haired, five feet nine inches (175 cm) tall, and weighed eleven stone (70 kg). A good athlete, he played soccer, Rugby League football, cricket, and tennis. Laid off in the 1928 industrial downturn, he became close to members of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), including the secretary of its Militant Minority Movement, Bill Orr, during the fifteen-month lockout in Hunter coalmines. Back in work in 1930, he became a carpenter at Aberdare Central colliery and joined the Mining Mechanics’ Union.

Cavilled out from Aberdare Central in 1931, Wells joined the CPA, and moved to Sydney. As ‘Bob Darrell’—a name he used to avoid embarrassment to his family—he was active in the Militant Minority Movement and the Unemployed Workers’ Movement and elected to the central committee of the CPA. For a few years he was secretary of the party’s Newcastle branch. In 1936 the CPA instructed him to return to Aberdare Central, where he worked as a wagon repairer and transferred to the Australasian Coal and Shale Employees’ (Miners’) Federation. He later wrote that party leaders were grooming him for the presidency of this trade union. Active during the national miners’ strikes of 1938 and 1940 as secretary of the Cessnock Strike Committee, he attracted attention through his letters to the press, organising abilities, and forceful, clear speaking. In the December 1941 elections for the Miners’ Federation he defeated Charles Nelson and became general president.

Following Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the CPA reversed its policy and backed the Allied effort in World War II. Contrary to his prior militancy, Wells now called for ‘More Guns! More Tanks! More Planes!’; supported the prime minister, John Curtin, in the war effort; and urged miners to increase coal production and reduce stoppages. According to the historian Bob Gollan, Wells ‘harangued, cajoled, and threatened those recalcitrant members who stopped work contrary to Federation policy’ (1963, 225). He was appointed to a Federal commission of inquiry into the coal industry in late 1942. Towards the end of the war, the CPA resumed its policy of industrial militancy. Desiring non-revolutionary social reform after the war, he fell out of favour with its leadership. Having nominated for re-election as Miners’ Federation president in 1946, he discovered that he had failed to keep his union dues up to date. A ballot narrowly supported his right to stand, but he withdrew from the contest in January 1947, resigned from the federation, and was expelled from the CPA. Idris Williams won the postponed election.

Wells spent much of 1947 writing a novel about coalfields life, supported financially by his former tennis-partner from Cessnock, George Ryder. The book shared third prize in the Sydney Morning Herald novel competition in 1948, was serialised in the Sunday Herald in 1949, and published as The Earth Cries Out (1950). He attempted to join the Australian Labor Party, but was rebuffed.

‘Quiet-spoken’ and ‘serious-minded,’ Wells was ‘friendly’ yet had ‘a will of iron’ (Monson 1947, 18). On 27 January 1945 at the District Registrar’s Office, North Sydney, he had married Bettye Jean, formerly Cooke, née Hogue, a secretary; she was a divorcée with a daughter. The family moved to Newcastle and he became a successful real estate agent, took up golf, and bought a property at Speers Point, on Lake Macquarie. He was sometime secretary of the local Ratepayers’ Association and president of the Newcastle Real Estate Agents’ Association. His last years were spent at Little Mackerel Beach, on Pittwater, where he prepared his memoirs. He died on 22 January 1996 at Mona Vale and was cremated; his wife and stepdaughter survived him. Unlike other former CPA officials, he had never publicly attacked the party after his expulsion.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Comerford, Jim. ‘Death of Bob Wells.’ Common Cause 61, no. 4 (May 1996): 18
  • Common Cause. ‘The New President.’ 7, no. 3 (24 January 1942): 4
  • Gollan, Robin. The Coalminers of New South Wales: A History of the Union, 1860–1960. Parkville, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1963
  • Hasluck, Paul. The Government and the People 1942–1945. Vol. 2 of Series 4 (Civil) of Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1970
  • Huie, Jacqueline. Personal communication
  • Monson, Ronald. ‘Wells: The Miners’ Leader Who Was a Communist.’ Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 9 August 1947, 18–19
  • National Library of Australia. MS Acc12.150, Papers of Harold ‘Bob’ Wells, 1961–1995
  • Ross, Edgar. A History of the Miners’ Federation of Australia. [Sydney]: Australasian Coal and Shale Employees’ Federation, 1970

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'Wells, Harold Clyde (Bob) (1908–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wells-harold-clyde-bob-30532/text37852, published online 2021, accessed online 20 April 2021.

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