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Williams, Idris (1895–1960)

by Phillip Deery

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Idris Williams (1895-1960), coalminer and trade unionist, was born on 21 June 1895 at Mountain Ash, Glamorgan, Wales, son of David Williams, miner, and his wife Elizabeth, née Morgan. In the class-conscious Welsh mining valleys, Idris entered the pits aged 13 and began his lifelong involvement with unionism by joining the committee of the Powell Duffryn miners' lodge. He served in France with the Royal Field Artillery in World War I and lost his right leg in the battle of the Somme (1916). Disillusioned with the 'land fit for heroes', he left for Australia in 1920.

Soon after his arrival, Williams began mining black coal at Wonthaggi, Victoria. He became deeply involved in the cultural and sporting life of the town as a leading choral singer, conductor of the brass band, chairman of the miners' union theatre and secretary of the East Wonthaggi football club. His role in the historic five-month coal strike of 1934 was significant. As vice-president of the Victorian district of the Miners' Federation and a prominent member of the Minority Movement (an auxiliary of the Communist Party of Australia), he helped to pioneer new strike tactics and to gain for the town the dubious title of 'Red Wonthaggi'. His local popularity was immense. After the successful strike, he held office as president of the Wonthaggi District Trades and Labor Council, and State president (1934-46) and secretary (1946-47) of his union; he was also the first communist to serve (1944-47) on the Wonthaggi Borough Council.

On 18 August 1934 at Wonthaggi Williams married with Methodist forms his landlady Emily Amelia Matthews, née Barry (d.1950), a widow with three children. Idris and Emily were to have two children. Although he was very close to his family, none of them embraced his left-wing views. Honoured as Wonthaggi's 'finest citizen' and 'favourite son', he moved to Sydney in 1947 on his election as general president of the Miners' Federation, the first from outside New South Wales. He had stood as a communist candidate and had defeated his Labor opponent by a hefty majority of 1800 votes. His weekly salary was now £12. In 1949 the foreign affairs sub-committee of the American House of Representatives absurdly named him as one of seven Australians who were 'ruthless directors of the Communist offensive in Europe and the Orient'. Williams was a loyal communist but a poor ideologue. He spoke the practical idiom of the pits more fluently than the theoretical language of the well-read Marxist.

Williams was obliged, however, to inject ideology into the industrial struggle in the winter of 1949. A general coal strike brought the union into direct conflict with the Chifley government which, convinced that the stoppage had been engineered by the communists, responded savagely. Williams and other union officials were sentenced to twelve months gaol for contempt of court after they refused to reveal the whereabouts of £15,000 of union funds that emergency legislation had tried to 'freeze'; they were incarcerated for six weeks. Williams achieved a measure of martyrdom when, due to his imprisonment, the Department of Repatriation temporarily stopped his £9 weekly war-disability pension which it administered for the British government. Despite the collapse of the strike and the increasing chilliness of the Cold War, he was re-elected the following year with a record majority. Most coalminers believed, correctly, that he was a unionist first and a communist second.

From 1952 Williams's physical condition, already undermined by his war service and work in the mines, deteriorated further. He began to moderate his great fondness for tobacco (he was a chain-smoker) and alcohol (he was 'severely reprimanded' in January 1950 by party officials for 'excessive drinking')—but not his capacity for singing Welsh ballads at union functions. In February 1955 he resigned from the union leadership on grounds of ill health. For the last five years of his life, he was active in the retired mineworkers' association and the Illawarra branch of the C.P.A. He underwent major heart surgery in 1958.

At the district registrar's office, Hurstville, on 19 December 1958 Williams married Lilian Frances Perry, née Binskin, a widow. Suffering from cancer, he died of cerebrovascular disease on 9 October 1960 in Sydney and was cremated. His wife survived him, as did the son and daughter of his first marriage. Throughout the coal industry and the wider labour movement he had been regarded as a union official of integrity and sincerity. A communist colleague eulogized his 'devotion to his ideals', and 'the warmth of his personality, the kindness of his disposition', and 'the essential humanity of his approach to life'.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Ross, A History of the Miners' Federation of Australia (Syd, 1970)
  • Common Cause, 22 Jan, 12 Mar 1955, 15, 22 Oct 1960
  • Tribune (Sydney), 4 Apr 1947, 23 July, 10 Aug 1949, 12 Oct 1960
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 24 June 1949
  • Express (Wonthaggi), 13 Oct 1960
  • P. Cochrane, The Wonthaggi Coal Strike 1934 (B.A. Hons thesis, La Trobe University, 1973)
  • A6119, items 890, 902 and 903, and M1509, item 36 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Phillip Deery, 'Williams, Idris (1895–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/williams-idris-12033/text21585, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 20 August 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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