Neighbours – and heroes: The history week lecture, 2016

Heather Goodall shares her reflections on her address for the annual History Council of New South Wales History Week, presented at The Mint, Sydney, on September 7, 2016.

Why question the idea of ‘neighbours’? It has a cosy, face-to-face warmth about it. For historians – as this was the theme of the History Council of New South Wales’ 2016 History Week – it brings ‘History’ into the everyday – gendered – world.

Launceston Daily Telegraph, 1912. Image via Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office.
Launceston Daily Telegraph, 1912. Image via Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office.

Or does it?

Australian politicians have called up the idea of ‘good neighbours’ when they want nearby countries to lock up asylum seekers or hold back fishing boats. Graziers in western New South Wales accuse the National Parks and Wildlife Service of being ‘bad neighbours’ by failing, so they say, to clear undergrowth to protect against bush fires. The idea of ‘neighbours’ can be used to justify fences and borderlines. Carving out a ‘neighbourhood’ can have a sinister isolationist tone that is all too familiar in Australian history.

Fundamentally, the idea of ‘neighbour’ is a strongly gendered term, suggesting households with assumptions of clearly identified roles for men and women in what are still too often considered ‘private’ spheres. Yet the notion of a ‘households’ is itself very different across myriad cultural settings. Accordingly, relationships between the sexes and across different ages will vary widely from culture to culture, as do responses to transgressions and challenges.

Contemporary Australia is a place where people of many different cultures and sub-cultures live in close proximity to each other. Even so, ‘neighbours’ often fail to learn much about each other or develop relationships of any depth because of the borders created by various stereotypes, misunderstandings and myths – along with the fears relating to intruding into ‘private’ spaces. Perhaps the most extreme victims of such borders are the women and children violently murdered inside ‘domestic’ spaces, yet they are not the only victims.

Good Neighbour Council of Victoria, 1957. Image via Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Good Neighbour Council of Victoria, 1957. Image via Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The island of Australia has been connected to the wider world for far longer than the British have claimed to control it. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, where my work has focused, Australia was shaped by highly mobile Indigenous and immigrant peoples. Around Australia, the networks of the wider world were populated by cargo ship crews and colonial soldiers.

Often, seafarers and soldiers have been considered to inhabit solely masculine worlds. Yet women were a part of all these mobile networks – not just around exploitative sex – but also in political alliances, commercial roles as traders, marriages, and as travelling workers. There are strong parallels – and overlaps – with the worlds of traders and workers about which Samia Khatun has recently published, showing that Indian Muslim, Australian Aboriginal and Anglo women were all actors in the trading networks which spun backwards and forwards between Australia and India.

When I was asked to address the theme of ‘neighbours’ for the History Council of NSW’s 2016 History Week lecture, I first thought about the warmth of some of my own wonderful neighbours. I then started to wonder what ‘history’ had to offer on this idea.

It seems to me that the people who have fulfilled what I value in being ‘neighbours’ have been the people prepared to take risks to build real, practical and warm relationships across borders. These might be the cartographic borders of nation-states, the political and socially-created borders of race and culture, or the borders of conventional assumptions about sexuality, gender and ‘households’.

Do we find this same sense of neighbourliness if we look to Australian History? We find achievements, certainly, but we also find injustice and damage. There has been a great deal of debate in the so-called ‘History Wars’ but the empirical evidence is in, and it shows that Australian history has many examples of brutal dispossessions, of racial discrimination, worker exploitation, environmental damage, and of all kinds of violence towards women.

So can we find the ‘useable past’, a term now widely used in public history on which gender historians have drawn? In my own historical research, I have been looking for ways to understand how we got to where we are today in order to shape where we might go.

Lucy Woodcock
Lucy Woodcock (1889-1968). Photograph provided by author.

So in thinking about this theme of ‘Neighbours’ I wanted to highlight some of the challenges to the isolationist, fence-building type of ‘neighbourhood’ that the ‘White Australia’ policy tried to build. Instead, there have been ways that Australians have tried – and succeeded – in building sustained relationships across those borders of nationalism, race, culture and conventional sexuality. How did people actually do this? I was looking for individual stories which were nevertheless embedded in and shaped by the social and cultural relationships around them. It is no help to work on a ‘great’ person approach – changes that can be sustained simply do not happen that way.

So I chose the stories of five individuals: Isabel Flick, Clarrie Campbell, Phyllis Johnson, Danny Singh and Lucy Woodcock. Each of their twentieth-century lives were lived building relationships which challenged isolationism in different ways – with different strengths and flaws. Isabel Flick was an Aboriginal activist from north western NSW. Clarrie, Phyllis and Danny were all associated with a boycott of Dutch shipping in support for Indonesian independence. Lucy Woodcock was a teacher, unionist, feminist and peace campaigner. They all had intersecting roles and common goals, but very different ways of achieving these goals. Each was a remarkable individual, but they were also just ordinary people taking risks and facing challenges to break down borders. In the end, the real relationships they built were within reach of all of us.

I want to sketch out the story of just one of these people, Lucy Woodcock.

Lucy Woodcock commemoration, Erskineville Public School Assembly Hall. Photograph by Helen Randerson.

Lucy was a working class Sydney woman from Granville who lived an unconventional life. In 1911, she became a teacher and helped found the NSW Teachers Federation and the Australia-wide Teachers Association. Never marrying, she had a close woman friend and a place in Bohemian Sydney. Politically, she worked closely with men and women in the Communist Party and those on the left of the Australian Labour Party. Throughout her life, Lucy was a feminist who fought for equal pay for all women, single or married. She challenged racism from the very beginning of her career – most of it spent, by choice, as the Headmistress at the Public School in Depression-ravaged Erskineville. She became a campaigner for peace after her brother was killed in World War I. Later, she championed Jewish refugees in the 1930s and 1940s, ensuring refugee women had a voice in the Australian Women’s Charter movement and that their children had real opportunities for education despite language barriers and other problems.

From 1952, Lucy fought the Australian government to get a passport to travel to Peace conferences in India and Helsinki, to visit women trade unionists in India, China and Russia, and to Japan to meet the sailors irradiated by the first H-Bomb test at Bikini Atoll, confirming her unshakable campaign for global nuclear disarmament. As well as maintaining contact with the Aboriginal people she had first met in Erskineville, Lucy spent the later years of her life in Sydney. She was in close contact with the Australian-Chinese community, tutoring children and supporting women to live independently, just as she had always done. Erskineville Public School has just dedicated their Assembly Hall to Lucy’s rich achievements of building relationships across borders with practical warmth, loyalty and tenacity.

Lucy Woodcock was the sort of neighbour we all need to be.

To listen to the full 2016 History Council of New South Wales History Week Lecture, check out ABC Radio National’s Big Ideas, October 19, 2016.


lucy-woodcock-hall-pic-cropHeather Goodall is Professor Emerita of History in the School of Communications, Faculty of Arts and Social Science, University of Technology Sydney. She has published on Indigenous histories and environmental history in Australia and on colonialism and decolonisation in the twentieth century in the eastern Indian Ocean. Her recent work includes “Beyond the ‘Poison of Prejudice’: Indian and Australian women talk about the White Australia Policy,” co-authored with Devleena Ghosh, published in History Australiaand the collaborative biography of Kevin Cook, Making Change Happen: Black and White Activists talk to Kevin Cook about Aboriginal, Union and Liberation Politics (2013).

Heather can be contacted by email on

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