Person - Nellie Rickie

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NELLE RICKIE (ca 1887 - 1974)

Political activist, educator, actor, director and playwright Nellie Rickie became an actress prior to 1914, joined the Victorian Socialist Party in 1916 and the Women’s Socialist League, was Secretary of the Victorian Labour College and a member of the Council of Technical School College of Domestic Economy. By age 20 she was a Fabian socialist, her hero George Bernard Shaw.

As a Theatrical Employees Union delegate to the Melbourne Trades Hall Council, Nellie advocated a reduction in all women’s working hours. She opposed conscription in the 1917 referendum, was imprisoned in Pentridge in 1918 for flying the Red flag against War Precautions regulations, and gaoled in NSW in 1919 for the same offence. A friend of Katharine Susannah Prichard, she was a foundation member of the Melbourne and Sydney branches of the CPA: “I can see the revolution coming as sure as the sun rises and sets”. By 1924 she had made Sydney her home base; the next year she had an unsuccessful tilt at State politics as Communist Party candidate for Botany. When it was feared that Russia would be invaded, Rickie maintained she’d coined the phrase “not a gun not a ship for capitalist wars” in 1927.

As secretary 1928-9 of the ALP's Educational Advisory Committee to improve education in public schools, Rickie pushed for the “great man theory” in history teaching to be dropped, and advocated public kindergartens. She was also involved in the Workers Education League, and was a regular contributor to the Labor Daily - her column “Economic Talks for Children” proved controversial - and a broadcaster and fundraiser for trade union radio station 2KY. She was pro-dams (probably because so many were being built in the USSR) and anti-migration (migrants had a lot of children).

Wherever she could find a hall or stage Nellie Rickie would get workers from the factories, train them and put on a play. In 1918 in Melbourne she set up the Socialist Party’s Repertory Theatre Company to stage propagandist pieces. In Sydney she wrote and produced plays at the Communist Hall in Sussex Street, and staged works for the Australian section of the Friends of the Soviet Union (FSU) after it was set up in September 1930. These were performed at the FSU Hall at 114 Liverpool Street and after 1933 at Leigh House at 233 Castlereagh Street.

Rickie performed a dramatic item for the Australian Labor Choir’s inaugural concert, its printed program peppered with feminist jokes: “Some husbands are like promissory notes: their wives get tired of meeting them". In 1931 she organised a FSU fundraiser for the Women’s Committee Against War, its program including her one-act Defensive Warfare in which she played the lead. In 1932 she gave a lecture "Lasseter’s Last Ride", planned as the first in a series of talks on Australian novels and drama to raise money for a clubroom for the Proletarian Theatre Players.

At Sydney's Workers Art Club (WAC) three of her one-act plays were staged in April 1933: The Emissary (a warning against fascism in Australia), Beyond the Road (a couple tramp north looking for work) and Weights and Measures (about dole relief). She acted in two of them. There were problems with lack of rehearsal time and space and the author was criticised for using bourgeois stage techniques. In August, again at the WAC, Rickie directed and acted in The Tart Shop and In Heaven, two items in the political burlesque A Night in Spain. Rickie maintained it was she who suggested to Harry Broderick that he dramatise The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, considered a success by those on the Left. In 1937, using a pseudonym, she won second prize with her play The Censor in a competition organised by the Writers’ Association. It was staged at the WAC. All her pieces were about social protest and three of them were published in the Labor Daily. In 1934 Rickie set up a WAC in Townsville with plans to extend the movement to other Queensland towns.

Said to have been born at Myers Flat near Bendigo, Nelle was apparently a married woman when she moved interstate, in which case she was probably Sarah Ellen Robertson who in 1903 married George Edwin Rickie, a ticket seller at Her Majesty's Theatre Melbourne. From 1924 she cohabited with Australian Railways Union trade unionist Tim O'Sullivan and they had a Red marriage ceremony. O'Sullivan divorced his legal wife in 1926 and he and Nellie Rickie had a legal wedding in 1929. In January the next year she took out an order, claiming that he came home drunk, “thrashed” her and broke her spectacles. Despite this the two worked together in 1933 in The Emissary and political satire, but they eventually divorced in 1938 over conjugal rights (when her former name was reported as Robertson). In 1937 in aid of Spanish children she played Myra Arundel in the Australian Society of Drama’s Hay Fever with Valerie Wilson as Judith Bliss and Frank Valentine as Richard Greatham.

There was no death notice for Nelle Rickie when she died aged 87 at Bondi on 5 September 1974. She was cremated at the Eastern Suburbs Crematorium and her estate was handled by the Public Trustee.

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