Person - Phyllis Johnson
PHYLLIS JOHNSON (1917 - 2009)
In the late 1930s Phyllis Mather and Eddie Allison were involved in NTL open-air agit-prop, staging pieces on the back of a truck outside factory gates and at street meetings. One of their sketches was The Toast is Anzac performed in Kings Cross on a wintry night in 1938. In October 1940 Phyllis made an anti-conscription speech in the Domain and handed out communist literature. Under the National Security Act she was fined £10. The policy of the CPA was not to pay but to go to gaol as a class war prisoner. Phyllis obeyed the Party edict and was locked up in Long Bay. The case created a controversy over free speech and when she appeared in court there were plenty of women outside and plenty of police inside. To celebrate her release in January 1941 songs from the NTL revue I’d Rather be Left were sung at a gathering in the Maccabean Hall, Darlinghurst.
Phyllis was active in campaigns against War and Fascism and the Spanish civil war. She joined the Woolloomooloo branch of the CPA in 1936, was a member of the CPA Central Committee 1943-5, and CPA candidate for Paddington in the 1947 State election. She remained in the CPA after the USSR invasions of 1956 and 1968, but resigned in 1974 and joined the Socialist Party of Australia. She was an impressive public speaker. Her brother Don Mather, a drover, joined the CPA in 1937. On the outbreak of war he volunteered and served with the AIF in Libya and New Guinea.
Phyllis Mather was born at Albany WA. During the Depression when the family’s diet was bread and dripping and “kettle soup” (hot water flavoured with salt and pepper) her father (a wharfie and Secretary of the WA Lumper’s Union) walked eight miles to work. In 1933 Phyllis moved to Sydney where she worked as a typist, and became involved in anti-eviction struggles. She participated in the boycott of Japanese goods after its invasion of China. In 1938 she denounced visiting celebrity Felix von Luckner as a Nazi agent. She ran a weekly session “Women for Victory” on radio 2KY during the Second World War, appeared before the 1943 NSW Bread Inquiry into the baking, distribution and pricing of bread, was active in campaigns for vaccination, free milk and Oslo lunches for schoolchildren, and an advocate before the Fair Rents Board.
In 1939 Phyllis married John Godschall Johnson (1912-2003) who had moved to Sydney from Queensland in 1938. Johnno was a CPA Domain speaker and a portrait painter and Tribune photographer. He became a skilled stringed instrument maker, his first violin created from a wooden crate. The violins were never sold but given to people who couldn’t afford to buy one. Johnno died on 4 May 2003.
Phyllis was awarded an OAM in 1989 and the Eureka Medal in 2009, the year she died – on 20 July.