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Ethel Caroline Lewis (1908–1985)

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Ethel Caroline Nelson Lewis, née Teerman (1908-1985) teacher, trade union leader, Communist and community activist 

Birth: 24 April 1908 at Illawong, New South Wales, daughter of native-born parents Nelson Teerman (1883-1939), miner, and Ethel, née Bridge (1883-1958). Marriage: 20 December 1940 at the district registrar’s office, Randwick, to Samuel Phineas ‘Sam’ Lewis, teacher. They had one daughter. Death: 19 January 1985 in Sydney, NSW. 

  • Began education at Broken Hill Public School, absorbing from 'early childhood...every struggle, every defeat, every victory of the miners and workers' of Broken Hill. Completed primary schooling at West Maitland Superior School and Maitland Girls High School, dux 1925.
  • After her father, a militant member of the Miners' Federation, died in his 50s, 'dusted' and 'leaded', Ethel abandoned honours year at University of Sydney and became a teacher to support her family. Graduated BA and in 1939 was elected from the Faculty of Arts to the university’s standing committee of convocation.
  • As a young teacher (at Cessnock) joined NSW Teachers' Federation and the Communist Party of Australia. Elected to federation executive 19?; worked tirelessly for repeal of Married Women (Lecturers and Teachers) Act (1932), and for general improvement of public education.
  • As CPA member, was active in 1930s in Militant Minority Movement, Movement Against War & Fascism, and in CPA youth work. Temporarily relinquished teaching after marriage and birth of daughter, but maintained activism, becoming leading figure in Federation of Parents and Citizens' Associations and supporting Sam's work within and outside Teachers' Federation.
  • In later life she cared for her invalided mother, after whose death Ethel returned to work as teacher/librarian at Maroubra where she remained until her retirement in 1967. In the next few years she travelled for the first time overseas, including to the Soviet Union.
  • Cared intensively for her husband Sam after his part incapacitation by stroke in 1974.

Andrew William Metcalfe, For freedom and dignity: Historical agency and class structures in the coalfields of NSW (Sydney, 1988); Sullivan MSS, 1994: obituary Tribune (Sydney), 6 February 1985, p 13 []; Heather Goodall, Helen Randerson and Devleena Ghosh, Teacher for Justice: Lucy Woodcock's Transnational Life (Canberra, 2019), pp 127-142.

Additional Resources

  • ASIO file, vol 1, A6119, Lewis, Ethel Carolyn Nelson (nee Teerman) (National Archives of Australia)

Citation details

'Lewis, Ethel Caroline (1908–1985)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 July 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012