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Irene Agnes (Rene) Saxby (1902–2004)

by Chris Cunneen

This article was published:

Rene Saxby, with Hedley Metcalf, 1932

Rene Saxby, with Hedley Metcalf, 1932

Newcastle Sun (NSW), 29 Apr 1932, page 1

Irene Agnes (Rene) Saxby, later Rush (1902-2004) teacher, adventurer, archivist in legation to USSR

Birth: 17 March 1902 at Marrickville, Sydney, New South Wales, daughter of native-born parents George Campbell Saxby (1869-1954), teacher, later headmaster of Sydney Boy’s High School, and Agnes Rachael, née West (1867-1944). Marriage: 1948 at Manly, NSW, to native-born Charles Clay Speight Rush (1879-1972), a widower and retired Church of Christ minister. Death: 7 February 2004 in a nursing home at Avalon, Sydney. 

  • Educated at Orange, NSW, on a scholarship at West Maitland Girls’ High School, Newcastle High School and the University of Sydney (BA with honours in English, 1923).
  • Three of her brothers enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in World War I. Corporal Eric John Saxby (1893-1962) a surveyor, served with the 1st Field Ambulance at Gallipoli and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct medal serving with the 3rd Battalion at Poziers in France and in September 1916. Captain George Jacob Maxwell Saxby (1894-1967), a medical practitioner, served in the Australian Army Medical Corps. Private Kenneth Knowlton Saxby (1896-1917), an engineering student at the University of Sydney, served at Gallipoli and as a stretcher-bearer with the 3rd Battalion and was killed in action at Benin Road, Belgium, on 20 September 1917.
  • Her younger brother Dr Noel Hunter (190701987 Saxby enlisted in the 2nd AIF and served in World War II.
  • Rene taught at various schools, including Lithgow (1925), Gosford (1926). Tumut (1929) and Neutral Bay (1930). She joined the NSW Teachers’ Federation in 1928. She resigned from the public service with effect from 13 March 1931.
  • In 1932 Saxby and two other female Sydney University graduates appealed through the Sydney Sun for a man to accompany them on a 20,000 miles voyage to England on a 34-foot Swedish auxiliary cutter, Gulmarn. They received over three hundred applicants: “doctors, near-doctors, journalists, an Australian Victorian Cross winner, photographers, officers of the merchant marine, able seamen, poets, artists, lawyers, University graduates and a bandmaster were on the list”.
  • On 24 April the Gullmarn left Sydney, crewed by its owner Hedley Metcalfe and his wife Jocelyn ‘Joyce’ (a daughter of Judge Beeby), Rene Saxby, S. H. Morris and H. P. Nicholson, the navigator. The third female, Dora Birtles, was picked up at Newcastle. Their course was via the East Indies, across the Indian Ocean to South America and by the Atlantic to London. However, the vessel struck trouble and the journey was abandoned at Singapore.
  • Saxby went on to London and then Moscow, in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. She taught English at the Combinat of Foreign Languages in Moscow, under the educationalist Fanya ‘Fanny’ Borodina, wife of Mikhail Borodin, former Soviet adviser in China.
  • Took a furlough to visit family in Sydney in 1936, arriving aboard the Ormonde in September. In interviews, press articles and lectures she praised life in Moscow, coming to the attention of the security services until she left Sydney aboard the Kamo Maru for Japan in July 1937, en route to Moscow via the Trans-Siberian Railway.
  • From October 1942 Saxby was employed as archivist to the Australian legation in USSR led by William Slater — at the temporary capital Kuybyshev and then in Moscow — and later by Jim Maloney. This was a part-time post and she also worked with the Press Reporting Service and the Academy for Educational Research. Dismissed by Maloney in September 1944 she worked briefly with the Soviet International Publishing House until she left Moscow for Australia in January 1945.
  • In April 1945 she reached Fremantle, Western Australia, aboard Reynella from Bombay, India. Back in Sydney, she once again publicly supported the Soviet regime in the USSR.
  • In a parliamentary debate on foreign policy in April 1948, H. L. Anthony accused Saxby of being “well known in connection with Communist activities, and while in Russia had changed her name to Alexandrov”. In the Victorian Royal Commission on Communism in 1950 she was accused of being a member of the Communist Party of Australia. Attorney-General H. V. Evatt later reported her statement that she was not a member of the Communist Party.
  • After her marriage she remained a prominent supporter of Soviet Russia, and was an executive member of the Australian Russian Society (NSW branch). She and her husband were members of the Australian Assembly for Peace in 1958. She continued under security surveillance and in 1959 her photograph was shown to Peter Heydon, a colleague of hers in the Moscow legation, who referred to her as “Old Misery” and reported that “she was never allowed access to ciphers”. Mr and Mrs Petrov, also contacted in 1959, stated that she was unknown to them, but they considered that she was “probably . . . recruited as an agent” of the Russian Intelligence Service.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'Saxby, Irene Agnes (Rene) (1902–2004)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/saxby-irene-agnes-rene-33657/text42117, accessed 14 April 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012