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Crawford, James (Jim) (1908–1973)

by Connie Healy

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

James (Jim) Crawford (1908-1973), journalist and playwright, was born on 6 February 1908 at Manchester, England, and registered as John Oakden, youngest of four children of John Oakden Potter, a mechanical engineer of part-Scottish extraction, and his wife Janet Kerr, née Crawford, from the island of Arran. Young John's mother died when he was about 11.

Leaving grammar school at 16, Potter came to Australia as an assisted immigrant in 1924, disembarking in Brisbane. He worked in the Gulf Country and the Northern Territory as a stockman, station hand, ringer and boundary-rider, tried gold fossicking, then tramped around New Zealand in 1929-32. Back in Australia, he joined the ranks of the itinerant unemployed and exchanged a sustenance ticket with Bob Norman, whose name he assumed. In 1932 he was active in the Unemployed Workers' Movement and was involved in protests at evictions at Cairns, Queensland, and in the 'riots' of the unemployed at Mackay. Next year at the 'bagman's' camp, Victoria Park, Brisbane, he gave lectures on Shakespeare to his fellow unemployed. In 1934 he joined the Communist Party of Australia. He also founded the Roving Reds Revue Company, a short-lived theatrical group.

Travelling widely on his bicycle and expounding the need for proletarian revolution, he worked among cotton farmers of the Callide Valley, Queensland, cut cordwood for bakers' ovens in New South Wales, milked cows on dairy farms and packed tomatoes. He also went to Adelaide. Arriving in Melbourne in 1936 he became active in the Left Book Club, the Workers' Art Club and the Unity (Melbourne New) Theatre. On 8 August 1939 at the government statist's office, Melbourne, as Oakden Potter he married Ursula Mary Hill. He had previously joined the editorial staff of the Workers' Voice, (Victorian Guardian), for which he wrote a weekly column as 'Jim Crawford': in 1940 he adopted that name by deed poll. When the Communist Party was declared illegal that year and the Victorian Guardian became a proscribed paper, he went underground with it until the Soviet Union entered the war.

Crawford enlisted in the Militia on 21 January 1942 and served with the Australian Army Medical Corps. Discharged on 26 September he joined the Royal Australian Naval Reserve two days later as a stoker. He was described as 5 ft 10 ins (178 cm) tall, with a dark complexion, blue eyes and light brown hair. Suffering from a duodenal ulcer, he was invalided out of the navy in Melbourne in January 1945 with a pension. He returned to work, freelancing for the Sporting Globe and other large newspapers and rejoined the Melbourne Guardian. After the production in 1946 of his one-act play, Welcome Home, dealing with the effects of Melbourne's housing shortage on returning ex-servicemen, Jim devoted more time to the theatre. He was divorced in 1946 and in 1948 moved to Brisbane to work with the Queensland Guardian. On 22 December 1949 in Brisbane he married with Presbyterian forms Pamela Mary Seeman, an artist, and they settled at Mount Tamborine.

Crawford wrote at least seventeen plays. Rocket Range (1947), showing the impact of capitalism on Aboriginal society, was praised for presentation and acting but thrown out of the British Drama League festival as 'ideological propaganda'. Other dramas included Refugee (1949), about anti-Semitism, and The Governor's Stables (1955), a plea for a national peoples' theatre, which won first prize in the Theatre Council of West Australia's 1951 competition. He wrote many skits and sketches for May Day, and contributed to both the Victorian and Queensland Guardian. Crawford was a playwright of the working class—intensely human, kind and tolerant to workers but intolerant of cant and hypocrisy. His great good humour was aimed as a barb at the enemies of the workers. He died of myocardial infarction on 11 November 1973 in Greenslopes Repatriation Hospital and was cremated. Childless, he was survived by his wife.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Healy, Defiance: Political Theatre in Brisbane 1930-1962 (Brisb, 2000), and for bibliography
  • Spa (Sydney), 11 Nov 1973, p 7
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 11 Nov 1974, p 7
  • family information.

Citation details

Connie Healy, 'Crawford, James (Jim) (1908–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/crawford-james-jim-12867/text23235, accessed 22 November 2017.

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