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Sharpley, Cecil Herbert (1908–1985)

by Phillip Deery

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Cecil Herbert Sharpley (1908-1985), trade unionist, communist and apostate, was born on 3 November 1908 at Mangotsfield, Gloucestershire, England, fifth child of Arthur Henry Sharpley, clergyman, and his wife Cecilia Lucy Chambers, née Stubbs. An introspective child, Cecil completed his education at Weymouth College. Aspirations to take holy orders ended in a crisis of faith while he prepared for University of Cambridge entrance examinations, and in 1928 he departed for Australia, supported by the Big Brother movement. Befriended by Archdeacon William Hancock, he worked as a farm labourer before becoming unemployed. Like many autodidacts, he found a haven in the Public Library of Victoria, immersing himself in political philosophy and socialist economics. Finding work as an office-boy in an advertising agency in 1933, he joined the Federated Clerks’ Union and the Australian Labor Party the following year.

By 1935 the allure of self-sacrifice and a crusade to change the world drew Sharpley to the Victorian branch of the Communist Party of Australia, and in 1936 he became a full-time functionary, managing the party’s press. On 9 April 1938 at the office of the government statist, Melbourne, he married Veronica Theresa Connolly, a machinist. Assistant-secretary of the Metal and Munitions Union No.2 branch during World War II, he unsuccessfully contested the Legislative Assembly seat of Footscray for the CPA in 1943 and wrote Workers’ Compensation (Melbourne, 1944), with a foreword by E. F. Hill. In March 1946 he was elected to the party’s State executive, through which he developed an intimate knowledge of communist industrial tactics.

Sharpley later claimed that his disillusionment with the CPA had commenced in 1937, but it was not until 21 December 1948 that he left the party, fleeing to Shepparton. Having contacted Sir Keith Murdoch and sold his exposé to the Melbourne Herald, he became a prized public defector, complete with bodyguards and a secret refuge. The first of seven widely syndicated articles, written in collaboration with a journalist, appeared on 16 April 1949. His allegations of corruption and fraud inside the union movement caused a sensation, and swelled the rising tide of anti-communism. Premier T. T. Hollway immediately announced a royal commission to investigate the CPA’s activities in Victoria, which began under Sir Charles Lowe amid a devastating general coal strike in June.

As the inquiry’s star witness, Sharpley spent 110 hours giving evidence, while also speaking on Movietone newsreels, at meetings, from pulpits and on the radio. Many reputations were damaged by his accounts. Protesters in the court’s galleries called him a ‘dirty rat’, at one point releasing mice into the chamber. Lowe’s report, published the day after the Menzies government introduced the Communist Party dissolution bill in April 1950, was only a mild indictment of the CPA. It found much of Sharpley’s evidence unreliable, establishing only one case of ballot-rigging.

Sharpley was judged by former comrades such as Ted Laurie to have been ‘a fanatical type of man’, tense and either ‘unstable or just unpleasant’. Separated from his wife, he had returned on 19 December 1949 to Britain, where, after a period of unemployment, he worked in a draper’s shop and as an insurance salesman, once again embracing Christianity. Throughout 1951 he addressed meetings on the communist threat and completed a memoir, The Great Delusion (1952). Thereafter his life is obscure. In 1976, however, he was pictured in The Times leading a protest by the British Pensioners and Trade Unions Action Committee. Perhaps indignation against injustice never deserted him. On 6 July 1985 Cecil Sharpley died of coronary occlusion at Islington, London.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Lowe, Report of Royal Commission Inquiring into the . . . Communist Party in Victoria . . . (1950)
  • P. S. Cook, Red Barrister (1994)
  • B. Taft, Crossing the Party Line (1994)
  • Times (London), 22 Oct 1976, p 2
  • A6119, items 185-88 (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Phillip Deery, 'Sharpley, Cecil Herbert (1908–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/sharpley-cecil-herbert-14879/text26069, accessed 23 November 2017.

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