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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Margaret (Peggy) Errey (1915–2002)

by Ian West

from Sydney Morning Herald

This entry is from Obituaries Australia

Margaret "Peggy" Errey, who died recently aged 88, was a lifelong activist, feminist and trade unionist.

Errey was born in 1914 in County Cork, in the south of Ireland, during the time of the Irish Troubles and with Europe consumed by the First World War. She grew up in a large family that was committed to the Republican cause - a commitment she held throughout her life. As a child she would hide under her bed while the special unit of the Royal Irish Constabulary — the "Black and Tans" — raided the family home.

Her early teenage years gave her an acute appreciation of the importance of good health, employment and education.

The Erreys, like most Irish families at the time, were poor and struggled to find work and get food for the children. The little joys that there were came from highlights such as the local dances organised by Sinn Fein, where they would laugh and dance and sing songs about the dream of a united Ireland.

The 1926 General Strike and the Great Depression reinforced Errey's affinity with the working class. She saw the importance of collective action as a source of empowerment and equality for the powerless individual.

As a young adult Errey went to England to search for work. She got a job as a trainee cook that allowed her to enjoy what she had been deprived of in Ireland — work and healthy food.

Errey was in London during World War II and was deeply affected by the Nazi bombing raids; her fear brought on alopecia. But witnessing the fight against fascism brought home to her the importance of basic values of freedom and equality.

Errey married in England and her son Richard and daughter Margaret were a great source of love and pride.

After the war, the family migrated to Australia and Errey ended up as a cook at the Fairy Meadow Commonwealth Hostel, north of Wollongong. Her time there, mixing with the steelworkers and wharfies staying at the hostel, served as an apprenticeship in industrial relations in this country. Before long she was a workplace delegate for the Restaurant and Catering Trades Union (RCTU).

In the early 1950s, Errey was appalled when the prime minister, Robert Menzies, attempted to outlaw the Communist Party and divide the Labor Party. She believed this attack was the first step in the loss of freedom of speech and association. She feared the next move would be an attack on independent trade unions, which she believed were a cornerstone of a free and democratic society.

In 1953, Errey became a delegate to the South Coast Labor Council from the RCTU. In the 1960s, she worked at the Wollongong Tertiary College as a cleaner and joined the Miscellaneous Workers Union (MWU), again becoming a delegate to the South Coast Labor Council.

Through Errey's organising capacity, the Wollongong campus became an industrial site with conditions second to none in Australia.

By 1980, when Errey was made a life member of the MWU, she had served as a state and federal councillor, executive member and vice-president of the NSW branch of the "Missos". In 2000 the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union (LHMU) set up the Peggy Errey advanced delegates course in her honour. Yet all this work for the union was carried out for no financial reward. After her marriage broke up Errey continued to support the family on her cleaner's wages.

During all this time Errey had a host of campaigns and projects going on. She helped establish the South Coast Medical Centre, which would serve working-class families in Wollongong for decades. She was heavily involved in the Stewart Street Women's Centre, the Jobs for Women program and the Migrant Resource Centre. With the ACTU she worked on the working women's charter committee and was a delegate to ACTU women's conference. Errey was also made a life member of the South Coast Labor Council and the South Coast May Day committee.

Errey believed strongly in education as an empowering tool for the working class; she would walk the streets to get petitions signed supporting the establishment and funding of Wollongong University because she knew that life lessons alone were not enough.

Around 1968-1970, Errey was also heavily involved in another major cause — opposition to what she always saw as the British occupation of the six counties of north-east Ireland.

She was instrumental in uniting various committees into one umbrella organisation, Australian Aid to Ireland.

Errey was also active in the more popular causes of the time, such as anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, anti-apartheid protests, the struggle to gain Aboriginal rights and work with migrant women. She really was a "twentieth-century activist".

Many people knew Errey because of her widespread activism. People would wave from cars and buses when she walked down the street in Wollongong and invariably she would know each person's name, where they worked and who their children were and so on. Such was her love for the Illawarra and its people.

Yet the personal struggles of individual union members meant just as much to Errey. She was often helping a battered wife or a person fighting drug addiction or someone needing a place to stay for the night. She was not judgemental and had the ability of being able to treat all women and men equally because she could empathise with anyone.

Errey also believed in personal responsibility and that respect had to be earned. She believed that people should take pride in their job and do it honestly. She believed equally in a fair go and "keeping your word".

She was a true believer in the labour movement but her faith was not blind; on many occasions she openly expressed her frustration with the Labor Party and argued passionately at ALP and union forums.

Errey may have been involved in myriad causes and campaigns but she never forgot her roots or her family. She was always proud of her son and daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Errey's legacy is that she taught many to celebrate the rich complexity of humanity through her enthusiasm and passion for fighting injustice.

 * — accessed 4 July 2023

Original Publication

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Citation details

Ian West, 'Errey, Margaret (Peggy) (1915–2002)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 13 June 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Ryan, Margaret

1 June, 1915
Cork, Ireland


1 December, 2002 (aged 87)
Coffs Harbour, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

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Religious Influence

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Political Activism