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Houghton, Mary Ellen (May) (1885–1963)

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This entry is from People Australia

Houghton, Mary Ellen ‘May’, née Long (1885-1963) tailoress, Communist and Labor Party activist 

Birth: 6 February 1885 in Dubbo, New South Wales, daughter of native-born Daniel John Long (1884-1919), fettler, and Eliza Mary, née Ingram (1864-??) who was born in Ireland. Marriage: 21 December 1905 in the parsonage, Forbes, New South Wales, to Thomas Albert Houghton (1886-1933), miner later butcher. They had two sons and two daughters. Death: 15 August 1963 in Eastwood, NSW. Religion: Anglican. 

  • Later claimed that her father was “one of the pioneers of the PLL [Political Labor League] in the outback country . . . as a young girl she read much literature, which she distributed after school hours, from door to door”.
  • After marriage lived with her husband at Newnes, NSW, and in 1910 at Kerr’s Creek, near Orange, where he was a miner.
  • On 14 January 1910 Thomas Houghton was arrested and charged with abduction, from her home, of a 16-year-old girl, whom he had got pregnant. Convicted at Orange on 16 March 1910, he served two years imprisonment with hard labour in Goulburn gaol.
  • In 1913 the Houghtons were living in Woonona, near Wollongong, where May give birth to her fourth child and where her husband abandoned the family. He was arrested in Lismore in April and charged with wife desertion. In August that year he was working as a butcher in Dowling Street, Woolloomooloo, Sydney, when called as a witness in a murder trial. He was again charged with deserting his wife and children in Bulli in September 1914.
  • In 1917 her husband enlisted in the New Zealand Imperial Force and embarked as a trooper with the 27th reinforcements of the Mounted Rifles. He later returned to Sydney and was a labourer but did not live with his family.
  • Mary Ellen Houghton, meanwhile worked as a self-described 'wage slave' in the clothing industry, Sydney and was one of the few active women in the Industrial Workers of the World.
  • In 1921 she was a member of the executive committee of the Communist Party of Australia, and in April that year secretary of its Sydney Branch. With Christian Jollie-Smith and Patrick Lamb, she arranged for Communist Party literature to be sent from Moscow to Australia.
  • In April 1924 she was appointed female organiser of the NSW branch of the Amalgamated Clothing & Allied Trades' Union (ACATU), to organise Number Two Group (dressmakers and other non-tailoring workers). Her union salary was initially the same as for male organisers, but in 1924 was cut to about two-thirds the male
  • Houghton initially sought to direct branch politics towards Left-Australian Labor Party alliance. Following the election of the Lang government, in 1925 she persuaded her branch to affiliate with ALP Women's Central Organising Committee, of which she became an active member.
  • Returned to the trade in 1925, with organiser's position being taken by a male. That year, in a newspaper article, she recounted that “through the loss of my husband, twelve years ago, I was faced with the proposition of either placing my four small children, the eldest of whom was 7 years, in a State-controlled institution, or setting out to be mother and father both. I chose the letter course. Returning to my trade as a tailoress, I worked in the factory all day, doing housework at night, washing, scrubbing and ironing at the week-end.” Prominent Balmain supporter of seamen strikers and their families.
  • Appointed justice of the peace in March 1927, that year she was an executive officer of the ACATU.
  • For many years was associated with the ALP in Balmain. In 1927 she was secretary of the Rozelle East branch of the ALP. Later she was active in the Balmain branch. She was an elected member ALP’s NSW State executive in 1927-1929. During the timberworkers’ dispute she was prosecuted, fined and briefly imprisoned for collecting strike funds in the Domain. In 1931 and 1932 she was ALP candidate for election to Balmain municipal council.
  • In 1932, although remaining a prominent worker for the ALP, she was reputedly delegate to CPA annual meetings.
  • In January 1937 she was elected secretary pro tem of the new Labor Women’s Council of the ALP in NSW, supporting Premier Lang, and attended the Labor Women’s Conference in Hobart in February.
  • In May 1941 she was part of a delegation of Labor women who urged Premier McKell to appoint Mary Quirk to cabinet, but no further public activity is known.
  • Cause of death cerebral thrombosis, cerebral arteriosclerosis and diabetes mellitus.
  • Her daughter Daphne, also active politically, was Miss Labor in 1929 and was appointed Justice of the Peace in December 1935.

Sources
Joy Damousi, Socialist Women in Australia, c.1890-c.1918, PhD thesis, ANU, 1987; Bradon Ellem, In women’s hands? A history of clothing trades unionism in Australia (Sydney 1989); Malcolm Henry Ellis, The red road: the story of the capture of the Lang party by Communists, instructed from Moscow (Sydney, 1932; information from Sue Tracey, 1997.

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Citation details

'Houghton, Mary Ellen (May) (1885–1963)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/houghton-mary-ellen-may-32856/text40922, accessed 30 January 2023.

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