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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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Samuel Phineas (Sam) Lewis (1901–1976)

by Martin Sullivan

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Samuel Phineas (Sam) Lewis (1901-1976), schoolteacher, was born on 15 June 1901 in Sydney, eldest child of native-born parents Judah Henry Lewis, hairdresser, and his wife Rebecca Caroline, née Myers. Sam won a bursary to Cleveland Street Intermediate and Sydney Boys' High schools. After a year at the University of Sydney (B.Ec., 1934) studying economics, and another at Teachers' College, he began teaching at Bondi Public School in 1921. That year he attended the council-meeting of the New South Wales Public School Teachers' Federation. He was posted to other Sydney schools before being sent to Narrabri where he campaigned for J. T. Lang in the 1925 State election. Lewis believed that his transfer to Atholwood, a one-teacher school near the Queensland border, was a punishment for his political activities.

He returned to Sydney in 1929, taught at Maroubra Junction Junior Technical School and attended university part time. Meanwhile, he was foundation secretary of the Educational Workers' League, a small group of teachers who wanted to abolish public examinations, weekly tests, homework and corporal punishment, and who sought the active participation of every teacher in the governance of schools. Lewis was also involved with the assistants' branch of the Teachers' Federation, of which he was for some years vice-president. In 1933-34 he vigorously disputed the policies of the president C. H. Currey and attacked the federation's hierarchy for its inactivity as teachers' salaries declined and their working conditions deteriorated. Lewis organized the Conference on Education for a Progressive Democratic Australia (1938) which urged numerous reforms, including Federal funding for schools.

Although Lewis had celebrated his bar mitzvah, his faith in Judaism lapsed. At the district registrar's office, Randwick, on 20 December 1940 he married Ethel Caroline Nelson Teerman (d.1985), a 32-year-old schoolteacher. In the early 1930s Lewis had become secretary of the Coogee branch of the Communist Party of Australia. As organizer of the militant minority group in the Teachers' Federation he attracted such attention that he attended a Communist Party conference in 1935 under the assumed name of Samuel 'Curtis'; as Curtis he was elected to the district committee of the Communist Party in 1938. He unsuccessfully contested the seat of Barton for R. J. Heffron's State Labor Party at the 1940 Federal elections and the seat of Randwick at the State elections in 1941.

Lewis was elected deputy-president of the Teachers' Federation in 1943 and president in 1945. He and his supporters became engaged in a bitter struggle against conservative and anti-communist forces within the federation and in the wider political arena. The Commonwealth Investigation Service examined his activities. In Federal parliament Lang persistently attacked Lewis as a notorious communist after the Chifley government accredited him as a delegate to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization meeting in Mexico City in 1947.

In 1952 Lewis was defeated for the presidency of the Teachers' Federation, even though the federation had won significant salary increases for teachers during his term of office. With his radicalism undiminished, he taught for several years at Paddington and Newtown junior technical schools. At Newtown he was reprimanded in 1955 for slapping an insolent boy on the face; despite the reprimand, Lewis received widespread support from fellow teachers who considered that he had been provoked by a racist slur. In 1958 he was re-elected deputy-president of the federation, a post he held until re-elected president in 1964.

Believing that implementation of the federation's policies needed the militant, united action of teachers, Lewis supported publicity campaigns, petitions and mass meetings. Witty, ironic and forceful, he was recognized as one of the finest public speakers of his generation. He aggressively upheld women teachers in their long campaign for equal pay; he fought for the federation's acceptance of and by the trade union movement; and he achieved for teachers the right to have their complaints about working conditions heard in the Industrial Commission of New South Wales instead of being controlled by the fiat of the Public Service Board. In his last address as president in January 1968 he told an adulatory audience that the 'unity of teachers can be and should be part of the greater unity of the peoples—the People's Symphony'.

Lewis suffered from diabetes and was partially paralysed by a stroke in 1974. He died on 16 August 1976 at his Maroubra home and was cremated; his wife survived him, as did their daughter Jeannie who is well known in Australia and Latin America for her stage appearances. In 1983 the Teachers' Federation instituted Sam Lewis peace awards.

Select Bibliography

  • J. T. Lang, Communism is Treason (Syd, 1948)
  • B. A. Mitchell, Teachers, Education and Politics (Brisb, 1975)
  • New South Wales Teachers' Federation, Sam Lewis Memorial Booklet (Syd, 1976)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Nov, 11 Dec 1955, 20 Jan 1956
  • A. D. Spaull, Teachers and Politics: A Comparative Study of State Teachers' Organizations in Victoria and New South Wales Since 1940 (Ph.D. thesis, Monash University, 1972)
  • Lewis papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • A467/1 item SP42/40 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Martin Sullivan, 'Lewis, Samuel Phineas (Sam) (1901–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Curtis, Samuel

15 June, 1901
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


16 August, 1976 (aged 75)
Maroubra, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.