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John Julius (Jack) Sylvester (1894–1965)

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This entry is from People Australia

John Julius William (Jack) Sylvester (1894-1965), ship painter and docker, Socialist 

Birth: 27 July 1894 at Enfield, London, England, son of John William Woolley Sylvester (1858-1917), a solicitor, and Charlotte Sarah, née Smale (1867-1947). Marriages: (1) February 1924 in England to Dora Whitehead. They had two sons, Joe and Leon, and two daughters. The marriage ended in divorce. (2) 27 July 1955 at District Registrar’s Office, Balmain, Sydney, New South Wales, to native-born Helen Irene May Emily Kyricou. Death: 2 August 1965 at Balmain, Sydney. Religion: cremated with Anglican rites. 

  • After a comfortable boyhood, his solicitor father died on the eve of World War I, leaving large gambling debts. Jack enlisted in the British Army in 1914, was decorated for bravery at Mons, 1915, and promoted to rank of sergeant major.
  • 1925 emigrated to Australia on Fairstar. A 'revolutionary straight from central Handsome, brave, intelligent, witty'. Worked as ships painter and docker at Balmain.
  • 1928 elected to executive of Federated Ships Painters and Dockers Union — sought to end degrading rotating system of labour hire. Prominent in establishing and proselytising for Unemployed Worker’ Movement, Workers’ District Committee and Communist Party of Australia in inner-city Sydney, 1929-1930. His house at 23 Waterview Street, Balmain, was used for leftist parade drills and was a domicile for numerous socialists.
  • in November 1930 he was gaoled for his part in an eviction riot at Clovelly and was subsequently bashed by police after his release.
  • Criticised by CPA leadership for 'ultra-leftism'. Leader of Balmain 'troops' and main speaker at major riot, Glebe Town Hall, November 1932, whose upshot — the gaoling of Noel Eatock proved the stimulus for the development of 'Left-Opposition' (subsequently) Trotskyist, Workers Party.
  • Produced manifesto, The Need for a Revolutionary Leadership, denouncing CPA, expressing belief that 'activism and still more activism' would awaken the working class. Charismatic presence attracted Laurie Short to Trotskyism.
  • 1932-1936 published The Tocsin, weekly newspaper for the unemployed, later renamed Redlight.
  • After a decade of frenetic activism, 'Balmain's Don Quixote' withdrew from Left politics in 1937, using his printing press to produce raffle cards which he sold at greyhound and trotting fixtures. Continued to reside in Waterview Street, Balmain.
  • Joined the home militia in World War II.
  • Worked odd jobs, when he died was night watchman. Cause of death: myocardial infarction.

A. Johnson, Bread and roses; a personal history of three militant women and their friends 1902-1988 (Sydney, 1990;) Hall Greenland, Red Hot: The Life & Times of Nick Origlass 1908–1996 (Sydney, 1998)

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

'Sylvester, John Julius (Jack) (1894–1965)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 14 June 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


27 July, 1894
London, Middlesex, England


2 August, 1965 (aged 71)
Balmain, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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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.

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