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Charles Frederick (Fred) Wells (1918–1975)

by T. H. Irving

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Charles Frederick (Fred) Wells (1918-1975), seaman and journalist, was born on 4 August 1918 in Hobart, the son of Violet Wells and Charles Frederick Saunders, a war pensioner. By 1940 Fred Wells was living in Sydney with his mother and working as a coal lumper.

Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 15 March that year, Wells served in the 2/33rd Battalion in the Middle East and New Guinea. His army career was unexceptional until January 1942 when he gave up his rank of acting sergeant at his own request. Then followed three years of personal turmoil. He was absent without leave on many occasions, including a period of six weeks triggered by the decision of a medical board that he was fit for duty in April 1943. After a time in detention, he rejoined his battalion for the fighting at Milne Bay in New Guinea. There he caught malaria and became deaf in the left ear. After being admitted to the 113th Australian General Hospital, Concord, Sydney, suffering from anxiety, he was discharged with a 40 per cent disability pension on 28 February 1945.

Wells went to sea. Joining the Communist Party of Australia and the Seamen's Union of Australia in 1945, he was a prominent industrial militant for the next fifteen years. A dark-complexioned, nuggety man of medium build, 5 ft 8 ins (173 cm) tall, with tattoos on his upper arms, he was proud of his strength, fond of alcohol and not reluctant to use physical force for political ends. By 1951 he had been arrested in three street demonstrations. He also became a trusted lieutenant of the C.P.A., as a leader of the Australian delegation to the 1951 World Youth Festival in Berlin and as a relieving official in the communist-controlled seamen's union. He attended the eighteenth national conference of the party in 1958.

The C.P.A. leadership worried, however, about Wells's irresponsibility and hoped that his marriage to a fellow party member Philippa Marion Hilda Schapper, a teacher, on 29 August 1953 at Doncaster, Melbourne, would keep him sober. In 1960, soon after confessing to Eric Aarons that he had suffered a breakdown in the army, he left the ships and the Communist party, and entered the psychiatric ward of the Repatriation Hospital, Concord. A journalist on the Bulletin (Sydney) between 1963 and 1965, he became industrial roundsman for the Sydney Morning Herald from 1965.

Wells suffered no further periods of instability, which suggested that his new career as a journalist liberated an intelligent man from the dulling effects of physical labour and political dogma. Recognition of his intellectual capacity and his knowledge of industrial relations came quickly. He wrote two chapters on the Communist party for a university text on Australian politics, edited by Henry Mayer. Wells was the first honorary secretary of the Sydney branch of the Labour History Society in 1963.

Exposures of communist policy and organization were his specialty. When Wells's pamphlet on the communist-inspired Sydney peace congress, The Peace Racket (Sydney, 1964), was sent under a plain wrapper to school principals, his former associates knew that he was receiving help from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. He was an informant, reporting to a case officer responsible for liaising with journalists. His A.S.I.O. file reveals that opposing factions in the Communist party fed him information during the late 1960s. Using his own knowledge, his extensive circle of contacts, and analyses from A.S.I.O., his articles were authoritative commentaries on communist industrial and cultural activities in these years.

In May 1975 Wells travelled to Western Australia to report on the conference of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. He died of 'meprobate poisoning self ingested but not with the intention of taking his own life' on 22 May 1975 in the Transit Inn, Perth, and was cremated in Sydney. His wife and their two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • D. McKnight, Australia’s Spies and Their Secrets (Syd, 1994)
  • Labour History, no 7, Nov 1964, p 57
  • coronial file, 12879/75 (Crown Law Dept, Perth)
  • B883, item NX10188, A6119, items 911 and 2957 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

T. H. Irving, 'Wells, Charles Frederick (Fred) (1918–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 May 2024.

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