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This is a paper I presented at the Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference in Perth, July 2019. The conference theme was ‘dirt’.

Literature and politics were always interacting in the life and work of Katharine Susannah Prichard. The clash and confluence of the two are both apparent in her ten week research trip to the gold-mining town of Kalgoorlie in 1941. The tensions in this moment in Australian history are suggested by the fact that much of our knowledge of Prichard’s trip is thanks to the files kept by two government agencies—one, the Commonwealth Literary Fund which was giving her money; and the other, the intelligence service which was surveilling her. The trip encompassed two forms of dirt—the ‘dirt’ of a mining industry and the ‘dirt file’ being kept on Prichard as a dangerous radical.

My research project, expanding on my doctoral thesis, is a biography of Prichard. Her thirteen novels published between 1915 and 1967 depict Australian ways of life and work, from timber workers in the karri forests in South West Western Australia to opal miners in outback New South Wales. Prichard is nearly as well known for her rigid communism—she was a foundation member of the Communist Party of Australia in 1920 and remained loyal to the Soviet Union until her death in 1969. Drusilla Modjeska writes that after Prichard’s visit to the Soviet Union in 1933 and the suicide of her husband, ‘she identified herself with the party at least as much as she identified herself as a writer’.[1]

The grant and the research trip

Prichard arrived in Kalgoorlie in late May 1941. It was a Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowship which enabled her to be in Kalgoorlie, providing her with ₤250 over twelve months, almost an average worker’s wage at the time. Miles Franklin had encouraged her to apply for the fellowship. Asking for financial assistance did not come easily to Prichard. She wrote in her covering letter:

I am reluctant to apply for a Fellowship… but circumstances, at present force me to… For many years, I have been living on much less than the basic wage. Hard work and ill health are making it almost impossible for me to write well.  This book of the goldfields which I am anxious to do next year, I should like to make something of real value. With relief from pressing financial anxiety, I think that it may be.[2]

Her application form provided details of her goldfields project:

The novel which I am anxious to do during 1941 is set in the goldfields of West Australia. It will probably be of three book length—although my publisher may prefer to print in one volume. Part I deals with the discovery of gold & the prospecting period. Part II growth of the mining industry & the rise of towns. Part III with the slump & return to prosperity in present conditions. I have been working on this book for some time, & Part I is almost completed, having been built on the yarns of original prospectors & personal experiences on the fields. For Part II, time must be given to research into the findings of the Gold-Stealing Commission & other matters. As the subject of this novel has never been thoroughly dealt with, I want to make it both historically accurate & a good picture of the life of the periods through which the story moves.

The goldfields saga would eventually be published as a trilogy much as she envisioned in this application—The Roaring Nineties in 1946, Golden Miles in 1948, and Winged Seeds in 1950.

The awarding of the fellowship was not publicly announced and the security service only learned of it from reading Katharine’s mail; they were very unhappy. One officer reported, ‘it seems strange that one so intimately associated with the Communist Party should in any way be recognised’. The memo records a recommendation that in the future the literary fund send the security service the names of any one they intend to award a fellowship so that the service can give them the benefit of their ‘observations’.[3]

The goldfields trip was one of many research trips Prichard took to write novels. She explained her preferred approach in a letter to a researcher in 1938: ‘I prefer always to live among the people and the places I write of: use notes taken at the time, and try to discover the thoughts and reactions of people under my microscope to situations they have been through, or may have to encounter. The law of libel necessitates variations from the original, of course. Otherwise I am concerned to draw as I see.’[4]

Her report to the fund gave a detailed account of how—officially—she spent her time in the goldfields:

Usually, my plan was to work on ms and notes from 7-30 or 8 o’clock until mid-day, and in the afternoon interview “old timers” who could give me personal reminiscences. For about a fortnight, I put in five and a half hours a day reading the Kalgoorlie Miner from 1897 to 1919. I have read newspapers covering the earlier period from 1892 to 1897 before leaving Perth. Yarning with prospectors, miners,  mine-managers, and interesting folks of all sorts, have added a good deal to the material I’ve been gathering for years…

What with studying mining law, geology and the processes of gold extraction, none of which I may use but still need for a background, as well as health reports and the ways of the Open Call, I have had a thou[rou]ghly enjoyable and valuable experience.

A woman named Doon Doyle invited Prichard to stay with her in Kalgoorlie. Although not a party member, Doon was sympathetic to communism; she was a teacher in her thirties who acted in productions of the Repertory Club and was married to a miner. Doon had met Prichard on a previous trip and idolised her. ‘They let me do as I like, work & read’, Prichard wrote. ‘Marvellous to have no dish-washing & cooking for awhile!’ Although Prichard was relaxed Doon wasn’t. ‘I had an unshakable conviction in her creative art, that amounted to fervour, and the routine of my days revolved around her needs.’[5] Doon arranged trips for Prichard to the mines at Broad Arrow, Ora Banda, and Siberia and introduced her to locals for her research.[6] The friendship between the two women was to be an enduring one, even though it was troubled by Doon’s tendency to not say what she was feeling and stew bitterly for years over hurts Prichard knew nothing about. Golden Miles, the second of the goldfields novels, is dedicated to her.


Ten weeks of no political activity?

While in Kalgoorlie, Prichard wrote to her closest friend, Hilda Esson, ‘For the present, I’m not engaged in any political activity, but am trying to write this book & make a good job of it.’[7] She was making this unlikely claim for the benefit of the intelligence officer she suspected would be reading her mail. The Communist Party of Australia had been declared illegal the previous year; Prichard knew her mail was being intercepted and she was deliberately evasive and misleading about political matters. In reality, Prichard was still on the state committee of the underground Communist Party; her political activity was probably as intense as ever.[8]

World War Two was complicated for communists in Australia. After many years speaking out against the danger of Hitler, Prichard and her comrades faced a dilemma when Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler in August 1939. Historian Stuart Macintyre describes ‘the shock of such a sudden and cynical change. The Soviet Union, which had insisted that fascism was the overriding danger to world peace, now stood back to allow Nazi Germany to go to war’ and party members ‘could no longer see the politics of the left with quite the same hopeful idealism’. However, Prichard seems to have been more able than others to accept the convoluted explanations sent from Moscow by Comintern about a phony imperialist war.[9]

Persecution had intensified Prichard’s loyalty and convictions. On 15 June 1940, the Menzies government declared the Communist Party of Australia illegal, after the fall of France to the Nazis. The next day, detectives raided Prichard’s house and confiscated a large trunk of material. [10] Under the ambitious detective Ron Richards, or the Black Snake, repression of communism was greater in Western Australia than anywhere else. Richards had orchestrated the arrest of a dozen party members; many of them were convicted and jailed.[11]

Why wasn’t Prichard arrested? Perhaps her prominence as a writer would have brought public sympathy and turned her into a martyr. While in Kalgoorlie she wrote about the prosecutions and the prospect of jail to an editor in Moscow; the letter was, appropriately, saved in her intelligence file:

If the copy of an old Newspaper published by the Communist party of Australia, now illegal, or any more recent publications, are found in one’s house, the penalty is usually six months’ imprisonment. No one, of course, is intimidated by these tactics; no one who attached any importance to his convictions and personal courage, at any rate. It would be giving you a wrong impression, however, to imply that the position is not very difficult, both for me and many others whose sympathies are well-known. I am not in the least concerned about going to gaol at any time. The experiences will naturally provide interesting material to write about some day. But if you do [not?] hear from me, now and then, you will understand I am sure what has happened.[12]

After years of limited literary activity, she does seem to have been genuinely focused on her research and writing while she was in Kalgoorlie. Yet in this period of illegality, with the political stakes so high, it’s unlikely that she would take ten weeks away from all political activity. Kalgoorlie-Boulder had a party branch, with several members living together on Piesse Street in Boulder in a miner’s hut ‘affectionately known as the “Kremlin”’ which ‘national CPA leaders often visited’.[13] She may have justified her trip to herself and to the party by secretly working with the goldfields branch while she was there.

In her letter to Esson, Prichard described a nasty encounter at the Palace Hotel with a visiting public prosecutor, Nathaniel Lappin, on 29 May. He wanted to know why she was in Kalgoorlie and criticised her for allowing others to pay for her son’s private school education. He told her ‘You’ve been shown a great deal of toleration,’ which she took as a veiled threat. Lappin was in Kalgoorlie to prosecute a Yugoslavian named Francis Legeny who had been arrested with several copies of the banned publication Communist Review and other material.[14] Francis Legeny claimed to not be a communist and nor to have ever distributed the material, but he was found guilty and sentenced to seven months’ imprisonment with hard labour.  Prichard told Lappin at the hotel that she was not in town for the same reason as him; she drops no hint to Hilda Esson to contradict this. Yet it does seem a remarkable co-incidence that her visit coincided with the arrest and trial. In Winged Seeds, the goldfields novel set before and during World War Two, she praises Yugoslavians: as ‘big husky men, [who] had experienced persecution in their own land… and were willing to fight for the rights of the workers anywhere.’ They had ‘burning eyes’ and ‘hungry intensity’.[15]

Although intelligence officers were interested in Prichard’s activities at this time, they did not even realise she was in Kalgoorlie until Ron Richards himself spotted her on 30 June 1941, five weeks after she arrived.[16] Despite Lappin’s hostility and involvement in prosecuting communists, he had apparently not filed a report on her.

The war situation changed dramatically on 22 June, halfway through Prichard’s stay in Kalgoorlie, when German forces invaded the Soviet Union. The Communist Party was still illegal in Australia but suddenly the Soviets were on the same side as the Allies. Prichard made a public response to the development five weeks later in late July just as she was about to leave Kalgoorlie. After not mentioning Prichard’s visit at all, the 25 July issue of the Kalgoorlie Miner carried two separate articles about her—one about a lecture she was to give and the other about a cable she’d received from the Soviet Union.[17]

Three hundred people turned out to listen to Prichard speak for one hour at the Boulder Worker’s Hall about her 1933 visit to Russia and her impressions of the country and its people. The intelligence agency arranged for an undercover police officer to attend the meeting. The officer reported, ‘Her speech[,] which appeared to be guarded[,] did not contain any Communistic propaganda although she hinted at one stage that the Menzies Government would be advised to lean towards the communist regime rather that the fascist. She also said that the National Security regulations tended to hamper Australia’s war effort.’[18] Prichard was a reluctant public speaker. She found it draining  and taking on the speech would likely have interrupted the progress and rhythm she had been achieving. At the same time, the Kalgoorlie Miner reported Prichard was at work on a political article—the Union of Soviet Writers asked she cable a 1000 word article ‘on the Australian people’s reaction to Fascist aggression’.


Political Activity as Interruption

Prichard’s stated goal of twelve months focused on her writing funded by the grant was further interrupted by political activity. After returning home from Kalgoorlie in August 1941, she wrote to the fund in October asking for a suspension for two months while she embarked on a speaking tour around Australia promoting the Medical Aid to Russia campaign: ‘It is really a terrible wrench because, being in [the] atmosphere and wanting nothing more than to bring the thing to birth, I must leave it for awhile. In the suffering and sorrow of our times, I feel however that one is not entitled to put personal inclination before any service that can be given to relieve this tragic pressure.’[19]

Throughout Prichard’s life, she had struggled to be active in politics and productive in her writing at the same time. She wrote little during her two periods of intense political activity in 1919 to 1921 and again from 1931 onwards. In that first period, she had worked hard upon her arrival in Perth to establish a study circle for the Communist Party. She withdrew from involvement after 1921 because of poor health and then the birth of her only child the next year. When she returned her focus properly to writing from 1924 to 1929, she wrote the novels, stories, and play she is most famous for. The Depression and the reinvigoration of the WA branch of the Communist Party saw her return to political activity and in the ten years to 1941, her only new work was a potboiler novel called The Moon of Desire.[20]

As it happened, Prichard continued to have a busy war on the homefront. She moved to Sydney the next year, probably at the request of the Communist Party, and in 1943 was elected to the Central Committee for a two-year term, a demanding role which left her little time for writing. In late 1944, she finally sent off the manuscript for The Roaring Nineties to her publisher, Jonathan Cape. Due to war-time paper shortages, it was not published until 1946.[21] The next two volumes appeared at two-year intervals, with Winged Seeds in 1950 giving a fictionalisation of World War Two in Kalgoorlie.

For Prichard, her goldfields trilogy was her supreme achievement because she felt she was finally able to synthesise politics and literature. Yet in the same way activism and writing did not mix easily in her life while she wrote the trilogy, the synthesis in the trilogy may not be as accomplished as she thought. As Sandra Burchill writes, too often ‘characters are manipulated to act as propagandist paradigms of life on the goldfields’.[22] The conventional saga of Sally Gough and her family is often interrupted with goldfields yarns and didactic passages of industrial history, reflecting both Prichard’s political commitments and her research process.



Disappointingly for a biographer, when Prichard came to write about 1941 in the third goldfields novel, Winged Seeds, she didn’t directly fictionalise her own ten weeks in Kalgoorlie. Perhaps her experience simply didn’t fit the characters’ situation. This section of the novel is interesting in its own right, depicting raids on communists’ houses during illegality and Sally taking momentous steps of support for communism. However, I can’t help wishing that somewhere Prichard had given a candid account of her ten weeks in Kalgoorlie—what was she really doing for the party during illegality? Did she have anything to do with Francis Legeny? What of Boulder’s “Kremlin” on Piesse Street? Of course, it was too soon to be candid in 1950 when she was writing, and it probably still felt too soon by the time she died in 1969, without an end to the Cold War in sight.

[1] Exiles at Home, loc. 2911.

[2] KSP to Commonwealth Literary Fund, 15 December 1940, NAA, A463, 1968/5004.

[3] KSP ASIO file, NAA, Vol. 2a, 12.

[4] Prichard, ‘On Purpose’, 121.

[5] Doon Stone Papers, MS7043.

[6] “Some Recollections of KSP”, Doon Stone Papers, MS7043.

[7] KSP to Hilda Esson, 7 June 1941, KSPP, MS6201/10/7.

[8] Williams, The First Furrow, 170.

[9] Macintyre, The Reds, loc. 7044-7058.

[10] ASIO, Vol. 1, 14.

[11] Macintyre, The Reds, loc. 7307.

[12] KSP, Kalgoorlie, to Tov Apletin, 9 June 1941, extract from treated mails, 25 June 1941, KSP ASIO file, NAA, Vol. 2 – 1941-1952, 32.

[13] John Hale, “My Father, Len Hale”, Papers in Labour History, no. 29, 2005, 15.

[14] Kalgoorlie Miner, 30 May 1941, 1.

[15] Prichard, Winged Seeds, 48.

[16] KSP ASIO file, NAA, Vol. 2 – 1941-1952, 33.

[17] Kalgoorlie Miner, 25 July 1941, 2.

[18] KSP ASIO file, NAA, Vol. 2 – 1941-1952, 47.

[19] KSP to H.S. Temby, 12 October 1941, NAA: A463, 1968/5004, 96.

[20] KSP to Hilda Esson, 22 June 1940, KSPP, MS6201/10/7.

[21] KSP, Sydney, to H.S. Temby, CLF, 12 March 1945, NAA: A463, 1968/5004, 82.

[22] Burchill, ‘KSP: Romance, Romanticism and Politics’, 314.