Interviewer: Phyllis Southall
Interviewee: Mr Ray Cummings, Mrs Joy Cummings
Margaret Henry Oral History Archive
The University of Newcastle
Transcript created by Annabelle Walls with the help of Converter App on August 4, 2023
Cummings J., Cummings, R., & Southall, P. (1988, June 6). Joy Cummings [Audio Interview]. In Margaret Henry Oral History Archive. The University of Newcastle Australia. https://livinghistories.newcastle.edu.au/nodes/view/77199
Note: Joy was present during this interview, but struggled to speak due to her stroke, so her husband Ray spoke on her behalf.
Student; Phyllis Southall, Open Foundation Course, University of Newcastle, interviewing Mr Ray Cummings, husband of Joy Cummings, former lord mayor of Newcastle, speaking of Joy's activities and highlights whilst in the Newcastle City Council.
Joy, were you a “Novacastrian”, were you born here in Newcastle?
Joy was born at Armcliffe in Sydney on the 23rd of December 1923 and lived in the Sydney area until she was 16 years of age. Prior to coming to Newcastle, she was residing at the seaside town of Ramsgate.
Joy, what were you and your family involved with, in Sydney?
Joy's family life in Sydney consisted of herself, her brother, her parents and her grandfather. They moved regularly from place to place because her father was at that stage, an officer in the NSW fire brigade and living in fire brigade quarters, they were often moved from place to place.
Joy's parents were actively involved in the Labor Party in the early days of Jack Lang. In fact, they were personal friends of the famous J. T. Lang. All her parents and other relatives in Sydney always had a photo of J. T. Lang on the walls of their homes.
Joy's mother herself was Secretary of the Ramsgate branch of the Australian Labor Party until she moved to Newcastle.
Joy's father was an adventurous spirit. Before joining the fire brigade, he was a great friend of Mr Holden who was famous for the advent of the Holden motor car. He eventually went to work for Mr Holden in their factory. Mr Holden had a fixed-wing plane in those days which he operated from Bankstown Airport. Joy's father learnt to fly and flew regularly with Mr Holden. On one occasion he came to Newcastle and landed the plane on the Newcastle showground. When the plane had to take off they had to have groups of men on either side holding the wings until they got enough revs up for the plane to take off so that it would take off and rise steeply so that it would not hit the fences or the buildings nearby. He flew regularly with Mr Holden until after Joy was two or three, her mother became fearful that he may have an accident and so he gave away flying.
Joy's grandfather also lived with them. He was an Englishman from the Liverpool area of England and his parents had paid for him to become a midshipman on the sailing ships. This was to prove a wonderful source of information for Joy who often listened to him talking about the Cutty Sark and the Thermopylae and other famous sailing ships throughout the world and Joy's love of the ocean and sailing ships was to prove a vital aspect in her life later in life as lord mayor and an alderman of The City Council.
Joy was actively involved in sports. It seemed as if almost everything that she put her hand at she became quite proficient [in]. She was a tennis player, quite renowned in the local club. She had advanced to what we might call an A-grade tennis player in those days. She was involved in ice skating. She was very proficient at figure ice skating and also swimming as they had lived at Ramsgate for many years, quite close to the Ramsgate bars. Diving and swimming came naturally to her and of course, her active sports life was to prove vitally important to her resourcefulness later on in public life in Newcastle.
When did you and your family come to Newcastle?
Joy's father was transferred to Newcastle in 1942 and they came to reside in Athcourt flats in Telford Street Newcastle which is now the site of the beautiful fountain in Pacific Park.
We met at the local dances held in Tyrell Hall on Friday nights and four years later we were married on the 9th of February 1946 at Christchurch Cathedral.
After you married Joy, where did you reside?
We lived at Mayfield where we resided for the next 34 years and raised a family of three girls and a boy.
At what stage Joy, did you become involved with the municipal council affairs?
Joy's interest in municipal affairs first began when I was elected to the Newcastle City Council in the early 1960s. I served a term of three years but I wasn't greatly interested and decided not to seek a second term, but that was an opening and Joy became quite conversant with the trappings of council and civic affairs.
When did you first decide to enter local government?
As a family we had been involved in many issues in the local community but in early 1967 there had been a move to eliminate the beautiful avenue of modern bay fig trees in Islington Park. This became an issue with Joy and she took up the cudgels and decided to fight on this issue and a local alderman of the council was due to retire at the Triennial elections held in 1968 and Joy decided to offer herself as a candidate and that was when she first entered the Newcastle City Council as an alderman of East Board.
[Who was the] lord mayor at the time?
Doug McDurgle was the lord mayor at that time.
Joy what were some of your activities in the council when you were an alderman?
When Joy was elected as an alderman of East Ward it was quite a unique happening because East Ward consisted of the very industrial suburbs of Mayfield East, Tighes Hill, Islington, Wickham, Carrington and Stockton and it was something unique that a woman should be entering the council from that type of area where the majority of the people residing in that area were employed in the waterfront, ships, seamen and the heavy industries. However, she stood on her ticket and was elected quite comfortably. In those days voting was not compulsory and there was a lot of hard work put into the effort to get sufficient people along to record their vote. However, she had no trouble getting elected on that occasion.
The next six years on the council involved lots of issues. In those days the environment wasn't considered [as] a great deal of importance but to Joy, it was something that the Newcastle people should become conversant with as it affected their lifestyles of them and their future children of the area.
We know that the beautiful avenue of trees along Islington still remains, but there were some very important issues to come up within the next six years. Particularly the destruction of an avenue of trees in Birdwood Park. Birdwood Park had been allowed to more or less deteriorate and it was used mainly for circuses and such that came to Newcastle. There was no beautiful development in it, but there was always a possibility that the park could become established as a lovely park for the people of Newcastle West. The trees had been planted in the form of a square and were at least 100 years old and had grown majestically. The idea was to widen Parkway Avenue and put a continuation of King Street right through the centre of the park. The issue had been debated and caused quite a lot of controversy in the Newcastle City Council. Joy made many impassioned speeches on it, prior to the actual involvement of the destruction of the trees which took place at a very early hour one morning.
Joy received a phone call at seven o'clock one morning to say that they were already using bulldozers and circular saws to destroy the trees. She immediately went in and there [were] already groups of people placing themselves before the trees and trying to prevent their destruction and to look at some other method of opening up an avenue into the centre of the city, without destroying a park.
Highway 23 through Blackbutt Reserve was a very controversial issue that many people took a great interest in, in Newcastle. The council meetings were packed, people standing out in the corridors to hear the debates on this vital issue. Joy had “taken up the cudgels” that a highway should never go through the reserve. The reserve would be destroyed in its value and she made, again, very many impassioned speeches. Often when she made a speech in Newcastle the people were cheering and clapping and giving her great encouragement to keep up her fight for this issue such as this. Fortunately, the highway didn't go through the reserve and today Newcastle has that majestic reserve out there at Blackbutt that is visited by crowds of people almost daily.
She was also vitally interested in the employment of women in Newcastle. Being the leading industrial city of Australia, there wasn't a great deal of avenue[s] for work for young women in the city. She was a great advocate, in the early days, for women to be employed by the police department. This was before women [were] employed actually on the beat. Her idea in those days [was] that they could be engaged in the offices doing typing and such and relieve more police to work on what they called patrolling the streets. She became a great advocate for women to be employed in council-owned abattoirs. She felt that there were avenues there for employment in the packaging department. Some of the media in Newcastle took the issue up as being not worthy and was more or less castigating her- “How could the women employees be engaged in slaughtering animals?” and of course, anyone with common sense would know that this wasn't Joy's idea and of course, later on, large numbers of females were employed in the packaging department of the abattoirs.
Later on, when she became lord mayor, she [was] invited to open the new very high technical rod mill of the BHP and she was quite amazed at the technology [with] which the steel was being rolled and formed into the products to be used and she thought then that there [were] avenues for women to be employed in this type of employment. There was some hostility from some of the unions at the time. They felt that there was women shouldn't be employed in the “heavy” industries. Of course, this isn't the case today and many women are employed in this form of work. Later on, she was greatly involved in having the taxation office built in Newcastle, because she realised that a large majority of the persons employed in that would be females.
Another issue [that] caused a great deal of controversy was when Joy introduced a resolution in the council in which she asked for support to stop the needless slaughter of whales. Most of them felt it was of no concern to the city or its people. Joy again gave one of her fine speeches on the value of quality of life for her, her children and future generations of Newcastle. She told how she loved to take the children to the high spots of Newcastle Beach to watch the whales passing Newcastle, diving, spouting and often with their calves. This was something that could be lost forever and to her, it was of tremendous importance for “Novacastrians” to enjoy. The resolution was carried. The Newcastle media largely ignored the issue. However, it must have been reported interstate and overseas, as she received mail from New Zealand and every state. The upshot was that she was invited to become a trustee of the World Wildlife Fund of Australia.
You were first elected, Joy, to the position of Lord and Mayor in 1974.
Yes, there was a triennial election in 1974 and the group that Joy represented received the majority on the council. The position of lord mayor in those days was elected by the alderman of the council and not by the public. She was approached by the majority of her members and asked to stand for the position and this she [did], and consequently, in September 1974, she became the first woman lord mayor in Australia.
I understand there were some notable achievements and awards given to Joy during her term of lord mayor.
Yes, there were. I'll talk about her awards first. She was granted the Federal Government had instituted the first purely Australian award named the Order of Australia during the time of Prime Minister Whitlam. Joy was nominated for this award and she received the award in 1976 and she travelled to Canberra and received the award from the Queen. These were the first recipients of this purely Australian award.
Later, after Joy suffered a stroke early in 1984, The City Council decided toward Joy the Freeman of the City. This had been a ceremony that had been instituted during the term of Joy as lord mayor and there were already two recipients of this award. The first was the late lord mayor of Newcastle, Alderman Frank Purgeau and the second was a former lord mayor and a government minister in the federal government, Mr Charlie Jones. The council awarded Joy the award in May 1984 and it was to be left at her discretion when she was ready to participate in the ceremony to receive the award. This was because Joy had suffered a stroke and I was leaving it to her to judge herself when she thought she would be well enough. This took place [in] October 1987, at a beautiful ceremony in the City Hall attended by hundreds of people. She was the third recipient of this award to be honoured as a Freeman of the City of Newcastle.
Joy's achievements are there today to be enjoyed by us all. Could you elaborate more upon them?
Yes, I suppose we could talk about the mall in Newcastle. Newcastle city had had a mall for some years but it wasn't what you would call a proper mall. Traffic still travelled down the centre of the street and it wasn't used by people who couldn't walk indiscriminately throughout the area. Joy was involved in a Queensland company to develop the mall into the beautiful place that it is today, paving, shrubs and trees, hanging baskets and the conversion of a lot of the city-council-owned properties that had become quite dilapidated and at this time there was a depressed economic factor in spending money to do up our buildings. The City Council took the initiative and we had those old City Council buildings refurbished and they looked quite beautiful in the area which was formerly around the Strand Theatre.
The old Newcastle Surf Pavilion had become quite dilapidated and suffering from exposure to the sea air and was crumbling. It was decided to develop a new Surfing Pavilion and public [facilities] for use by the public on the beach. That beautiful development is up there now, without any high structures to cast shadows on the beach and is a popular place now for the people of Newcastle. To get to the beach area they also decided that a subway should be constructed so that family groups and young people would not have to cross the busy street to get to this beautiful beach in Newcastle.
Another development on the beachfront was the Nobby’s Surf Pavilion. This had also become quite almost unusable because of rust and falling into decay. There was a move to have this building demolished, but I think Joy and some other members of the council could see that it was a beautiful building and it could be recycled and which it was and is now one of the [most] beautiful buildings on the beaches at Nobby’s.
Pacific Park was always an area that had suffered from winds and exposure to the southern elements when they swept across from the beach and the ocean area into the park and had [the] capacity of damaging the trees and the gardens and so forth. It was decided to seek the advice of one of Australia's leading landscape artists, Mr Bruce McKenzie and from his ideas, the beautiful Pacific Park, which we have there now, developed with a huge mound which was to protect the park from the ravages of the cold salt air winds that would come in from the sea. The park is one of probably Newcastle's most beautiful at the present time with its beautiful fountain and its area for entertainment, music and bands.
After the Newcastle abattoirs closed down, the council had a large area of land at Mayfield West. Again, they used the same Queensland Company to develop [it] and this has now become one of the prestigious new suburbs of Newcastle called Warrobrook.
The New South Wales Conservatorium of Music in Newcastle had, for many years, operated in the old library building and it was to move. They had nowhere to go and it was through the good graces of Joy, through her contacts in the New South Wales Government that she was able to persuade them to purchase the old Salvation Army People's Palace [which] refurbished and became the conservatorium of Newcastle.
Joy gave great encouragement to live theatre in Newcastle. It had been struggling to become recognised and to be accepted by the people but they didn't have their own theatre and she was able to get the council to develop the old Civic Winter Garden and which became the home of the Hunter Valley Theatre Company and it still operates there to this day quite successfully. They still have their seasons of live theatre.
And it's one of the nicest little theatres I’ve seen. It is, it's a lovely theatre. I believe that Joy was very much involved with various aspects of public life here in Newcastle.
Yes, in fact, it was just after Joy was first elected lord mayor in September 1974 that the cyclone Tracey happened and Darwin was destroyed at Christmas time of that year. We had gone away for a slight holiday up the valley to have a three-day break and we heard on the wireless, on the television that the Darwin had been destroyed. Joy immediately cancelled our holiday and we travelled back to Newcastle that night and her secretary had already set up the paraphernalia for opening a lord mayor appeal. This was to be one of the first big major appeals Newcastle had ever experienced. Of course, it was a devastating event and the people were only too pleased but it entailed tremendous work by Joy. She had to attend gatherings from breakfast time to midnight, not only in the Newcastle area but all up the valley in the Nelson's Bay area and in the Lake Macquarie area. People were lined up in the corridor of the city hall waiting to, they had to set up tables to receive money, tables were set up in the mall and I remember Joy going up there to see how they were going and people were coming across and putting money into her hand and she had to sit down herself at the table and start issuing receipts herself.
She also became involved with the university life in Newcastle. She had had a close contact with the vice chancellor of the University and she was eventually invited to become a member of the university council and she served her term on that for two years. This was also carried out with the College of Advanced Education she also served on that council for a period. The University Council, while she was a member of that, she was involved in setting up what was known as Friends of the University, and this society still operates raising funds for various aspects of university life.
Because of the part Joy had played in the university, after she had suffered her stroke the university decided to award her an Honorary Degree of Master of Arts. The whole family attended this ceremony for the conferring of awards and it was really a beautiful sight when Joy was awarded this honour and the hull of the audience rose to their feet and gave her a public acclamation.
A most deserving person.
There was always speculation how Joy would be received by the various RSL clubs in Newcastle. All her life she had been a great worker for the cause of peace. But strangely enough, she was accepted by the RSL and became popular and [was] asked by all the sub-branches to attend their functions and [despite] being a woman lord mayor she was greatly accepted by the RSL. They understood her work for peace, marching in the peace marches and that was accepted by them. That was Joy's thoughts, but they knew that she was loved and respected by the returned soldiers and sailors and Airforce establishments in Newcastle.
She was a patron of nearly 500 various organisations in Newcastle and I think she attended each one of them at least once a year, because her involvement in the council generally extended from 9 o'clock in the morning, until midnight, almost every day of the week. This included Saturdays and Sundays.
[Joy] Cummings, what were the benefits to Newcastle with the Japanese sister city's relationship? Can you tell me, please?
Yes, Newcastle had already established a relationship with Arcadia, an area in California on the west coast of the United States of America and this was very important. However, Japan was proving to be one of our most important trading partners, particularly in coal. Joy could see the value of establishing good relationships and the city of Ubei in Southern Japan was a city very much akin to Newcastle. It had been a city that had been established on coal and had moved from coal to heavy engineering and industrial. The population was similar and the cities themselves were similar in appearance.
When the sistercity relationship was established, there was lots of apprehension because there was still a lot of hostility towards the Japanese people but Joy could also see in this a relaxation of this hostility and being of benefit to both nations. The relationship with the city of Ubei was established in 1981 when the mayor and a group of the alderman and powerful industrialists of that city came out to Newcastle and cemented the relationship into the signing of documents.
Later that year, we were to visit Ubei City and there sign the documents in that city. It was an amazing sight when we arrived there. The whole of the city was bedecked with flags and bunting, huge signs carrying Joy’s portrait, citizens were wearing big cardboard medallions on their lapels and dresses with Joy’s photograph and we were received at the airport with a band, a uniform band and hundreds and hundreds of school children waving Australian flags. It was almost like royalty as we ascended from the plane to be greeted by this spectacular event. Later we were taken to the city hall and spoke to a battery of television cameras and radio stations and newspaper reporters.
The benefits to Newcastle were twofold, firstly the trade between the city of Ubei and the coal industry in Newcastle. This was proving of immense value to this city with [the] development of further coal ladders and the development of the deepening of the harbour to accommodate huge ships to carry the coal to Japan. But another aspect of the benefits received by Newcastle was the generous response from the Ubei City Council and Ubei industries to Newcastle. Arising from the relationship, I think Newcastle Art Gallery now has one of the largest collections of Japanese art in Australia. Besides this, Newcastle has been graced with some Japanese sculpture which has been placed in our parks and garden plots. A special department was set up at Newcastle University, with a Japanese professor in charge, that deals mainly with Japanese culture and the teaching of Japanese culture to the students at Newcastle University.
They arranged just recently last year for a visit to their city of our famous Marching Koala Band where they received a tremendous reception from that city. Because of the sister city relationship between Newcastle and Ubei, Joy was invited by the Australia-Japan Association to attend a convention in Tokyo in 1983. I went across with her and it was amazing at the convention, attended by people from all over Australia and people from all over Japan, that Newcastle was mentioned on numerous occasions as successfully run and to be an example for other relationships, to copy how Newcastle relationships had developed. It was so important that we had been invited to attend the private reception at the Australian ambassador's residence in Tokyo.
While in Japan she (Joy) was invited to open an “Australia Fair” at one of the largest business houses in Ubei. This was a tremendous multi-story building and we attended the fair and every floor that we ascended there were huge crowds of people waving Australian flags and Japanese flags and when we arrived at the floor in which the Australian Fair was to be conducted, we were amazed to see lots of products from the Hunter Valley including dairy products, and of course, our famous Hunter Valley wines. The Australian government in New South Wales were so impressed with this event that they sent down people from Tokyo to be present at these fairs. Of course, the New South Wales branch of the consulate had arranged the fair originally, but they came down to be there when Joy opened it.
I believe also that Joy was one of the two directors appointed to represent New South Wales on the Bicentennial Authority.
Yes. In late 1979 the Fraser government had decided to start organising for Australia's Bicentennial birthday in 1988. They decided to set up this Bicentennial Authority and in early 1980 as you say, Joy was appointed one of the two representatives from New South Wales. The directors were generally appointed for a period of two or sometimes three years. Joy was appointed on three successive occasions and she probably would have been still director of that authority, only she had to resign after she suffered a stroke in 1984. The authority met generally in Canberra, on a monthly basis, at first. Later on, they met in each state’s capital city and gradually plans were formulated to celebrate our birthday in 1988.
One of the early suggestions that came forward was vigorously enunciated by Joy, and this was the visit of the Tall Ships to Australia. Joy had a vast knowledge of sailing ships throughout the world. As I had mentioned earlier, her grandfather had been a midshipman, who worked on sailing ships in the late 1800s. She was pressing for this and actually knew by name the name of the Tall ships operated by various countries throughout the world. And of course, we had that grand spectacular event of the Tall ships entering Sydney Harbour on 26th January 1988. And on that occasion, [she] and I were invited to see this event at the authorities sighting on Garden Island on that day. We flew down to Sydney and were transported by car to Garden Island and had a spectacular view of this event.
Later in that year, the federal authority set up, in each state, councils to direct the affairs of the bicentennial authority in the various states. And when New South Wales was set up, Joy was appointed a vice chairman of the New South Wales Council. Later, the New South Wales Council of the bicentennial authority [would] set up in every municipal area of Australia local bicentennial councils to organise events in their area for the national celebrations in 1988.
Has holding such an important position in the bicentennial authority at both federal and state levels been instrumental in the establishment of the foreshore developments?
Yes, because of these positions Joy held and her rapport with both the federal and state governments she set about with a small group of colleagues on The City Council to [organise] the acquisition of old government railways, lines and buildings and an old powerhouse station side on the Newcastle East End to develop Newcastle's major project for the bicentennial event, a harbour side park to open up the city [to] Newcastle Harbour. These arrangements were formulated, again with very close colleagues, to arrange for an Australian-wide competition to design a park [that] would be acknowledged as something beautiful for Newcastle. An appeal was opened and the Newcastle businesses came forward readily with large donations and I think approximately $35,000 was raised and from this, the first, second and third prize was awarded. Three judges were appointed to choose the winning design; one, a world expert on environmental landscaping and another was of course our own Bruce Mackenzie who was also involved in this, in his own right, and a third person. The winners were a group of design architects from Melbourne and after the prize was won, the whole of the project of half a dozen or more of the leading designs were put on display in the City Hall and it was visited by thousands and thousands of people from the city and throughout the Valley to see what was to be established for Newcastle by 1988. Of course, we have seen the result of that [with] the visit of the Queen in May of this year, when she opened the Harbourside Park, already used by the people of Newcastle on a number of occasions and it seems to be truly appreciated by people.
Just prior to Joy suffering her stroke in April of 1984, she had invited the Prime Minister of Australia up to her and him to plant a tree to initiate the first bicentennial event in Australia of any municipality and a plaque was arranged for that and it will no doubt be established in the park when the tree is well established.
I'd like to thank you Joy and Ray for this interview. I believe Ray, you and Prince Philip have something in common. Would you like to tell us?
I suppose you could say that we have both walked beside great women.
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