Kathleen Watson (later Kath Thomas)

Year: 2024

Kathleen Watson (1911-94)

The poet as activist.

I am interested in human progress, in seeing men living creative, happy and useful lives building a world that gives something more than mass unemployment, oppression and war. Therefore I would prefer the socialist brand of freedom to the capitalist…[1]

One night in the mid-1940s, Kathleen Watson was standing on a wooden box on a street corner in Wynnum, Brisbane, about to give a speech on behalf of the Communist Party.

It was a dark evening, with no listeners in sight. A figure loomed out of the shadows- ‘Good evening, Miss Watson’. It was the polite voice of the local detective. In her memoir of this time, she said ‘it’s bad enough to speak to nobody, but far worse to speak to one solitary detective, who has heard it all before’.[2]

What was it that led someone like Kathleen Watson, a brilliant scholar, prominent librarian, poet, feminist, journalist and union activist, to a street corner on a Brisbane bayside suburb to speak on behalf of an organisation that had, until recently, been illegal?

Her early life and upbringing was conventional enough. She was born Kathleen Kinkead Watson, in January 1911, the first child of George Watson and the former Evelyn Atthow.[3] Her father was a public servant, serving under both conservative and Labor administrations, eventually rising to be clerk of the Queensland Executive Council.  As is typical of the time, there are few surviving records of her mother’s life.

She grew up in the bayside Brisbane suburb of Lindum (now part of Wynnum West).  At that time, Lindum was a rural outpost, with a population of less than 100. It had a railway station and a post office but no school.

It must have been a lonely upbringing, but Kathleen thrived in it, succeeding in almost every field which she tried. At the age of 13, she came 8th in Queensland, in the public scholarship examinations to determine who would receive free secondary education[4]. She progressed to Somerville House (then known as the Brisbane High School for Girls) where she captained the school athletics team[5], featured in the winning swimming and netball teams[6] and graduated as Dux of the School in 1928[7].

Kathleen came 11th in the State in the public matriculation examinations for her year, winning an open scholarship to Women’s College at the University of Queensland, where she studied Arts.[8]  She maintained an interest in poetry, corresponding with the then Poet Laureate John Masefield (of ‘Sea Fever’ fame). His letters to her were simply addressed ‘Kathleen Watson, Lindum’.The fact that he found the time to write to her personally is a testament to his character; the fact that she, as an undergraduate, had the confidence to write to him, is a testament to hers. 

Kathleen topped the University in English Literature, and graduated with first class honours in modern languages, in April 1932.[9]  

This should have been the start of a glittering career. But she completed her education at the height of the great depression.  Work was hard to come by, even (or perhaps especially) for an academically gifted young woman.  She seems to have joined the Brisbane Teacher's Training College, but resigned after 6 weeks. After that, it wasn’t until the middle of 1933, that she found full time employment, as the librarian at the Queensland Museum.[10]  According to her records in the Qld State Archives, she was one of two serious applicants for the position. The other was a man with science experience, and staff at the museum had been reduced due to the depression. But the director of the Museum, Mr Heber Longman, recommended her appointment to Public Service Commissioner 'in view of her special qualifications as a University Graduate with First-class honours'. He continued, 'Although I regret that she was not a science student, I anticipate that she will be able to help in the general educational work of the Museum.' 

Heber Longman was aligned to the conservative side of politics (his wife, Irene Longman, had been the first female member of Parliament in Queensland and a conservative). But during Kathleen's time at the Museum, her politics became radical, or at least more radical. In her memoir, she says, ‘Having lived through World War I (as a child), through the depression, then through a period of fascist aggression, by 1940 I had come to see Communism as the only alternative’.[11]

In 1941, she published her only  collection of poems, in Dawnfire, Selections from some modern Australian Poets [12]  It’s a compilation of verse from 7 poets, most of them young and left-wing. I suspect its publication was funded by its authors.  

In the preface to her part of Dawnfire, Kathleen describes herself as follows:

Likes living things, any form of exercise, books, music and conversation. Interested in facts and theories, especially about people and social conditions. Dislikes insincerity and smugness. Hates fascism, capitalism, war – everything that prevents the workers from developing and enjoying their world.  

What she doesn’t say is that by then she had become a member of the Communist Party. That’s because she couldn’t say so: at the outset of the second world war, the first Menzies administration had made the Communist Party an illegal organisation.[13]

In any event, though some of her work from Dawnfire shows left-wing sympathies, for the most part the poems are pretty conventional personal meditations on the landscape, love, and war. They are distinguished by the use of very plain, direct, language and an ear for unorthodox metre that generally works very well:

The children laughed, and were glad

in the autumn sun.

But I was suddenly sad,

seeing the brown legs run,

for the children dead in Spain-

who might have been happy too,

if they could live again.  

                             From Children in Spain [14]

In this poem, there’s also a switch in perspective from children in one place to children in another that turns this very plain English into something like real poetry.  Her poems are at their best when they hint at the personal. ‘You’ and ‘Dead Love’, which I have republished on this site hint at a lover who died in the second world war, and are all the better as poems, for that.

Editors certainly liked her work. Over the next few years her poems were published in Meanjin, (even then emerging as Australia’s leading literary journal) Flexmore Hudson’s journal Poetry, K.S. Prichard’s short lived Australian New Writing, and in various Jindyworobak Anthologies.

Sadly, I can find no evidence that her poems were published in the mainstream media, where they might have found a wider audience. But she did find a way to express her views through the letters page of the local newspapers, becoming a vigorous activist for unfashionable causes, such as equal pay for women, in one case expressing concern that the conservative controlled Senate had used its powers to 'prevent higher wages being paid to women many of whom are doing work formerly done by men'.[15] 

By 1943, the Communist Party had once again been made legal, helped perhaps by the fact that Stalinist Russia was now an ally in war. Her literary career trailed off, and she became involved in the Socialist Eureka Youth League, and briefly sought to influence the Barjai group of poets and artists who came out of  Brisbane State High School.

She transferred from the Queensland Museum to the State Works department, and then became a journalist for the Brisbane Communist newspaper The Guardian.  In 1949, she ran as the Communist party’s candidate for the Brisbane City Council Ward of Wynnum. She polled about 2 1/2% of the vote, a little bit better than the Communist Party candidate for Lord Mayor. [18]

Kathleen Watson’s brief reflections on her time in 'the Party', show her to be by no means uncritical of it. In a memorial piece she wrote for a female comrade, she said:

The Communist Party’s policy has always been for the equality of women. But Val’s ‘equality’ wasn’t the sort of which all comrades approved – hers was not quite the behaviour that fitted in with the imaginary picture of the earnest Communist woman, obedient to the leadership, her main work winning over the average working-class housewife and passing on to women workers policy that had been worked out for male workers’. [16]

She also shows a wry, self-deprecating wit:

I used to travel by train when I had to go into town for a meeting. At one station along the way RAAF men from a stores section used to get in on their way to town. One young country boy sat beside me a few times. Then one night he said ‘I think you and me should get married.’ I was so astounded, I just said ‘Oh, we couldn’t’. ‘Why not?’ says he. ‘I am a Communist – I have to go to a lot of meetings.’ He took one look at me, shuffled long the seat away from me – and took care never to sit beside me again. [17]

She continued to do good work through the trade union movement, including for the Union of Australian Women in the fight for equal pay. Slowly, the struggle paid off: at the Commonwealth level women were granted equal pay for identical work in the late 1960s, and for work of equal value in the early 1970s. That’s the way of things- causes that are initially unfashionable, such as women’s suffrage, equal pay or climate change are identified and agitated by marginalised groups until they become mainstream. She continued preparing submissions to the Federal Government on the role and status of women right through to the 1970s.

She married Pete Thomas, the editor of the Queensland Guardian. By her married name of Kath Thomas, she is well remembered today.

Kath Thomas died in 1994, three years after the dissolution of the Communist Party in Australia, but full of hope for the future: ‘I realised how lucky are we… who have lived to see the beginning of great changes’.

Only book to buy: Dawnfire: Melbourne, John Cremin, n.d. (1941).


[1] ‘Socialist Freedom’, Telegraph Brisbane, Monday 21 February 1943, p2.

[2] Watson, K. ‘Some Memories of Party Life’ Fryer Mss F2479, 2.

[3] Queensland births deaths and marriages records.

[4]‘State Scholarships’ Brisbane Courier, Friday 27 June 1924, p15. 

[5] Email from Mrs Connie Baird, Somerville House School Archivist, 27/10/2020,

[6] ‘Girls Sports Brisbane High School’ Brisbane Courier, Saturday 22 August 1925, p11.

[7] ‘No “Slackers” Gospel of Work Governor’s Sound Advice’, Brisbane Courier, Friday 22 June 1928, p17.

[8] ‘Brisbane High School for Girls Annual Distribution of Prizes, Influence of Environment’, Brisbane Courier, Friday 5 July 1929, p7.

[9] Email from Joan Keating, University of Queensland Fryer Library, 17 May 2018.

[10] Miss K. Watson Appointed. Telegraph Brisbane, Thursday 13 July 1933, p8.

[11] Watson, K. ‘Some Memories of Party Life’ Fryer Mss F2479.

[12] Dawnfire Selections from some modern Australian Poets, Melbourne, John Cremin n.d.(1941).

[13] Ward, R. ‘A Nation for a Continent’, revised edition, Heinemann Educational Australia, 1983, p239. Ward notes that this was ‘something Churchill saw no necessity for in beleaguered Britain’.

[14] ‘Children in Spain’, in Dawnfire, at p29. 

[15] ‘Women’s Employment Board’, Telegraph, Brisbane, Monday 28 September 1942, p3.

[16] 'Val’ Fryer MSS 2479 [3]

[17] Watson, K. ‘Some Memories of Party Life’ Fryer Mss F2479

[18] ‘Final Figures’ Truth, Brisbane, Sun 1 May 1949, p43.

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