I am writing this from Abbotsford. This is without doubt a place of beauty.

It is also where I had my first close encounter with the exploitation and injustice which so many women suffered and still do.

In these months I have cultivated my tiny garden, forged friendships with my neighbours, and harvested good memories of the years between..

Abbotsford, on the west bank of the Yarra River, is once again drenched with the colours of autumn. From here I can walk through bushland for hours.

There is a short walk south to Victoria Street where Abbotsford becomes Richmond and I can smell the cooking and see Asia.

If I go west or north for just a short distance there is Collingwood.  This is the part that tugs at my heart. In the 1950s, here close to Smith Street and Johnston Street my life changed course.

I had joined a group called the YCW and it became my community. My friends among this group would meet and tell each other stories of what had been happening in our lives. We read the gospels together and dreamed of a community of love and respect for the dignity of all persons and all of creation.  

Romeo Maione, YCW International President had written:

‘It is our task to strive to understand the smallest detail of the problems of young workers, but at the same time we must seek to grasp the large and pressing problems of our age and the repercussions …

I resigned from my teaching and with Margaret, a like-minded YCW friend, lived in rooming houses while working in various factories to be among the young workers there, as friends who shared their lives. Eventually we moved to Collingwood, Margaret and I, to an upstairs room in an apartment house on the north side of Johnston Street just east of Smith Street. There was a tiny kitchenette and a toilet along the corridor. By now there were many young women who knew us and trusted us.

During Melbourne’s long Covid lockdown I sorted old journals. Loose among the journals there are 12 fragile notepad pages folded together. These were notes from the cigarette factory in Collingwood. Mostly they charted the kindnesses between the young women on the factory floor. Oppression from the bosses was more severe than I had seen before.

January 31st from the old notes

The task was piecework and the teams were paid for what they achieved. One person packed large boxes with tobacco leaf. One person carried the heavy boxes, one box at a time to the bench then unpacked damp leaves. This person was the boxer. The next person was the stripper. A huge tube with wire spikes was constantly rotating. The wires thrashed the leaf from the stems. The stripper kept the leaves moving towards the wire spikes. The weight of the stalks that emerged at the other side of the thresher was the measure of our efficiency. Pat and I alternated the roles of boxer and stripper.

There was always risk. I witnessed the worst of it. In one terrible moment, while I turned to carry the next heavy box of tobacco leaves to the bench, the stripper in a moment of distraction, placed her right hand too far over. It was caught in the wire brush and flesh stripped from bone. This image has not left me even now.

There was a trade union. I accepted nomination for the role of union rep.

My life changed pace step by step. The Collingwood days were an important step.

It is right to come back to this in the last part of my life.

I walk back to that factory, now converted into apartments and gentrified. I remember the goodness of the workers. It isn’t complicated… this dream of a world where the dignity of every person might be respected, where there may be peace, justice, love.