An Australian Merchant Seaman’s Story In His Own Words – Tom Curphey

Australian Workers Film Guide


Part of a series of interview segments produced by the SUA/MUA in which retired Australian merchant seamen recount their working lives at sea as well as their engagement with union campaigns and activities. Each episode features a seaman, or sometimes a pair of seamen, sharing their story in a largely unstructured and extended interview. They form an important on camera collection of oral histories about Australia’s unionised merchant seamen.

In this episode seaman Tom Curphey recounts how he began working as a 17 year old deck boy in 1948. The food was poor and it took a long time for “plate service”. There was no safety gear but some linen and soap. Things improved when the roster was established. He remembers chicken and ice cream on Sundays came later. 

Australian ships were more progressive than the New Zealand ships as this was due to the communist leadership of the union – and this was during the Menzies era. Every member of the ship’s crew could write directly to the union and this enabled the rank and file to help write union policy. Television was not a feature of ship life, so you had to read a book. Life was always a class struggle, but now laments the lack of socialist politics in the union describing it as Labor politics, which he considers a dead end. Impressed by some of the communists, Tom joined the Communist Party. He thinks today’s Maritime Union has no politics and that the union journal is like “a Women’s Weekly” without lead issues. Talks about the Seaman’s School and how it gave him a political education, a class outlook to understand what is going on.

He describes how the Seaman’s Retirement Fund has given more dignity to retired seamen, before which seamen would have to work to until their seventies. He remembers Melbourne always being more difficult for the union than Sydney, which was far more militant.

Special Notes/Achievements

Picture and sound quality is low given low budget production.

Author: J Bird, 2023

Duration: 25 mins

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Film Director: Wayne Finch, John Brittain,

Film Producer: Wayne Finch, John Brittain,

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Film Cinematographer: Wayne Finch, John Brittain,

Film Editor: Jennie Finch, Jamie McMechan,

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