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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Matthias, Elizabeth (Betsy) (1882–1963)

by Verity Burgmann

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Elizabeth (Betsy) Matthias (1882-1963), socialist and charity-worker, was born on 30 December 1882 in Crown Street, Sydney, daughter of Richard Miles, van proprietor, and his wife Alice, née Eagar, both from Kerry, Ireland. When her mother died in 1895, Betsy went to school in New York, United States of America, where her father's seven siblings had settled. One of her uncles, John Miles, a silk merchant, gave $1 million for the investigation of Sing Sing Prison, and was made foreman of the board of investigation by President Woodrow Wilson. Two cousins, both radical attorneys, became senators.

Betsy returned to Sydney in 1900. By 1905 associating with members of the International Socialist Club, she later joined its offshoot, the Australian Socialist Party. She left the party in World War I, enraged by its reluctance to support the pregnant wife and four children of an imprisoned comrade. Donald Grant introduced her to members of the Industrial Workers of the World, who immediately gave her £5 and started a systematic collection for the distressed family. Though never a member of the I.W.W., Betsy was the most energetic and successful collector of funds to sustain the families of the imprisoned 'Twelve', and of the 100-odd members serving short sentences under the War Precautions Act, including her husband Rudolph Hamilton Matthias, baker, whom she had married on 25 October 1915 at the Sydney Registry Office. Her only child was born in 1919. Betsy was prominent also in the defence and release campaigns around these imprisonments, and in the 'No' campaigns during the conscription referenda. She was assistant secretary-treasurer of the Industrial Labor Party of New South Wales, which was as hostile to parliamentary activity as the I.W.W., and in 1917-19 edited its fortnightly newspaper, Solidarity. Betsy travelled frequently to industrial centres through the State, and proved to be a militant and effective agitator. In her writing and speaking she always enjoined working-class women to fight alongside their menfolk, and working-class men to encourage the participation of women in the struggle to end the poverty and misery caused by capitalism.

In the 1920s, while retaining links with the I.W.W. remnants, Betsy turned her attentions to the Australian Labor Party, hoping 'to purify it', and the established trade union movement. By 1927 she was the Unemployed Workers' Union delegate to the Labor Council of New South Wales. Over the next few years, she was active in the One Big Union of Unemployed, the Labor Women's Central Organising Committee, and in strike support work, notably during the 1929 timberworkers' strike. In the 1930s she sheltered many refugees from Nazi Germany; managed a hostel for destitute women; and served on the Bankstown District Hospital's board. Every year from the mid-1920s she organized a children's Christmas tree and became 'one of Bankstown's best-known and controversial identities'.

In 1959 Betsy was appointed M.B.E. especially for her work as secretary of the Labor Women's welfare committee. Two months later she led a deputation of old-age pensioners to Canberra, to protest to the Menzies government at the level of pensions at the time of a salary increase for parliamentarians. She died on 26 August 1963 at her home at Peakhurst. Predeceased by her husband and daughter, she was survived by her ward Len Bradford. Her body was delivered to the University of Sydney's medical school, and was later cremated without clergy. Arthur Calwell wrote that her 'life was well-spent'; and former I.W.W. member Mick Sawtell recalled the Christmas dinner Betsy gave him in gaol in 1917. The Betsy Women's Refuge at Bankstown was named in her honour in 1975.

Select Bibliography

  • ALP Women's Diamond Jubilee Souvenir (Syd, 1964)
  • Labor Daily Year Book, 1933, p 157
  • ALP, Journal, Sept 1963, p 18
  • Solidarity (Industrial Labour Party) (Sydney), 5, 19 Jan, 15 June, 27 July 1918
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Jan 1959
  • Bankstown Observer, 14, 21, 28 Jan 1959, 18 Feb, 4 Mar 1959
  • Torch (Bankstown), 2 Aug 1963
  • N. Wheatley, The Unemployed Who Kicked (M.A. thesis, Macquarie University, 1975)
  • M. Dixson, notes from an interview with Betsy Matthias in Mar 1963 (privately held)
  • Intelligence reports, Queensland, Sydney and Melbourne, CP 407/1 (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Verity Burgmann, 'Matthias, Elizabeth (Betsy) (1882–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 23 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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