By Peter Love
Our long-time comrade and radical activist John Ellis has died at home with Dianne by his side.
It’s said that you’re not dead ‘til you’re forgotten. If so, it’ll take a long time for John to go. We remember his memoirs of a busy life as a PKIU workplace activist in Flinders Street and later at Hawthorn where he printed many ‘foreigners’ for anti-war and other campaigns. Like many printers he was fiercely proud of the skills his trade conferred and the dignity that accompanied it, all of which was embodied in their union and all that it stood for.
John was associated with CICD in Melbourne from its earliest years. He attended many of its demonstrations and functions, camera in hand, capturing the event for us all. Political activism and photography were bound together in John’s life. When recruiting me as his apprentice for labour movement photography he told me how he came to it. He and his comrades at anti-war marches were irritated by ASIO agents taking photographs of all their activity so John decided to turn the tide and photograph them. Apparently ASIO was annoyed.
For most of his industrial and political activism, John always carried his camera. Over the years he amassed a remarkable collection of images and, to his enduring credit, kept them in reasonable order. It is through John’s work that we have clear, engaging shots of demonstrations, marches, speeches and songs, sometimes by very famous singers. John’s sense of history, which attracted him to the Labour History Society where he maintained long-term membership, encouraged him to accept the offer from Melbourne University Archives to take his collection into their archives. They also helped him to arrange the photos into a coherent order with John’s comments on the images. As such, they are now the best collection of radical and labour movement photographs in the country. They stand as an enduring testimony of his devotion to the movement as well as a legacy for us all to embrace.
In his youth, John took an interest in music, toying with various instruments, as many of us do, until he eventually settled for choral singing with the Victorian Trade Union Choir. Before that, he was already very keen on political music. He was captivated by Paul Robeson and all that he represented. Pete Seeger was another of his favourites who he sought out on a trip to the USA, along with other campaigner for peace. He enjoyed both the singing and the comradeship of the choir, where he made several deep and enduring friendships. I recall one occasion where he collapsed during a choir performance at Trades Hall and as the Ambos wheeled him out of the lift on a gurney, he handed me his camera and commanded me to get the ‘decisive moment’ as he was carried off. I obeyed and still have the image.
There’s a lot to be said about John Brant Ellis but one thing stands out. He was a thoroughly decent, interesting and engaging comrade. It was always good to be in his company and, now, to rejoice in the memory of it.