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Caroline Graham - The Life and Times of Juanita Nielsen, 2007

Lee Rhiannon 3 Jun 2007

Caroline Graham spoke about the life and times of Juanita Nielsen on 3 June 2007.  Caroline is an active member of Rivers SOS and was a lecturer in Australian political and social history at UTS.

I’ll start by congratulating the NSW Greens for keeping Juanita Nielson’s memory alive with this series of annual lectures in her name. She is an icon, a rare case of a political campaigner murdered for her activism.

She was a brave and determined woman, but when people  are loners as she was, belonging to no political party or support group, they tend to be easily forgotten. It also seems to me that, at the time she disappeared, she did not have a circle of close friends or a close family circle. She was an only child, she had fallen out with her parents to some degree, and she had lived overseas for several years.

So I’m afraid most young people today won’t have heard of Juanita Nielson, but at least the NSW Greens Party keeps her memory alive in this way. Her story certainly should be told to each generation, whether as a cautionary tale or as an inspiration; perhaps both. However there were a couple of films made based on her story: Heatwave and The Killing of Angel Street, there were books and articles, and a community centre in Woolloomooloo is named after her.

Any summary of Juanita Nielson’s activist years at Kings Cross, up to her disappearance in July 1975, involves different themes: as well as her own interesting background, there was the emergence of resident action groups at that time, as a  backlash from the free rein given to  developers in the Askin era; there was the Builders Labourers’ Federation of NSW and their Green Bans, and the union factions and struggles, and the active involvement of the anarchist libertarian Sydney Push along with Communist Party members, Labor leftists and conservationists of many colours. This was the radical 70s; there was a lot going on and a lot of it was right on Juanita Nielson’s doorstep.

There is no time to go into detail on all the above but I recommend a couple of books for further reading if you’d like to follow up: Meredith Burgmann and Verity Burgmann, Green Bans, Red Union: Environmental Activism and the NSW Builders Labourers’ Federation, UNSW Press, 1998, and Peter Rees, Killing Juanita: a True Story of Murder and Corruption, Allen & Unwin, 2004. 

Juanita: Background

In the 1970s Juanita was living a semi-bohemian life in a small terrace house at the upper end of Victoria Street in Kings Cross. Number 202 Victoria Street. 

In keeping with the women’s liberation movement, she had a few lovers and – in a saucy touch which I think says a lot about her - she had a water bed with black satin sheets. But her murder was no crime of passion. The two interested men in her life when she disappeared –  her business partner David Farrell, and John Glebe, Secretary of the Water and Sewerage Employees Union - co-operated in the search for her and, with cast iron alibis, were cleared of any suspicion of involvement.

From her office in the second bedroom of her terrace house, at her roll- top Cutler desk, she ran her small business: the little newspaper called NOW. NOW was set up to cover local issues and local politics, surviving on sale of advertisements to local businesses. When Juanita disappeared the media often referred to her as the Mark Foys heiress but at the time she does not seem to have inherited very much; her separated parents were very wealthy but still both alive. Her father had given her a present of $50000, as a kind of peace offering after a family blue over the Mark Foys business, and she used this to buy the little terrace house - only $16000 in 1968. 

She spent some of the balance on renovations and on her smart clothes and shoes, and make-up galore. She had an outrageously complex beehive hair-do, towering upwards, high even for those times when beehives were fashionable. She is said, in Peter Rees’s book, to have taken a full hour to do her make-up each morning.

Kings Cross being what it is, the businesses placing their ads in Juanita’s paper included 

 some of the more notorious nightclubs, strip clubs and bars. But she was no shrinking violet, and in her line of business she sipped champagne with dubious characters like Sammy Lee of the Latin Quarter while trying to sell advertising space. It was the promise of an ad that lured her to the Carousel night club on the morning of July 5, 1975, never to be seen again.

Her parents must have been a little worried by her lifestyle. She had been to an expensive private school, Methodists Ladies College at Gordon, but was already wild and precocious in her teens. Later, on a trip abroad, she met and married a Danish merchant navy officer.  Her parents opposed the match. For a few years Juanita lived overseas with Jorgen Neilson, first in Denmark and then in exotic Morocco, but she came back to Sydney alone when the marriage broke up. She took up residence in Victoria Street; her father had rented 101 Victoria Street when he returned from New Guinea after World War 2 and Juanita wrote later that this was one of her “happiest childhood homes.” Victoria Street had always been dear to her heart.

Once described by the National Trust as the “Montmartre of Sydney”, it was a wide tree- lined street, in which many of the elegant Victorian terraces had been turned into low rent lodgings for an array of interesting characters: artists, musicians, wharfies, labourers and city workers. The most colourful character of all was probably Mick Fowler, a seaman with musical talent who shared premises with his elderly mother when in port.

But to shatter this bohemian world came the proposal to tear down and develop Victoria Street. 

Premier Askin was hand in hand with the developers in this era. Developers like Frank Theeman lent his home to the NSW Liberal Party for glamorous fund raising parties, for example. The skyline of Sydney was full of cranes, the city was being transformed by high rise buildings, and money was being poured into profitable residential and commercial developments. As for the workers, there was full employment until the mid-70s, so that builders labourers could go on strike and find work the same day at another site. 

And so it happened, in this crucible, that Jack Mundey and the Builders Labourers’ union were able to slow the demolition down with their Green Bans. Juanita, in spite of her conservative upbringing and apolitical position, came to approve of Mundey and the Green Bans. This, she hoped, could be a way to save Victoria Street.

The Green Bans

The radical heyday of the BLF and the Green Bans only lasted for around six action-packed years, until the NSW branch of the union was overthrown by Big Norm Gallagher from Melbourne, President of the Federal Branch of the union. He was a Maoist, while Mundey was on the other side of the communist party’s split, in the Communist Party of Australia. There was much rivalry, and Mundey’s exciting Green Bans movement was upstaging Norm Gallagher. So Big Norm was determined to get rid of the militant NSW branch, even to the point of colluding with developers and probably getting funding from them to do so. But that’s another story – he was finally found guilty of various forms of corruption in a series of court cases in the 1980s.

Meredith Burgmann in her book says that the term Green Bans was an Australian invention and “an entirely home-grown contribution to international environmental politics  … one of the most exciting chapters in trade unionism worldwide.”

The first Green Ban was placed to stop development by A.V. Jennings on a cherished piece of bushland at Hunters Hill, called Kellys Bush. This ban, imposed on June 17, 1971, set the pattern for the rest: the BLF would only place a ban when if first requested  by residents action groups or community groups. 

The middle class women, later dubbed the Battlers for Kellys Bush, had gone through all the proper channels before resorting to the union in desperation. They were somewhat wary, saying to the union  rep who first went to meet with them that “there mustn’t be any violence.” ( The Green Bans never involved physical violence, though the media liked to drum up fear of the “anarchist jackboots” of the BLF).

At the union’s suggestion a public meeting was held in Hunters Hill, attended by 500 people. The meeting  formally requested the union to place a work ban on the job. The union then called a mass meeting of builders labourers (BLs) on a Jennings office construction site in the CBD. 

To quote Jack Mundey:  “The company said that it would ignore the green ban and proceed with the felling of trees and excavation of the whole area. The workers decided that “if one tree or blade of grass” in Kellys Bush was damaged, that half-completed office block building would stand forever half -completed as a monument to Kellys Bush. Kellys Bush still exists as bushland.”

The second green ban was also interesting. During the 1960s, Parkes – another major developer – had bought the old Rosebery Racecourse at Eastlakes in order to build a high density housing estate. The Botany Council, a bit on the nose I believe, let Parkes plan to minimum requirements, and I was told by a resident that very soon after construction the walls started to crack. Parkes was selling each unit off on completion, and residents swore that the large patch of vacant land at the centre of the estate would be left for recreational use, and eventually for a swimming pool as well.

But by the end of 1971 the company started to build more high rise on the vacant patch. As the first trenches were being dug, Jack Mundey and Bob Pringle attended a public meeting called of disillusioned and angry residents, who formally requested a ban. They then called a meeting of 200 BLs on the site of Parkes’ giant Hotel Metropole project in the CBD and there was a unanimous vote to stop work there if the Eastlakes plan went ahead. It didn’t, and Mundey was quoted in The Bulletin as saying “You can chalk this up as another victory to the people.”

The story of the third green ban, on the Rocks area on the west side of Circular Quay, is quite well known. The Askin Government set up a Redevelopment Authority which recommended a plan for 40 and 50 storey office blocks, apartments and hotels. In this case other unions supported work bans to preserve historic housing and low rent homes for generations of maritime workers and their families. While negotiations over plans were in train, demolition suddenly began without warning, and so a city-wide strike was called involving four thousand workers. The union occupied the threatened area, opposite the Argyle Terrace. 58 residents and union leaders were arrested. Meetings supporting the bans were held on campuses and there was a march of 2000 people to Parliament House, with cries of “Askin Out – Green Bans In.”  20 demonstrators were arrested.

Charles Cutler, one of Askin’s ministers, accused Mundey and the BLF of being “traitors to this country which gives them protection and traitors to their fellow citizens because the ban was bringing business interests to financial ruin.” The Askin government was counting on making $10 million a year from rentals.

The union had said at the outset that BLs could work on repairing historic buildings in the Rocks, and during this period 70 were restored and art galleries, restaurants and craft centres were established with union blessing. Some think the area is now too touristy, with its pricey shops and its 4000 restaurant seats, but all agree it is a huge improvement on the original plan for an extension of the concrete and glass office buildings of the CBD and the destruction of the most historic area of the city.

There were more green bans, too numerous to mention here, and so I’ll come to the story of Victoria Street in order to link up with Juanita Nielson again.

Victoria Street

It started in April 1973 with eviction notices given to 300 tenants, asking them to leave within one week. Those who left quietly at that point were given amounts ranging from $20 to $300. They were told that the buildings were condemned and that all utilities would soon be shut off.

The developer in this case was Frank Theeman and his company Victoria Point. There were other developers with plans for Victoria Street but Theeman was the major one. He planned $70 million worth of high rise development, including three 45-storey towers, a 15 storey office block with 64 stepped terrace apartments and a huge car park. This involved the demolition of all existing buildings.

Theeman was nervous about the consent procedure, what with the green ban movement trying to help poor tenants, and with the National Trust deliberating over whether the elegant Victoria streetscape should be preserved. So Theeman moved quickly, hiring a gang of thugs led by karate expert Joe Meissner to persuade tenants to move out. If some of the houses then were vandalized and became uninhabitable it would help his case for demolition and development.

One 84 year old who had lived there for forty years was forcibly evicted by the thugs. Locks were removed, doors kicked down and bricks were hurled through windows late at night to terrorise those who remained.

The tactic almost succeeded but for a group of residents who decided to fight back. 1:02 PMhey formed the Victoria Street Action Group on 11 April 1973, at a meeting at the Wayside Chapel, Kings Cross. One of the main organizers, Arthur King, then contacted the BLF to request a ban.

But in the early hours of the 14th of April King was abducted from his home of many years, number 97 Victoria Street. The VAG and the BLF were anxious. Mundey said “ I wouldn’t be surprised to see actual death in the struggle to see which  way the inner city goes.” 

But King re-appeared two days later, packed his belongings and left. He would not speak to anyone and he never involved himself in the struggle again. Later it emerged that he had been blindfolded in a motel room and locked in the boot of a car, and he was obviously terrorized.

By the time the ban was placed only 14 tenants remained. Mick Fowler the seaman returned to find that his belongings had been thrown out of his flat in No. 115  by the thugs, and his elderly mother sitting on the outside steps. The unions helped him to re-occupy his flat, with about 50 men storming the premises and throwing out three security guards.

To help the remaining tenants, while the thugs were lighting fires and threatening them with crowbars, around 80 supporters organized a squat until the whole issue was resolved. One of the main organizers was Wendy Bacon, now a Professor at the University of Technology, Sydney. Many other well-known members of the so-called Sydney push were involved, including the bridge champion Roelof Smilde and the late Darcy Waters.

They began repairing houses, planting vegetable gardens, organizing communal kitchens and child care, and they paid $10 per week into an account set up for Theeman.

According to Burgmann, Theeman was losing $14000 a day in interest on his property in Victoria Street. Theeman said later that the three years of delay cost him $3 million in rates and taxes, $2 million in interest on loans and $3000 per day in what he described as holding charges – probably payment for the thugs and perhaps also corrupt police. 

In desperation he hired a respected architect to draw up a compromise plan which could preserve the essential characteristics of the street, and this plan was approved by the National Trust in June 1973.

But by this stage neither the union nor the squatters were in the mood for compromise. The VSAG and the union wanted to fight on with a demand for low rent accommodation for all the tenants like Mick Fowler and his mother.

Theeman hired a PR firm to represent him as a victim of lawless anarchy and then in January he had the 80 squatters forcibly evicted in what was known as the Seige of Victoria Street. Even die-hard Mick had to leave. The thugs then smashed windows and water pipes and made the houses completely uninhabitable. Wire fences were hastily erected round the houses. 53 squatters who had been arrested and gaoled were only released on a promise that they would not attempt to return. Askin and the media predictably screamed about law and order.

When Norm Gallagher succeeded in ousting the Mundey leadership of the NSW BLF in October 1974, he lifted the ban on Victoria Street immediately. But by this time other unions were involved and they kept up a struggle, making Theeman promise not to start demolition until he committed himself to giving 10% of the new development to low rent housing. Negotiations continued and Theeman continued to modify his plans so that work could start. It was decided that the 10% allocation was too complex to arrange and instead the unions took a cash settlement to build a workers club in the western suburbs.

But by 1975 Juanita Nielson had emerged as a real spanner in the works. The squatters, the VSAG and the Mundey union were defeated. But not only was she campaigning against Theeman in NOW, reporting on meetings of Council and the developers, and keeping residents of the Cross informed, she had also begun a romantic affair with John Glebe, head of the Water and Sewage Employees Union.  He was not only enamoured of Juanita but was threatening a work ban on the Theeman development by his own members. No plumbers, no high rise units. It was rumoured that he would enforce bans until a large percentage of low rent housing was written into Theeman’s plan.

And so Juanita was murdered because she was the last obstacle in Theeman’s way. She was lured to the Carousel night club with the promise of a paid advertisement and was never seen again. Those who have studied the case seem to agree to the obvious proposition: that the developer’s thugs were involved, others argue that corrupt police were also involved.  We may never know the truth, although the level of corruption of the local Darlinghurst police was revealed in no uncertain manner a few years ago.

I often wonder whether Juanita was very brave, or whether she was foolhardy. It crosses my mind that being a Mark Foys heiress, whose mother said that Juanita would never need to learn how to do housework because she would always have servants, she might have believed that she was invincible, that cops and crims would never touch someone of her high status.

After all she had never broken any law and she distanced herself from the militant squatters at the end of her street. She approved of union bans but she drew the line at the squatters. In the April 1975 issue of NOW, a few weeks before her disappearance, she wrote that the campaign did not need the “help” of what she called “professional protesters, squatters, itinerant anarchists and assorted militants.”

Nor did she identify with the feminist sisterhood in any obvious way. She was not part of any political movement or organization and so might have felt that this helped to immunize her against attack.

On the other hand, I end up feeling that she was more brave and determined than simply foolhardy and arrogant. She was more aware than most of the tough criminal elements in her area, and no doubt aware of corrupt police too. She no doubt knew of the links between Theeman and criminals like Abe Saffron and James Anderson – she knew the whole milieu better than most and knew what they were capable of. She certainly knew of Arthur King’s abduction and his trauma. She must have known she was at risk, especially when encouraging her lover John Glebe to keep bans on the development, and as a business woman from a wealthy family she would have been very aware that Theeman was increasingly financially desperate as the months rolled by.

So I personally celebrate Juanita Nielson as a courageous and passionate woman. I know people who met her in those days were a bit wary of her aloofness. She was proud of being upper class and proud of her background, and as I said, she was not a joiner. Terms like “solidarity” would not have had any appeal to her, quite the reverse. 

Her one-woman campaign shows that you don’t have to be politically correct to be a heroine. In the end, the Victoria Street streetscape was not entirely lost, and the original plans were radically modified because of the opposition of people like Juanita.  The street was gentrified and the bohemian life became a memory, but Juanita’s memory will hopefully continue to inspire anyone involved in defending much loved environments from destruction.

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