1990s >> 1998 >> no-1126-june-1998

Obituary: Sid Woodhall

Sid Woodhall died in mid-January this year. Who was Sid Woodhall? You won’t find his name in any newspapers and he never received a title or was honoured by the Queen or voted “Australian of the Year”. In fact Sid died virtually alone without family or friends to remember him. Sid would be classed as a “nobody” and our society would be completely unaware that he ever existed.

But Sid did exist and he first contacted me by letter in October 1995. Although we never did meet I got to like Sid through a lively exchange of letters and I discovered a lot about Sid’s life which has left a lasting impression upon me. During this all-too-brief association it was clear that Sid was seriously ill and yet his correspondence demonstrated a great variation of interests and a sense of humour that I could really take to. I regret losing a friend who I wish I could have known longer.

Sid Woodhall was born in East Ham, in London’s East End on 2 January 1927. He was the youngest child, born—no doubt surprisingly—to parents who were at that time, quite elderly. His father was a tug skipper, hauling barges on the river Thames between Woolwich and Tower Bridge. As a lad Sid would often hear SPGB speakers on street corners and outside pubs and their Socialist message is something that registered and never left Sid’s mind.

Sid was still a schoolboy when World War II started and he was evacuated with his elder brother to Devon to escape the bombing blitz upon London. He described his elder brother as “a bit of a villain” who consistently managed free transport into Exeter so Sid and he could regularly see the sights of that city.

Sid left school during the war and soon afterwards he was conscripted into the coal mines as a “Bevin Boy”. This was a scheme devised by the then Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin, where young men, selected by ballot, were sent to work in coal mines instead of doing conventional, military service. The importance of coal at this time was paramount. HM Navy Fleet and Merchant shipping were almost entirely coal-fired and the railways were completely dependent upon coal.

Sid was sent to Doncaster main colliery No.67 for four weeks’ training. “You walked into the side of a mountain (Dole Holes) and coupled up trucks just about 100 yards from the pit face!” For four years extending beyond the end of the war Sid was forced to labour in a Barnsley coal mine in South Yorkshire. During this time he lost both parents. His mother died in 1946 and his father the following year.

Sid was kept in the mines after the end of the war until eventually military demobilisation provided adequate labour again. Sid was then summarily dismissed by the mine-owners and government “without any gratuity or help of any kind . . . not even a suit, which demobilised servicemen received. Now in his twenties and without any experience or training for anything else and employment priority given to returned servicemen, Sid found life difficult. Indeed he found he was unable to pay for adequate food and accommodation for himself. He was forced to rely on his married older sister to feed him and she gave him a few shillings from time to time to help him during this period.

Sid eventually became a seaman and joined the SS Orsova which voyaged regularly from Tilbury to Australia’s east coast ports. He also visited Fremantle, some pacific islands and ports on America’s pacific coast. In 1959 he left the sea and emigrated to Australia where his sister now lived, in Adelaide. The ending of a romance (“dumped by my girlfriend”) saw Sid travelling to Sydney and acquiring a job in a paper mill at Botany Bay. After seven months he returned to Adelaide where he took “umpteen jobs”.

In 1964 Sid trained to become a psychiatric nurse and for the next 18 years he witnessed some heart-breaking and distressing cases of humanity which he tried to tend. His most traumatic experience was his involvement in a nursing-home fire which caused the deaths of some patients and the follow-up coroner’s court enquiry.

Sid began to experience breathing problems and in 1982 they became so acute that he was forced to resign. Constant medical attention classified him as an official invalid until age 65 in 1992, when he became an aged-pension recipient.

During these years Sid’s elder brother in England and his elder sister in Australia died. Sid’s breathing problems deteriorated over the years and he was now virtually alone and living in a small rented South Australian Housing Trust flat. At times his breathing difficulties became dangerously severe and Sid now became a regular patient, visiting and staying in hospitals for tests and various attempted treatments to alleviate his suffering. Sid became more and more incapacitated but, when at home, he befriended and fed stray animals that other people had dumped. Sid expressed concern for the welfare of these animals.

Sid spent his 71st birthday in hospital struggling to breathe, dosed up with morphine. He died a few days later when his lungs refused to function any more.

The diagnosis of Sid’s condition apparently varied from “chronic asthma” to “asthma with complicated chest infections”. No treatment was able to halt the deterioration and the cause was never investigated. Was it purely coincidence that those vital years of Sid’s adolescent life were spent continuously breathing coal-dust? Is it not quite probable that the form of pneumoconiosis that plagues coal-mines also slowly killed Sid Woodhall? Sid suffered all his life, initially from humiliation then deprivation and finally from remorseless and agonising ill-health, all probably caused by the “joy” of being forced to help ungrateful capitalist governments to win their war.

Sid never forgot the words of the SPGB speakers which he heard in his youth. He was happy to re-associate with these ideas whenever he was able to. In a recent letter he wrote: “Although I will never see World Socialism develop it is essential that these ideas be kept alive until people are ready to accept them. If the Socialist idea is ever lost then all hope, not only for humanity but for the whole planet, is also lost.”

Sid was a somebody and he represented the hundreds of thousands of people who desire a better way of living so others can avoid the sufferings that are common under our present social system. Sid understood the significance of the Socialist ideal and that made him special. Personally, I would prefer one Sid Woodhall to 10,000 politicians, ambassadors, bureaucratic figure-heads and successful entrepreneurs. Perhaps you could find a moment or two to reflect upon what you now know about Sid Woodhall.

R.S., Western Australia

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