Union Songs

Geoff Wills' Coat: Industrial Folklore

Transcribed by Mark Gregory (2009)

Paddy Crumlin (National Secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia at MUA 2008 Conference)

"I've got a gift for the ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) and Big Bob's going to come up, there's a story that goes with this gift. It was donated by a very good friend of mine and a longterm veteran of our union, Alan Oliver and I'll tell you the story:

This jacket had an unusual begining and may yet have an unusual ending. Its original owner was Geoff Wills who was a militant member of the Seaman's Union of Australia and was also an intellectual during his lifetime at sea. He had once been an official in Adelaide for all of the South Coast ports. At the end of his life he was a highly skilled artisan creating violins, guitars and basses.

In 1948 he was part of a trade union delegation to the Soviet Union and in Moscow was given the gift of a Siberian winter overcoat of black leather that went way down to his boots. I also had a detachable sheepskin interior and complete ensemble was completed with a golden bearskin cap.

What was ideal for Siberia, however, was fundamentally useless in the tropical Queensland and most of the coast of Australia. In the words of a Port Kembla unionist it was 'about as useless as a wooden leg in a bushfire'. It would be eguivalent to takling an Alaskan winter in shorts and a shirt. So it spent a sterile nine years in Geoff's wardrobe until while sailing in the Cycle, which was Banjo's last job, he passed it on to much taller shipmate Alan Cameron."

"Alan had to cut eighteen inches off the bottom of it to walk safely, so it must have trailed Geoff like a wedding gear, The sheepskin section made his dog happy for it gave his kennel a luxurious interior. Alan said the complete outfit made his shoulders ache during his inside modelling. He never wore it outside, it didn't get that cold.

The next inheritor in 1968 was Alan Oliver who in turn could not find anyone big enough or cold enough to pass it on to. So it was just hanging up for another forty years. But he noticed last week some of the ILWU delegates with shoulders, while not quite as broad as a Mack truck, would be capable of dealing with a safe working load.

To its next inheritor, although it's sixty years old, it has led a somewhat sheltered life. May it end up serving its original purpose: to give working men an women warmth and comfort in the long cold night producing wealth for the world's people.

Now Alan wants me to give that to you Bob and you take it back.
Bob McEllrath. (Big Bob comes to podium)

Geoff Wills Coat

And here's the coat in question let's see if it fits Bob.

We have a saying on the Australai waterfront when they used to have the Bull System for seafarers and wharfies. You'd line up and they'd come along and they's pick you out ... and they'd come along, the boss of the day or the chief mate'd come along and pick somebody out. And out of that we got more dignity, you didn't have to stand in line, it was a voluntary process.

And every now and then no one would stand for a job. So the second mate would come in, if there was a ship in dispute, and say 'I want twenty ABs, four firemen ... ten firemen, three stewards and four cooks' for whatever vessel was in dispute. And the union official, by that stage in our history had a bit of dignity, he would have to stand out ther with the boss, and they always wore suits, and if the ship was in dispute they'd get their lapel and they'd go like that (flaps lapel of Geoff Wills' coat). What we say in Australia 'the ship is on the coat' and no one would stand for the job and the ship couldn't sail.

Now what we've got here today, Bob's not 'on the coat' he's in it!"

Bob McEllrath (ILWU International President)

"Well thanks very much Paddy, I tell you you should have tried it on because I'm feeling in the pockets and Jesus! look at that! (shows wallet) You should have tried it on for a wallet that's been there for forty years it aint too bad. Thank you. Anyway this is very nice, I appreciate it, the ILWU delegation appreciates it and Paddy we'd like to give you, on behalf ot the ILWU and the Local ninety four, we'd like to give you a jacket and wear it with pride and honour, thank you very much!"


Many thanks to Russ Hermann and the MUA for permission to add this to the Union Songs collection

Find more about Geoff Wills on this site

Visit the MUA website at http://mua.org.au/

Visit the ILWU website at http://www.ilwu.org/

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