(Katherin) Wendy Lowenstein (1927-2006) was born in Melbourne, the daughter of Douglas and Rita Robertson. While attending Box Hill Grammar School, she joined the New Theatre and the Eureka Youth League and became deeply involved in radical writing, theatre and art. She worked first as a journalist and was for many years a teacher and teacher-librarian. In 1947 she married Werner Lowenstein, who was born in Germany and had come to Australia on the Dunera. They left the Communist Party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, but remained committed to socialism and the peace movement.
Lowenstein became interested in folklore after seeing a performance of the play Reedy River in the early 1950s. She was one of the founders of the Folklore Society of Victoria and the Victorian Folk Music Club and from 1964 to 1976 edited their newsletter Australian Tradition. In 1969 she and her family spent a year travelling around Australia by caravan collecting folklore. Always a fierce campaigner, she was active in many organisations, including the Colonial Bush Dance Society, the Oral History Association of Australia, the Friends of the Earth, Arts Action for Peace, People for Nuclear Disarmament and the Palm Sunday Committee.
Most of Lowenstein’s writings were based on oral history interviews. She was the author of:
The immigrants (1977)
Wendy Lowenstein’s association with the National Library lasted for nearly thirty years. In 1973-75 the Library purchased copies of many of the recordings she made relating to the Great Depression of the 1930s and in 1983 it acquired her tapes on the Melbourne waterfront. In 1991-93 the Library bought her collection of folklore recordings, most of which dated from 1969. From 1994 to 2000 the Library helped fund her oral history project on Communism and the Left in the arts and the community. In 1994 she transferred the records of People for Nuclear Disarmament. The Library purchased Lowenstein’s manuscripts and personal papers in 2001 and received some further papers from her family in 2006.
The collection comprises 172 tapes of recollections of life during the Depression of the 1930s, recorded by Lowenstein in 1972-76 and used in her book Weevils in the flour. The interviewees lived in all States and included bagmen, shearers, station hands, cane cutters, builders, plumbers, labourers, policemen, nurses, teachers, solicitors, shopkeepers and housewives.
The recordings were made in 1979-80 when Lowenstein was writing her book Under the hook and consist of 60 tapes containing interviews with 17 Melbourne waterside workers. The most substantial interview is with Tom Hills, the President of the Retired Waterside Workers Association in Melbourne. Some of the interviews were transcribed.
In 1991 Lowenstein recorded a lengthy interview with Ron Edwards, the noted folklorist, collector and publisher. There are 13 tapes.
Lowenstein assembled her folklore collection in 1968-72, mostly in 1969 when she travelled round rural Australia recording songs, recitations, dance tunes, stories, myths, children’s rhymes, slang, medical lore, industrial folklore and oral history. There are 121 tapes.
The Communism and the Left in the arts and community collection, recorded in 1992-96, comprises 63 digital audio tapes, 4 reels and 3 cassettes. Among the 50 interviewees are painters, writers, musicians, teachers, actors and public servants, including Shirley Andrews, Martha Ansara, Jean Blackburn, Betty Collins, Vera Deacon, June Factor, Alex Hood, Elliott Johnston, Chris Kempster, Clem Millward and Nancy Wills.
Manuscripts and Personal Papers
The papers of Wendy Lowenstein, which mostly date from 1953 to 2003, include correspondence, research material, transcripts, interviewee files, manuscripts, press cuttings, photographs and publications. It is arranged in 13 series:
Weevils in the flour
Under the hook
Folk Lore Society of Victoria
Arts Action for Peace
People for Nuclear Disarmament
Social activism subject files
Shirley Andrews papers
The Wendy Lowenstein oral history collection is held in the Oral History Collection. Apart from the interviews in TRC 3111, only a small number of the recordings have been catalogued individually. A 60 page list summarising the contents of the folklore collection (TRC 2915) is available in the Oral History Collection. Many of the recordings require preservation treatment and are therefore not immediately accessible. The manuscripts and personal papers are held in the Manuscripts Collection at MS 9968. A finding-aid is available online at https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-369339175/findingaid.
Copies of many of the oral history recordings are held in the La Trobe Library at the State Library of Victoria.
Factor, June, Dedicated worker with words (obituary), The Australian, 27 October 2006, p. 14
Lowenstein, Richard An ear for the ordinary folk (obituary), Sydney Morning Herald, 26 October 2006
First posted 2008 (revised 2019)