Tom Uren, who died on 26 January this year at the ripe old age of 93, was a big man in every way. Much has been written about his contribution to Australian political life (as a Minister in the Whitlam and Hawke Labor Governments), his experiences as a POW on the Burma-Thailand Railway and in Japan, and his humanitarian work. But he was also a great friend of Glebe, and a huge contributor to the preservation of the suburb we know and appreciate today.

Tom was awarded an Honorary Life Membership of the Glebe Society in August 2003. In his citation for the award, Tony Larkum pointed out that in the early months of the Whitlam Government in 1973 Tom, in his capacity as Minister for Urban and Regional Development, made two key decisions that affected and still affect our lives and our townscape in Glebe. These were firstly to set up a national statutory body to work with the States, local government, local groups and members of the public for the protection, conservation and preservation of the National Estate; and second, that a start be made in surveying the National Estate and making an inventory of its components. These crucial initiatives resulted in the establishment of the National Heritage Commission (in May 1975) and the Register of the National Estate (in July 1976). The positive effect of these decisions has been inestimable, especially in the preservation and conservation of previously neglected inner suburbs such as Glebe.

But Tom’s two great achievements, as far as Glebe was concerned, were the purchase by the Federal Government of the Glebe Estate from the Church of England Property Trust, and effectively forcing the abandonment by the State Government of the proposed Western and North-Western Freeways, which would have completely destroyed Glebe and Forest Lodge.

Tom with his old mate Jack Munday at the Society's 40th anniversary party at Margaretta Cottage in 2009. (Image: Bruce Davis)
Tom with his old mate Jack Munday at the Society’s 40th anniversary party at Margaretta Cottage in 2009. (Image: Bruce Davis)

Tom always claimed the entire credit for these actions – that’s OK, he would, wouldn’t he? He was a politician, after all! And it is certainly true that without his intervention and the positive support of the Federal Cabinet, Glebe would not have been saved. But I think the Glebe Society can claim a good part of the credit for encouraging Tom Uren and the Federal Government to take the actions they did.

Alan Robertson recalls the immense amount of work that went on behind the scenes in assembling Max Solling’s history notes into a flyer distributed by the rector of St John’s to the Anglican Synod meeting that was considering the piecemeal sale of the Glebe Estate. The result of all this work was a joint approach by the Church of England and the Mayor of Leichhardt Council, supported by independent aldermen and the Glebe Society, suggesting that the Government should purchase the Estate lock, stock and barrel. The call to Tom Uren to advise him that the proposal was on its way was made by Tony Strachan, who still has the telephone handset to prove it!

The outcome was that the Cabinet, at Tom’s urging, agreed to purchase the 19 hectares of the Glebe Estate, comprising some 700 houses and 60 commercial sites, for $17.5 million, with a further $8.5 million committed for rehabilitation. The reasons for this decision initially related to support for low-income groups and the preservation of architectural heritage, but it soon became apparent that another advantage was the acquisition of a significant site right in the path of the proposed Western Freeway.

The anti-freeway campaign had been bubbling along for some time, but it really got going in early 1972, when Albert Mispel and others in the Glebe Society put together an 11 page handwritten foolscap screed outlining why radial freeways were a stupid idea, with special reference to the two freeways proposed for Glebe. These were photocopied and posted, at considerable private expense, to every Federal and State politician. Only one ever even acknowledged receipt – Tom Uren. He invited Albert and his team to his home (Federal Labor was still in opposition), to discuss the matter.

The Builders Labourers Federation was of course also instrumental in stopping the freeways, by imposing Green Bans on the demolition of housing in their path. Alan Robertson remembers that on the day of the Fig St confrontation, he left the site shortly after the bulldozer pushed through, and headed, furled umbrella in hand, for his office. From there he sent a telex (those were the days!) to Tom Uren telling him what was happening at Fig St. He received no reply (mercifully, since it might have meant the end of a promising corporate career), and had no way of knowing whether it reached its destination. But by the end of the day, Tom Uren had telephoned Premier Askin, and the demolition work stopped.

In the end, Albert Mispel recalls, it was Tom who got acting Prime Minister Jim Cairns to cancel the Federal funding for all the planned freeways, which put the final nail in the coffin of this ill-conceived project.

So Tom, we will miss you. Glebe in particular is the poorer for your passing.