11 January 2021

Verity Lane was a world of books, ideas and past intrigue

| Marg Wade
Historical photo of exterior of Verity Hewitt's bookshop.

Verity Hewitt’s bookshop became a Canberra institution. Photo: Fitzhardinge family.

The recently opened Verity Lane Market breathes new life into a service lane nestled within the Sydney Building in the Canberra CBD. This new hub takes its name from a woman who energised the place during the last century, but also created intrigue and suspicion on an international level.

Enterprising 30-year-old Verity Hewitt opened a bookstore in the Sydney Building in April 1938. She led an active life within the Canberra community as well as fostering an association with Russia that triggered ASIO’s interest for decades.

Verity studied English and history at Sydney University in the 1920s and taught at the newly opened Telopea Park School in the early 1930s. But she didn’t enjoy teaching and longed for deeper enrichment in her life. A prolific writer, she loved literature and was fascinated by people, other cultures and travel. She enjoyed political debate and in-depth discussions on the issues of the day.

Once married and bored with domestic life, Verity needed a challenge. She saw the need for a bookstore in Canberra with a broad range of books and other publications so she opened Verity Hewitt’s Bookshop above Leo’s Cafe, renting the premises for 10 shillings a week.

Beginning with secondhand books, her bookshop later stocked new books and international language books, which was exotic for the time. It went on to include a reading room and became a venue for art exhibitions and a publishing house for social issue publications.

Historical photo of Verity Hewitt.

Verity Hewitt began her professional career as a teacher. Photo: Fitzhardinge family.

So committed was Verity to Canberra’s passionate readers that she delivered books for loan on her horse and sulky. Verity Hewitt’s Bookshop was a hub of activity for locals and a social venue for visitors, including Lord Gowrie, the Governor-General of Australia from 1936 to 1945, who described it as “the nicest little bookshop in Australia”.

Verity was fascinated with Russian culture and began to study the language in the 1940s. She gave English lessons to the wives of Russian diplomats at the Soviet Embassy in exchange for Russian lessons. The wives included Evdokia Petrov, and Verity was also familiar with staff including the Russian Embassy’s First Secretary and KGB agent, Ivan Skripov. He even gave her a lift home after her English classes at the embassy.

These interests and activities came under the scrutiny of the Commonwealth Investigative Service (CIS), and later the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) soon after its establishment in 1949.

Skripov went on to be expelled from Australia in 1963 for being a spy.

Verity’s Russian skills advanced after she took formal lessons and passed exams at Sydney University, having moved to Sydney with husband Laurie Fitzhardinge and their two sons for Laurie’s work.

A pacifist involved in the peace movement, including protesting against the Vietnam War, Verity was a member of the Australian Labor Party, founder of the Australia-USSR Society and a member of a left-wing Russian social club.

She also hosted regular Pushkin Circle meetings in her home, all of which raised further concerns with ASIO. They suspected Verity and husband Laurie were Communists and kept them under constant surveillance, creating detailed files and carefully noting their movements and activities, as well as who they were associating with.

These files are held by the National Archives of Australia and can be viewed online.

Section of ASIO file on Verity Hewitt.

A section of the ASIO file on Verity Hewitt. Photo: National Archives.

A generous person, Verity regularly helped newly arrived Eastern European refugees find jobs and housing. She taught English at migrant hostels and kindly offered accommodation in her own home. ASIO continued to make extensive notes and draw assumptions about these associations.

Adding more fodder for ASIO, Verity published historical articles on Russian ships in Australian waters during the 1800s, part of her Masters and PhD studies. She also wrote book reviews about Russia for The Canberra Times.

The Verity Hewitt Bookshop continued to run throughout the years, managed by her sister, June, and moved location several times. These sites included above the popular Blue Moon Cafe and, finally, Crawford Street in Queanbeyan, until it was sold in 1974.

Verity and Laurie also owned and operated a number of local properties, including a beef and dairy farm, and an orchard where Narrabundah College now stands. She continued to evoke ASIO’s interest by employing refugees and migrants, including a Ukrainian man who worked with the couple for decades and sent money home to his family.

Verity Hewitt

Verity Hewitt led an intriguing and complicated life. Photo: Fitzhardinge family.

Verity Hewitt leaves a legacy that encapsulates life in the new capital along with an international passion that entered into a world of Cold War suspicion and intrigue. The National Library of Australia holds a treasure trove of Verity Hewitt’s letters, diaries, journals and ephemera.

Verity: A remarkable woman’s journey, by Robert Lehane, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2017, gives an excellent account of Verity Hewitt, based on this collection.

As you enjoy the new activities in Verity Lane, cast a thought to the history that continues to be made there.

Original Article published by Marg Wade on The RiotACT.

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