Keeping in touch

 


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The war years

For families, the war brought dislocation and separation from loved ones. Keeping in touch was crucial to everyone - from those at home to service personnel interstate and overseas - and efficient communications were essential to the running of the nation and to the war effort.

Elsie and John Curtin had been residents of Cottesloe since 1918. The suburb was part of the electorate of Fremantle, which Curtin represented in the Federal Parliament. During the war years, Curtin spent most of his time in Canberra, while Elsie was mainly in Cottesloe. She looked after Curtin's electorate for him, maintained the family home and was there to care for her elderly mother.

Telephones

A telephone had been installed in the Curtin home some time after 1935 when Curtin became Leader of the Opposition. It allowed his staff, members of the party and his electorate to keep in touch with him more easily.

 

Mrs Elsie Curtin and daughter Elsie, 1941

Mrs Elsie Curtin and daughter Elsie, Cottesloe, 8 October 1941, hear the news that John Curtin has become prime minister.

JCPML00297/1
 

The local telephone exchange was manually operated and if Elsie wished to call John in Canberra she would pick up the receiver, tell the operator what number she required and they would connect her. Elsie received the news that Curtin had been made Prime Minister in October 1941 by telephone. At this time, few families in Cottesloe had their own telephone and most people wishing to make a phone call would go to a telephone booth.

Letters

Letters were the main method of contact between John Curtin and his family when they were apart. The post office and the newsagent in Cottesloe lay on the eastern side of the railway line, just a short walk for Elsie from the Curtin home in Jarrad Street. From Canberra, Melbourne or wherever his work took him, Curtin wrote many endearing letters to Elsie, often revealing his deep love and admiration for her.

Letter from John Curtin to Elsie, 30 September 1941

Letter from John Curtin to Elsie Curtin, 30 September 1941.
Text version

JCPML00402/37

 

In the suburbs, letters were delivered on foot or bicycle by the postman, who knew all the local residents by name.

Letters played a very significant role in the war. This was the main way in which communication was made between soldiers and home. Families were always anxious to get news from the front-line and the arrival of letters and parcels were great morale boosters to soldiers.

If a soldier was not receiving enough mail arrangements were made to have volunteers write to them. The Salvation Army even provided pre-written cards with boxes to tick to encourage soldiers to write home. [1]

All letters were censored during the war. Letters to and from service personnel were opened by officials and any news of ship or troop movements were blotted out.

Active service envelope with 'Passed by Censor' stamp, 1940

Active Service envelope stamped 'Passed by Censor', 1940.

Courtesy Greg Wallace

 

As part of the war-time austerity measures, the number of stamps that anyone could buy at one time was restricted. Even the prime minister was not excepted from the regulations as Curtin's secretary Gladys Joyce recounted:

'He had a birthday while we were there (in WA) and I had an awful lot of people writing him and we had to reply and I used to have to get airmail stickers and stamps at frequent intervals and I went down to the post office and I said to the girl, "Can't you give me more than five at a time? I'm trying to handle the Prime Minister's mail and there's an awful lot of letters." She said, "I wouldn't care if he was the King of England - five is the allowance."' [2]

Link to audio clip of Gladys Joyce Hear Gladys Joyce in this audio clip from the online resource 'Visiting John Curtin at home'

Cottesloe Post Office, 2002

This early colonial building served as the Cottesloe Post Office from 1897 to 1964.

Courtesy Ros Marshall.

 

Telegrams & cablegrams

Cottesloe could boast an important role in communications during the war. A beach cable station at what is today known as Curtin Cove, was the point where the Cocos Island-Cottesloe submarine cable left Australia's shores and linked Australia to South Africa and England.

John Curtin kept in regular contact with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the dark days of 1942, when it appeared likely that we would be invaded by the Japanese. A 'cablegram war' erupted between the two leaders when Churchill redirected soldiers travelling home by sea to defend the Australian homefront to Burma. Curtin's strongly worded cable to Churchill persuaded him to back down and redirect our soldiers home.

Read excerpts from Curtin's cable to Churchill, 22 February 1942.

Cable Station at Cottesloe, 1938

Brick wall being built at Marine Parade in South Cottesloe, Cable Station in background, 1938.

Courtesy Town of Cottesloe

 

In 1940s Australia, urgent or timely messages were usually sent by telegram. Messages were taken to the post office, translated into Morse Code and then transmitted along telegraph wires, decoded at the other end and delivered by the telegram boy on his bicycle.

Learn more about Morse code.

On the occasion of their first Christmas apart, the year that he became prime minister, John Curtin sent Elsie a beautiful telegram of regret that they were not together.

Telegram from John Curtin to Elsie, 23 December 1941

Telegram from John Curtin to Elsie Curtin, December 1941.
Text version

JCPML00402/39

 

For many Cottesloe families, however, the sight of the telegram boy riding up the road to deliver a message was something to be feared.

Telegrams were used to notify families that their loved one was missing, missing in action presumed dead or dead, as well as for urgent news or happier messages related to family celebrations.

During the 1940s in Australia, 35 million telegrams were sent.

Mothers' Day greetings telegram sent from Garza

Mothers' Day Greetings telegram sent from Gaza in 1940.

Courtesy Greg Wallace

 

Radio

Cottesloe residents learnt that Australia was at war with Germany when Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced it on the radio in September 1939. Similarly, in 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, it was announced to the nation on the radio by John Curtin.

The radio was used to make all sorts of announcements about the war effort. Cottesloe residents were exhorted to buy more Liberty Bonds, recycle paper, rubber, old rags and metal pans, avoid idle chatter about the war effort and generally do their part in the austerity campaign.

In the lead up to the Federal Election in 1943, many political announcements and speeches were given over the radio. Members of John Curtin's Fremantle electorate, including people living in Cottesloe might not have seen their representative very often but they certainly heard him on the radio.

There's more about radio in Having fun

Link to John Curtin's 'Austerity' speech of  October 1942

Listen to John Curtin's 'Austerity' speech broadcast on radio on 3 October 1942 (& view transcript)

Courtesy Australian Broadcasting Corporation. JCPML00408/10

 

Newspapers & magazines

During the war paper rationing led to a reduction in the size of most newspapers. The reduced size, however, did not discourage the readership.

Newspapers were a major source of information about the war but were subject to careful control by the Department of Information. A newspaper that printed banned news found their deliveries stopped by armed men and their papers confiscated.

Wartime restrictions also required that social gossip in the women's pages could only refer to functions connected with the war effort or with wartime charities. Newspaper advertisements had to be free of 'enticement' and coverage of sporting events had to be presented without glamour.

Western Australia had a number of daily and weekend papers during the war, a testimony to a strong reading public. Every day Cottesloe residents scanned the pages of the West Australian for news of servicemen 'Missing', 'Missing Presumed Dead' and 'Dead'.

Soldiers writing letters and reading magazines

Soldiers relaxing - writing letters and reading magazines.

Courtesy La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria

 

A simple wartime pleasure was reading the lift-out comics sections in the Sunday newspapers. Former Cottesloe resident Ruth Marchant James recalls that she couldn't wait to read the comic strip 'Wanda the wargirl', first published in the Sunday Telegraph in 1943. Wanda was reputed to be more popular with school children than Superman! [3]

The newspapers were important to Elsie Curtin. She kept any articles published about John Curtin as Prime Minister in a series of scrap books. She read a variety of papers including the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Herald.

Magazines also played a role in the war effort. They were an important source of information about the Women's Services and regularly ran articles to promote the austerity campaign and other aspects of the war effort.

Wanda the War Girl

Beautiful and feminine, Wanda the War Girl (in red) is a tough independent woman who during the war worked as a spy and adventuress.

Artist - Kate O'Brien

 

 

The Women's Weekly ran serialised stories which were especially popular with readers. There were also true life tales about the heroic efforts of women and men in the services. The gossip section 'On and Off Duty' featured the weddings of service women and their attendance at charity functions for the war effort. Readers could find out about the latest films and how their screen stars were contributing to the war effort.

The Weekly interviewed Elsie Curtin in 1942 about the austerity program, outlining how she was personally putting it into place. People from Cottesloe were encouraged to know that the Prime Minister and his wife took the campaign seriously and set a fine example of austerity in the Lodge.

Austerity message from Elsie Curtin, 1943

Austerity message from Elsie Curtin - 'Every Australian mother has a duty ..'

Women's Weekly, 13 March 1943

 

The post-war years

Letter writing remained a key form of communication post-war and telegrams continued to be the main way in which urgent messages and congratulatory greetings were delivered. The development of the aerogram in 1944 made sending letters overseas much simpler and cheaper.

Although many people installed telephones in the post war years, it would be a long time before phones would supersede the letter or telegram.

Newspapers and magazines returned to their former sizes once paper rationing was discontinued. The ending of censorship was a relief to many newspaper editors.

   
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