Westralian Worker staff with John Curtin leaning on the verandah post c. 1920. JCPML00379/2.

John and Elsie Curtin with their children Elsie and John, 1922. JCPML00004/9.


John Curtin

John Curtin was born in the Victorian mining town of Creswick on 8 January 1885.

He was the oldest son of Irish immigrants, Kate and John Curtin.

Curtin's much interrupted education ended when he began work at 14 to supplement the family income with a number of different jobs.

Curtin became Secretary of the Timber Workers Union in 1911 and within two years had coordinated a loose association of local groups into a tight and effective union. He was instrumental in the introduction of a Workers' Compensation Act in Victoria.

On a working trip to Hobart in 1912 Curtin met Elsie Needham and the couple formed a lasting friendship, corresponding regularly over the next few years.

During World War One Curtin was a staunch anti-conscriptionist and in 1916 was appointed secretary of the National Executive of the Anti-Conscription Campaign.



In 1917 he became editor of the Westralian Worker, the official paper of the WA Labor Party, and moved to Perth to start a new life.

Soon after establishing himself in Western Australia, Curtin married Elsie Needham and they had two children

In 1928 Curtin stood for and won the federal seat of Fremantle. He lost the seat when the Labor Government was defeated in 1931, but regained it in the 1934 election. When James Scullin resigned as leader of the Australian Labor Party in October 1935, John Curtin was elected to the position by one vote.

When the previous government collapsed, Curtin became prime minister on 7 October 1941, just two months before the bombing of Pearl Harbour and the start of the Pacific war.

John Curtin died in office on 5 July 1945.

 Westralian Worker staff with  John Curtin leaning on the  verandah post c. 1920.
 JCPML. Records of the  Australian Labor Party WA  Branch. JCPML00379/2

 John and Elsie Curtin with  their children Elsie and John,  1922.
 JCPML. Records of the  Curtin family.  JCPML00004/9
  John Curtin is greeted at Perth Railway Station by his wife and daughter and the Lord Mayor of Perth (left) on his first visit home as prime minister, January 1942. JCPML00382/58.
   John Curtin is greeted at  Perth Railway Station by his  wife and daughter and the  Lord Mayor of Perth (left) on  his first visit home as prime  minister, January 1942.
 JCPML. Records of the  Curtin family.  JCPML00382/58


John Curtin, Prime Minister of Australia 1941-1945

Three figures of Prime Minister John Curtin, 1941-1945. Bronze 2004. Sculptor: Peter Latona.
JCPML. Records of the JCPML. JCPML00863/1

Three figures of Prime Minister John Curtin, 1941-1945. Bronze 2004. Sculptor: Peter Latona. JCPML00863/1.

'The key to understanding Curtin and his place in Australian history is that he was a politician gifted with insight into the significance of events, that he came to power just as Australia's relationship to the rest of the world and its internal structure were ready to change, and that he grasped the authority to move the country in the direction he wanted to go. He understood that the circumstances of war offered him a chance to change the way Australia worked…His enduring achievement was not saving Australia from Japan but in creating modern post-war Australia.'
(Edwards, John, John Curtin's Gift, Allen & Unwin, 2005)

Wartime Relations

British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill and American President Franklin Roosevelt were strong leaders from two of the world's most powerful countries. Australian prime ministers had traditionally relied on being part of the British Empire for their voice in world affairs. Whilst still acknowledging the strong links to Britain, Curtin fought to have Australia's interests recognised and that increased tensions between the three leaders.


Curtin realised that Australia would not be able to rely for its defence on Great Britain, which was heavily involved in the European war.

Curtin broke from the traditional view that Australian foreign policy was best served by participating in Imperial foreign policy when he wrote:

Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom. We know the problems that the United Kingdom faces...But we know that Australia can go and Britain can still hold on. [The Herald, 27 December 1941]

While Curtin still intended to conduct aspects of Australia’s foreign policy through the British Empire, his message foreshadowed Australia’s increasing reliance on the United States as an ally. Roosevelt sent General Douglas MacArthur to Australia in March 1942. MacArthur provided a direct link to the President that Curtin had not previously had.




Curtin first clashed with Churchill in January 1942 over the issue of whether a war council involving Australia was to be located in Washington, as Curtin wished, or London. Churchill successfully enlisted Roosevelt's support and the council was established in London.

By the middle of February 1942 Curtin was in the midst of a heated exchange of cables with Churchill, centred on proposals for the return of the 6th and 7th 7th Australian Divisions from the Middle East. Curtin was pressured by both Churchill and Roosevelt to agree to their demands to deploy Australian troops to Burma.

Curtin took his responsibility as Prime Minister of Australia seriously, putting Australia's needs first and refusing to allow British requests to dictate his actions.

In the weeks after Pearl Harbour and the sinking of the British battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse, Curtin expressed growing concern about Australia’s reliance on Britain and the naval base at Singapore. As it became increasingly obvious that Singapore would fall, it was clear that Australia needed a new ally.

Australia welcomed US General Douglas MacArthur as the Supreme Allied Commander in the Pacific. MacArthur’s assumption of command was the end of Australia’s military relationship with the UK in the Pacific when the transfer of command went from Wavell, as the former allied commander of the American British Dutch Australian area, to MacArthur. Whilst Curtin’s insistence on the return of the 7th division was symbolic of the changed relationship between Australia and Britain, the removal of Australian land forces from British command was an even more important step.


Franklin D Roosevelt. Inscribed "For The Rt Hon John Curtin, Prime Minister of Australia From his friend Franklin D Roosevelt", n.d. JCPML00376/123

'No offence, mum, but I'm shifting to these here apron strings - at least for twenty-four hours' cartoon by John Frith. The Bulletin 31 December 1941.

 Franklin D Roosevelt.
 JCPML. Records of the
 Curtin Family.

Curtin: 'No offence, mum, but I'm shifting to these here apron strings - at least
for twenty-four hours' cartoon by John Frith.
The Bulletin 31 December 1941. Courtesy Frith Family.
  John Curtin greeting Eleanor Roosevelt September 1943. JCPML00376/83
   Prime Minister John Curtin
 welcomes Eleanor Roosevelt
 to Australia, September
 JCPML. Records of the
 Curtin family.
'Shun!’ cartoon by John Frith. The Bulletin 7 September 1938.
PM John Curtin shaking hands with General Douglas MacArthur, Sydney 8 June 1943. JCPML00376/69
 In the late 1930s it was  accepted that the Australian  Imperial Forces would come  under British command.  British commanders: 'Shun!’  cartoon by John Frith.
 The Bulletin 7 September  1938. Courtesy Frith family.

Prime Minister John Curtin
 shaking hands with General
 Douglas MacArthur,
 Sydney, 8 June 1943.
 JCPML. Records of the
 Curtin family.





President Roosevelt (seated) and Mrs Roosevelt inspect the facsimile copy of Captain Cook's journal that was presented to Mrs Roosevelt by John Curtin when she visited Australia in 1943. National Library of Australia: MS6923 John & Elsie Curtin with American Ambassador Nelson Johnston and Gene Tunney, 1943. JCPML00376/94  


Curtin felt that his first priority was the defence, and indeed survival, of Australia. He felt that meeting with other leaders was not crucial to the war effort and that he could conduct negotiations with the Allies by cable. Politically, he lacked a working majority in either House of Parliament, relying on the support of independents until the 1943 election gave him a decisive majority and the security to plan an overseas visit in 1944.

Curtin and his wife sailed to Washington in April to meet with the Roosevelts. In reports to the press about his meeting with the President, Curtin declared that ‘there was complete harmony between our views’.

Curtin then flew to London to attend the Prime Ministers’ Conference where he sought to secure Australia’s place in the postwar world. He achieved agreement with Churchill that Australia should be able to reduce its active participation in the war effort in terms of the supply of fighting forces in order to free up resources to assist the Allies in their war effort in the Pacific.

During this visit relations between Curtin and Churchill improved significantly with Curtin spending three weekends, in whole or in part, with Churchill at Chequers. At the close of the conference he claimed that nobody ‘could have steered us through these deliberations more graciously, more inspiringly, or more successfully’ than Churchill. Churchill in turn responded at a luncheon of the Australia Club by offering the ‘right hand of friendship to that most commanding, competent, whole-hearted leader of the Australian people’.



Curtin could see the value in cultivating the existing links with Britain while building new ones with the United States.


In April 1944 John Curtin and his wife set sail on the Lurline for Washington. Elsie Curtin remained in America while Curtin flew on to the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference in London in May, rejoining her in Canada at the end of the meeting.

At the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ conference in London, Curtin proposed that an Empire Council be established, involving the appointment of a standing committee of High Commissioners (any one of whom could be ‘replaced at appropriate intervals by a special representative who could be a Minister’) and the British Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, and supported by a secretariat on which all Dominions would be represented and which could be moved among the different capitals of the British Empire. However the proposal received little support from the other Dominion leaders.

 President Roosevelt (seated)
  and Mrs Roosevelt inspect
  the facsimile copy of Captain
 Cook's journal that was
  presented to Mrs Roosevelt
  by John Curtin when she
  visited Australia in 1943.
 Courtesy National Library
  of Australia: MS6923
 John and Elsie Curtin with
 American Ambassador
 Nelson Johnson (second from
 right) and heavyweight
 boxing champion, Gene
 Tunney, c. 1943.
 JCPML. Records of the
 Curtin family.
  Official party, including John and Elsie Curtin and General Blamey (right) as the Lurline departs for the USA, 1944. JCPML00409/13.
   Official party, including John
 and Elsie Curtin and General
 Blamey (right) as the Lurline
departs for the USA, 1944.
 JCPML. Records of West
 Australian News Ltd.
 JCPML00409/13. Courtesy
 West Australian News Ltd

John Curtin (left) arriving at a Conference function, London. JCPML00018/9 Prime Minister Churchill with the Dominion prime ministers at the start of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference. JCPML00018/20
 John Curtin (left) arriving at
 a Conference function,
 JCPML. Records of
 Frederick McLaughlin.

 Prime Minister Churchill
 with the Dominion prime
  ministers (left to right):
 Mackenzie-King, Churchill,
 Curtin and Fraser at the start
 of the Commonwealth Prime
 Ministers' Conference.
 JCPML. Records of
 Frederick McLaughlin

Desk built to John Curtin's specifications around 1927 when he was working from home. The desk is made of Tasmanian oak stained to resemble jarrah by W E Taylor.
Courtesy Australiana Fund.

Silver box and facsimile of the illuminated address conferring Freedom of the City of London on Prime Minister John Curtin.
JCPML. Records of John Curtin. JCPML00287/2

John Curtin's desk. Four Freedoms book presented to Curtin by President Roosevelt in 1944. Silver box and facsimile of the illustrated address conferring the Freedom of the City of London on PM Curtin, 1944.

Integral to President Roosevelt's plan for postwar reconstruction was his hope that the world could be founded upon 'four essential human freedoms' - freedom of speech and expression; freedom of every person to worship; freedom from want; and freedom from fear. The President's message was translated into a book illustrated by Norman Rockwell. The four freedoms book was presented to John Curtin on his visit to the USA in 1944.
JCPML. Records of the Curtin family. JCPML00403/8

View some of the documents which supported this section of the exhibition and which reveal the relationships between the three leaders, Curtin, Roosevelt and Churchill. Most of these records are from the Department of Foreign Affairs Historical Documents Project working papers used for the compilation of Documents on Australian Foreign Policy, 1937-1949. They include numerous cablegrams between the leaders as well as press clippings, conference agenda, War Cabinet minutes and reports.