Diary of a Labour Man 1917- 1945


1919 Editor of the Westralian Worker

January - February Perth

One Big Union One Big Union. Courtesy of the Australian Workers' Union Greater NSW Branch. See

In January 1919, Curtin was put in a difficult position when the Australian Workers' Union (AWU), which had aspirations to become the dominant Australian union, took a controlling interest in the Westralian Worker and 'curbed Curtin’s ability to speak out' 1 on the issue of the One Big Union.

The proposal for One Big Union, a body which would encompass all Australian workers, was initially enthusiastically supported by Curtin as a means of achieving working class unity. 2

When the AWU took over the Westralian Worker Curtin was still writing articles supporting the Workers Industrial Union of Australia (WIUA) in its One Big Union plans but by May he was writing articles criticizing the WIUA and supporting the AWU.

Sunday 5 January Perth

Curtin celebrates his 34th birthday.

Wednesday evening
19 February

Hibernian Hall, Perth
  Attends a farewell to Mr Don Cameron. Valedictory by the Metropolitan Council of the Australian Labour Federation. Proposes a toast to the Labor Movement. 3
Tuesday 25 March Melbourne Hospital

John & Kate Curtin with son John,
JCPML. Records of the Curtin Family. John & Kate Curtin with son John, taken in Melbourne, 1885. JCPML00004/1.

Death of John Curtin senior, Curtin’s father.

It has been suggested that Mr Curtin senior’s relationship with his oldest son had been a 'vexed one', as long-standing rheumatoid arthritis which constricted his movements had aggravated his temper. Curtin senior had contracted syphilis at some stage in his life, and this returned to cause his death. 4

Wednesday 26 March

Coburg Cemetery, Victoria


Burial of John Curtin senior. John Curtin is unable to attend due to the distance involved .5

Saturday 19 April [Easter]

Northam, Western Australia
  Attends a public meeting. 6
Thursday 24 April Melbourne and Perth

Frank Hyett (1882-1919)
Frank Hyett (1882-1919)
Courtesy: http://www.marxists.org/

Death of Frank Hyett.

Frank Hyett was the closest male friend that Curtin ever had. He was notified of the death by telegram in the middle of a union meeting, and 'was distraught, writing later that he would "not forget that day if I live to be 90".' That night Curtin 'paced the verandah' of his home in Cottesloe, repeating in disbelief, 'Frank Hyett is dead.' 7

Francis William Hyett (1882-1919) 'first met Curtin in 1903 and like him, was strongly influenced by Anstey and Tom Mann; he became the secretary of the Social Democratic Party in 1905 and deputy secretary of the Victorian Socialist Party in 1906. Shortly after his marriage to Ethel Gunn in 1910, Hyett became paid organiser of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Employees and helped form the Victorian Railways Union as well as laying the basis for the Australian Railways Union, which was achieved in 1920 a year after his death from Spanish influenza. A good sportsman, he played first class cricket for Victoria.' 8
Sunday evening 27 April King’s Theatre, Perth

Attends a Labor rally.

'The large theatre was so packed that before 8 o’clock an appeal had to be made so that the ladies could be secured seats. In response a large number of those seated marched up to the platform and formed a kind of bodyguard. Two hundred men thus stood behind the speakers the whole evening. Right through the meeting there was great enthusiasm displayed.' 9

Saturday evening 3 May

In front of the Victoria Hotel, Hannan Street, Kalgoorlie

Attends a meeting to protest against the decision of the Kalgoorlie Municipal Council to prohibit the holding of meetings in the main thoroughfares after 3 May.

'Mr Curtin handled the subject briefly in his usual style, and then placed the position of affairs at Fremantle wharves before his audience in such a way that left no doubt as to the righteousness of the lumpers’ cause in the minds of the vast majority of his hearers.' 10

Sunday 4 May Lyric Gardens, Kalgoorlie

Tom Edwards’ funeral procession with horse-drawn hearse, Fremantle,
JCPML. Records of Alex McCallum. Tom Edwards’ funeral procession with horse-drawn hearse, Fremantle, 9 May 1919. JCPML00830/175/45.

Tom Edwards was struck on the head by a police baton after going to assist Fremantle Lumpers’ President, William Renton, in the Fremantle Wharf riot of 4 May 1919. Edwards died as a result of his wounds and thousands attended his funeral at Fremantle on 9 May 1919.

Attends a public meeting.

'There was only a moderate attendance owing to the inclemency of the weather…' but 'A collection was taken up on behalf of the wives and children of the lumpers.' 11

While Curtin was in Kalgoorlie, a violent riot took place on Fremantle Wharf arising from the Fremantle Lumpers Union ongoing dispute with the National Waterside Workers' Union, the very issue on which Curtin had been speaking.

'Fremantle in 1919 was the scene of an extraordinarily violent riot. Western Australia was isolated by a seamen's strike and an outbreak of the deadly influenza virus. There was insufficient work for everyone and when the Dimboola arrived with urgently-needed medical supplies and foodstuffs it was unloaded by non-union labour, (brought onto the wharves in the 1917 strike) before the quarantine period expired. The wharf was picketed by WWF members and they and their wives assembled daily to prevent non-union labour getting to the wharves. Thousands of people joined them, including returned soldiers carrying revolvers. When barricades were erected on 4 May, (known subsequently as "Bloody Sunday") indicating a renewed effort to bring in non-union labour, bellmen ran through the streets calling out the populace, priests alerted their congregations and townspeople, women, children and other workers streamed down to the wharves.

Non-union labour arrived in launches, accompanied by the West Australian Premier, Hal Colebatch, and were greeted with a barrage of scrap iron and stone missiles from the bridge above. In what became a head on confrontation between the two groups WWF member Thomas Edwards fell, fatally wounded, and died a few days later, giving his union its first martyr. A truce was declared, the non-union labour left the wharves and wharfies and their supporters were persuaded to disperse, but high feeling continued for several days and there were isolated attacks on police. Most of the non-union labour left Fremantle in the face of ongoing hostility.' 12

Sunday evening 6 July

Local picture theatre, Midland Junction

Attends a demonstration.

'Midland Junction Roused. A Great Demonstration.'
'Part of a 'campaign instituted by the WA division of the Australian Labor Party to awaken public opinion on the question of the cost of living.' 13

One Sunday morning in August Perth Trades Hall
  Opens a Sunday afternoon conference on One Big Union.14
August Perth

Nominates to be the Labor candidate in the federal election for the conservative seat of Perth.15

Curtin barely managed to attract a third of the vote in his Perth electorate. 16
August Perth

Is elected State Vice President of the Australian Journalists Association.

John Curtin joined the AJA on becoming editor of the Westralian Worker and served as a committee member for two years before being elected State district vice president. Committee meetings were held as frequently as once a week, usually Tuesday lunchtimes, at the AJA city office.

c. August/September Perth

The Needham Family, Cape Town, South Africa, 1904
JCPML. Records of the Curtin Family. Abraham & Annie Needham & their family: William (20yrs), Leslie (at left) 18 yrs & Elsie (14 yrs), Cape Town, South Africa,1904. JCPML00381/4

Elsie Curtin’s parents, Abraham and Annie Needham, move to Perth from Hobart, Tasmania, sharing the Napier Street family home.

Possibly Annie Needham would have assisted with the household chores, while Abraham Needham would, 'provide a steadying influence for Curtin, perhaps preventing him from plunging into his black moods.' Mr Needham’s experience as 'a writer and agitator' would alleviate the ever-increasing load that was falling onto Curtin’s shoulders. Some suggest that Needham took over much of the writing for the Westralian Worker, while Curtin concentrated on his election campaign, 17 while others maintain that Curtin wrote all the editorials and also much of the other content of the paper.18

Thursday 2 September Worker Office, Perth

Attends meeting of the Board of Directors of the People's Printing and Publishing Company where the Directors discuss with Curtin whether he can maintain the dual responsiblities of Editor and Candidate for the Federal Seat of Perth.

The Chairman expressed the opinion that it was impossible for Mr Curtin to carry out the dual position of Editor & Candidate for the Perth seat. Personally he would not stand in Mr Curtin's way if he were anxious for the contest and suggested that the Directors should ask Mr Curtin for his opinion.

Mr Curtin explained that he was aware that there was no nomination for the Perth seat and no likelihood of there being one: to him it was a deplorable position for a capital city and under the circumstances he felt compelled to nominate. Personally he was not anxious for political life and preferred to stay with the paper. Believed he could be of greater assistance with the Labor Daily by remaining where he was.

Lutez: Though that Mr Curtin should not be withdrawn from the contest. We should get him assistance in the office during the campaign.

Watts: In my opinion it is a matter entirely with Mr Curtin himself, personally would sooner see him Editor of the Worker than member for Perth. Still would not be opposed to his contesting the seat.

Hickey: Whil recognising Mr Curtin's loss to the paper he still thought that he should go on with the campaign.

Jones: Thought that Mr Curtin [should] continue in the campaign. It would have a bad effect on the Elections generally if he were to pull out.

Watts: That the State Executive be written to and the position of the Editor of the Worker as against his candidature for Perth be placed before them for their considerations. 18a

At the meeting, Curtin expressed disappointment in the performance of the son of Mr W. Bourne who was employed at the Westralian Worker. Mr Bourne was a member of the Labor movement in Western Australia. The Directors agreed to put the boy on notice and give hima further month's trial. 18b

Thursday evening
9? October


Speaks at the Perth Branch of the Australian Labour Federation's regular lecture.

'Last meeting’s lectures were well above the average. Mr J Curtin favored the gathering with an appeal for solidarity amonst the working-class for the forthcoming Federal elections. He recognised that having a strong central branch of the ALP supporting him – and it rests on the workers to provide this – his task of winning the Perth seat for Labor will be much easier.'19

Friday evening
21 November

Horseshoe Bridge, Perth

Horseshoe Bridge 1919?
Horseshoe Bridge, Perth 1919?
Courtesy Battye Library BA1059/1621

Attends and speaks at an election campaign meeting.20

Sunday 23 November 3pm

The Esplanade, Perth
  Attends and speaks at an election campaign meeting.21
Monday 24 November West Perth (the corner of Stone and Havelock Streets)
  Attends and speaks at an election campaign meeting.22
Tuesday 25 November Perth (the corner of Newcastle and Lake Streets)
  Attends and speaks at an election campaign meeting. 23
Wednesday 26 November North Perth (St Albans Hall, Beaufort Street)
  Attends and speaks at an election campaign meeting. 24
Thursday 27 November Mt Lawley, Railway Parade, Western Australia
  Attends and speaks at an election campaign meeting (with Senator Needham). 25
Friday 28 November Perth City (opposite Boans Store)
  Attends and speaks at election campaign meeting (with Mr George Pollock MLA). 26
Monday 1 December McLeod’s Hall, Beaufort Street, Perth
  Attends and speaks at an election campaign meeting (with Mr M` Troy MLA). 27
Tuesday 2 December St Mary’s Hall, West Perth
  Attends and speaks at an election campaign meeting. 28
Wednesday 3 December Osborne Park, Western Australia
  Attends and speaks at an election campaign meeting. 29
Thursday 4 December Opposite West Leederville Railway Station, Western Australia
  Attends and speaks at election campaign meeting. 30
Saturday 13 December  

Votes in Federal election.

Curtin is unsuccessful in the Perth seat, gaining a bare third of the votes.

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