The life and work of Tom Fitzgerald - header


The Curtin attraction - 'An insatiable appetite'

Tom Fitzgerald had developed 'a slight interest' in Curtin during his years as Financial Editor of the Herald when he discovered that Curtin, like a number of other self-educated Labor parliamentarians from the working class, read a 'great deal of serious economic literature' including the works of Keynes. His interest grew as he 'went through the files of the weekly newspaper the Westralian Worker, not only during Curtin's editorship' from 1917 to 1928, but even before that time.

Listen to Tom Fitzgerald speaking

So I became deeply interested in this whole period. And the conundrums about pen-names used in Curtin’s time, which of them could or could not be prudently, however carefully, attributed to Curtin. And how much they revealed about him as a person -- when he wrote under a pen-name and felt freer to communicate his innermost thoughts.

And working with Nugget [Dr HC Coombs] I was able to spend even more time at the National Library. I regarded it [the Curtin research] as quite the most exciting thing I was doing.

And then by a natural process I skipped the idea of putting out a pamphlet or an article. Because the more you discover the less you realise you know. About a subject like Curtin. I then decided to probe further backwards in his life. So I went backwards, backwards, backwards, through his period as editor of the Timber Worker journal, which he formed in 1913 in Melbourne. And through his earlier period as a member of the Victorian Socialist Party, beginning in 1905. And then at the end of my work with Nugget Coombs I had established by correspondence and telephone an acquaintance with John Curtin’s surviving daughter, Elsie. His only daughter, who’s still living. And Margaret [Fitzgerald] and I went over to Perth and met her and met people who had known Bodley and again my information was extended. [1]

I had made one contact with Lloyd Ross early in 1975, just before I left Minerals. I phoned him first – knowing that he had completed a manuscript, though I’d never met him, and hearing vague intimations that he was having difficulty to find a publisher for the manuscript, I rang him and said, 'Could I come and see you. I’m interested in…' (as at that time I was only interested in) '…Curtin’s thinking on economics.' He told me on the phone that there was nothing much there on that subject. He said Curtin simply learnt his economics from three people: Frank Anstey, Ted Theodore, and Ben Chifley. Already I knew that the last two were absolutely ridiculous. Totally wrong. Anstey certainly, but not Theodore or Chifley. That was quite clear.



  Tom and Margaret Fitzgerald in Sydney with Elsie and Stan Macleod, 1986

Tom and Margaret Fitzgerald in Sydney with John Curtin's daughter, Elsie, and her husband Stan Macleod, 1986

John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Fitzgerald family. Tom Fitzgerald, Margaret, Elsie, Stan; Sydney 1986. JCPML00720/52


Tom Fitzgerald delivered the 1977 John Curtin Memorial Lecture An Education for Labor Leadership: the case of John Curtin at the Australian National University. In the lecture, he aimed to look at Curtin’s thinking on economics and relate it to his thoughts on the problem of human relationships in the Labor movement, what Curtin frequently referred to as 'The Human Element'.

I think the question of personal relationships in the terms that he considered them will seem rather strange today. He thought that there was a special task for people in the Labour Movement to come to grips with difficulties of that kind and whether he was right or wrong there is no doubt I think that the present recent history of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party bears out the existence of the problem. [2]

He descibes as ‘absolutely predictable’ that Curtin would not go to secondary school, given the time, place and family circumstances, and provides a comprehesive picture of the world of educational (and other) opportunities provided by the Victorian Socialist Party (VSP) in Victoria in the early 1900s. The VSP was ‘a complete self-contained universe of social, educational and propagandist activity taking all the available times of their evenings and weekends’.

Tom Mann was one of Curtin’s mentors and everything in his teaching ‘implied the necessity, the dedication and elevation of spirit and the overcoming of pettiness and human instincts to jealously and envy by the force of reason’. Mann wrote of the need for ‘moral training’.

Socialists must guard against showing exasperation, annoyance and displeasure with other comrades. It is not evidence of good training to be habitually standing on the defence for points of honour and dignity. The well trained spend little time in talking over personal grievances. Whoever nurtures unfriendliness gives the plainest evidence that they stand in great need of moral training. [3]

On numerous occasions in his journalistic and editorial career, Curtin would write on the problem of personal relations within the Labor movement.

Curtin also took advantage of Mann’s emphasis on education in economics.

The pivot of Tom Mann's long term strategy was the Speakers and Economics class. From this was to emerge the young propagandists, the missionaries of the socialist cause whose work would help to hasten its ultimate triumph. Their training of speakers was integrated with their knowledge of socialist economics. John Curtin was very quickly singled out as a bright pupil of the class, one of his essays being published in a very early issue of the Socialist newspaper. And two years later he was appointed a teacher to that class. [4]

To illustrate one example of ‘the measure of Curtin's success in putting his own precepts into practice in politics’, Fitzgerald links the two themes of ‘the grasp of economics and the conduct toward one’s fellow party members’ by relating the history of the relationship between Curtin and E.G.Theodore.

Curtin had often publicised Theodore’s achievements as Premier of Queensland, and hailed his entry to Federal politics, calling him a future leader, but Theodore had had a decisive part in keeping Curtin out of ministry in 1929. Curtin nevertheless actively supported Theodore’s proposal, as Treasurer, to bring credit policy under government control.

In the parliamentary debate on the Premiers’ Plan, Theodore interrupted Curtin’s speech, with sneering tone: ‘You’re becoming drunk with your own rhetoric.’

In reply Curtin explicitly refuses to stoop to personal slurs against a fellow party member (Theodore had recently been suspended from Cabinet over the Mongana corruption allegation). Curtin argued against Theodore on policy and principle alone, believing that Labor had ‘gone down’ on the reflationary policy it had only recently advocated in a by-election.


Read the text of the complete lecture via the JCPML Electronic Research Archive.

View text in ERA

Advertisement for Tom Mann speaking at the Bijou Theatre, 1907

Fitzgerald noted that this advertisement from the Socialist for a public lecture by Tom Mann at the Bijou Theatre, 'The Brightest House in Melbourne', was 'V. good candidate for reproduction in book'

Mann was to lecture on 'The Wonders of Science, A Mental Pilgramage to Europe, the East, Ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt and Babylonia.'

A cordial welcome was extended to strangers - and attendees were reminded that they 'must be early to secure a good seat.'

Socialist, 14 September 1907, page 2



As he continued his Curtin research, Fitzgerald recognised a kindred temperament in the young Curtin. He annotated an advertisement in the Socialist for a lecture by one of Curtin’s mentors, Tom Mann, with the comment 'Appealing to the ecstatic element in Curtin’s temperament?'. But Fitzgerald also noted here 'Yet Curtin was a shrewd realist also - bring out early'.

Fitzgerald and Curtin shared some similar experiences and enthusiasms – Irish Catholic upbringing, early experience of a working class environment, love of English literature (especially Shakespeare), interest in economics (especially Keynes), interest in evolution, careers as journalist and editor. Fitzgerald’s empathy and respect for Curtin’s mind and character, combined with exceptional scholarship, led to new insights into Curtin the man and new interpretations of known evidence.

Curtin’s love of Shakespeare is obvious in his letter of 9 August 1912, addressed to three of the Needham family: Abraham and Annie, and their daughter Elsie, Curtin’s future wife. Written on a Friday night, Curtin had just finished reading Frank Harris’ newly-published book The Women of Shakespeare and describes it enthusiastically. Fitzgerald interprets the letter as a lightly disguised declaration of love for Elsie Needham.

With all its ardent release and wit, and success in addressing three persons with particular messages to one of them, the letter also seems to have some touches of the common awkwardness and somewhat extravagant or strained and excited expression of a young man who is newly in love, when performing a rite of courtship display in the loved one’s presence….

Written about two months…of first meeting Elsie, Curtin is clearly indicating he is in love….

Curtin would later (when editing the Westralian Worker) naturally express his literary enthusiasms with more restraint (discretion) than in this letter in which he is, partly, conveying that he is falling in love with Elsie Needham. [5]

Tom Fitzgerald planned to write a biography of John Curtin but became so enmeshed in his investigations that the work was still in progress when he died in 1993. He wrote to Peter Ryan, ‘I’ve an insatiable appetite for ..morsels of actuality’ [6] and his investigative journalist’s concern for thoroughness and accuracy have ensured that his research papers on John Curtin are of great interest and significance.


1. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the National Library of Australia. Interview of Tom Fitzgerald, 01/02/1988 - 3/09/1988. JCPML00658/1. Original held by National Library of Australia TRC 2247

2 - 4. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Australian National University. An Education for Labor Leadership: the case of Curtin, by T M Fitzgerald, 1977. JCPML00420/2

5. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of Tom Fitzgerald. Curtin and Shakespeare, 1909 - 1979. JCPML00653/320

6.John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of Tom Fitzgerald. Letter from Peter Ryan to Tom Fitzgerald, 2 March 1977. JCPML00653/28/7 - check this reference

Investigating John Curtin home
Between life and economics - 'A dissenting case'
As seen by others - 'one of the most cultivated minds of our time '