The life and work of Tom Fitzgerald - header


Early years - 'Born on a dairy in Marrickville'

I was born on a dairy in Marrickville [in 1918], which used to surprise people when I said it in the 1940s and 1950s. I was born on the precincts of my grandfather’s dairy in Marrickville in August 1918. My mother had come out not long before from Ireland herself, alone. My father was the son of two Irish migrants who had come out in 1880 – they had the dairy.

It was about ten years after my birth, ten or eleven years after, condemned by the local government -- not allowed to continue as a dairy in that area for hygienic reasons. But even before then my father had left and become a milk vendor – a vendor of pasteurised milk, all around that area. We lived for most of that time near Sydenham Station, in the suburb of St Peters.

And as little boys I and my next brother and my next brother were recruited to running around on milk carts at various times of the morning. And the milk runs extended over a very wide range of districts because in those days there was no zoning. For a large part of my life I was expected…not expected but it was very much accepted if I went out and worked on the milk carts. And this continued up to the age of twenty on and off, even when I had work elsewhere. [1]

  The Fitzgerald family dairy at Marrickville

The Fitzgerald family dairy at Marrickville

John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Fitzgerald family. Tom Fitzgerald's Uncle Dave at Marrickville dairy, n.d. JCPML00720/10



Working the milk run introduced Tom to the whole neighbourhood and the area was to have an 'enormous tug' on him throughout his life.


I went to the local convent school the Marist Brothers at Kogarah to do my intermediate. And then, after a broken mother was always very keen to see me go on in education, my father was indifferent on the matter, but she arranged that I should first go to the Marist Brothers at Darlinghurst in 1933 into fourth year…

I read widely and did begin to get a wish of my own to continue [my education….In] 1935 I completed my secondary education and I got an exhibition…[which] meant one could do any course, free of fees. And I had no very clear ideas at all what I wanted to do vocationally. I would have liked to have sat in on lectures on English literature but that was clearly only a private interest rather than a vocation.


  Tom Fitzgerald senior delivering milk by horse and cart, 1920s

Tom Fitzgerald's father, Thomas, delivering milk by horse and cart, 1920s

John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Fitzgerald family. Tom Fitzgerald's father, Thomas, early 1920s. JCPML00720/12



I raised with my father the possibility that I might do medicine. Not that I thought I was cut out to be a doctor but I thought it would give me an independent existence. Self-employed, the ability to move perhaps all over the world and thereby develop other interests if I wished. That would have meant six years solid at university in a working-class district where I firmly believe I was going to be anyway the first person to enter university between Cook’s River and at least St Peter’s bridge. And it meant being an idler by the standards of that area for another six years.

I joined the Commonwealth Public Service and to my surprise was assigned to the Defence Department in Victoria Barracks, Paddington…I finally accepted the suggestion of one of the senior officers at the Victoria Barracks that economics, which was available as an evening course, was worth doing.

I remember now that I first enrolled in Arts but didn’t...but before the beginning of term I’d switched to economics. And I did that partly by browsing through books in Angus & Robertson’s at 89 Castlereagh Street and beginning to see that there were some books in economics that were quite interesting and even then I was struck from before I began the course, by some of the books by JM Keynes.

So economics it was, as an evening student. In the first year I got distinction, Trevor Swan got high distinction. I was next to him but with that very big gap.

In the next year my mother died suddenly, tragically. She was only forty-two or -three. Dreadful blow. I was the eldest of six children. My father was never the same after her death. I didn’t continue after her death that year. I didn’t continue with my studies but went back and did the second year over again in 1938. My mother died in August 1937. At the end of that year I equalled top but again distinction, not high distinction. And then the war broke out, there were great pressures, I was going of course in the evening, there was overtime to be done.


  Tom FItzgerald with his parents and siblings

Tom Fitzgerald, standing back row, with his parents and siblings.

John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Fitzgerald family. Tom Fitzgerald and parents and siblings, n.d. JCPML00720/24.



In 1940 my father died. I had said to my father that I would like to enlist but he spoke about my responsibilities as the oldest and the only one of age in the family, six children. He seems to have had premonitions of his death which occurred in September, 1940. He was 52. That was the other deadly blow, particularly to the younger children.

The result was that in that final year, 1940, I didn’t strictly complete the studies for the Bachelor of Economics degree. I didn’t complete in one subject, Public Administration, so I did not end up in 1940 with a degree.

For a combination of reasons, I decided I would leave the Defence Department, leave Victoria Barracks and come and join my brothers who were then supporting the family by...on milkruns. Two brothers. And I joined them. I left the Department. The Department raised some...or one person there raised some questions as to whether they should allow me to go but they did and for the rest of 1940 and 1941 I extended the milk vending business, I enlarged it.

Then Japan struck of course. And the proposition that milkruns should be zoned came in. I was voted by the vendors of a large area to be Chairman of the local committee to help to organise under the aegis of the Milk Board the zoning of milkruns. This went on early in 1942.

And it soon became apparent to me that, when the zoning was done, the amount of milk that was being distributed by our family could be comfortably done without me. The business would be stabilised. There would would be on a firm and, in its expanded form, quite a satisfactory condition for the family. And so I prevailed over my two younger brothers, only one of whom would’ve been old enough anyway, that I had the right to enlist. [2]


1 - 2 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


Investigating John Curtin home
Influences in youth - 'a succession of enthusiasms'