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Curtin University
John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library
Curtin University Library

Elsie Curtin

Elsie Curtin was the wife of John Curtin, PM of Australia (1941-1945).

Elsie Curtin (1891-1975) was born in Ballarat, Victoria, the youngest child of Annie and Abraham Needham. She lived for some years in South Africa, returning with her family to Tasmania at the age of 18. Her parents were politically active socialists and Elsie developed an interest in social issues and politics which she maintained all her life.

Elsie met John Curtin in Hobart in 1912 and they married in 1917 in Perth where John had taken the position of editor of the Westralian Worker newspaper. The couple had 2 children, a son John and daughter Elsie. In the west, Elsie was involved in the community and Labor Party. She was a member of the Fremantle Labor Women's Association, the committee to establish the Cottesloe Infant Health Clinic and the Subiaco Choral Society where she sang contralto. She loved music and played both the piano and organ.
Mrs Elsie Curtin, c 1938. JCPML00376/120
Records of the Curtin family. Elsie Curtin c 1938. JCPML00376/120

When John Curtin became Prime Minister in October 1941, Elsie left Perth to join her husband at the Lodge, returning home for Christmas. For the remainder of the war, she travelled by train from Cottesloe to Canberra about twice a year, staying for 2 or 3 months at a time. In Perth, Elsie ran her home and coped with the electorate work which accumulated in John's long absences.

Elsie undertook many public engagements as the prime minister's wife, including launching ships, entertaining official visitors, attending diverse functions, and promoting the austerity campaigns and war loans. She supported her husband in all aspects of his prime ministership and together they set an example of war-time austerity for Australians to follow. During the war years, she was State President of the WA Labor Women's Organisation, Patron of the Cottesloe Ladies' Surf Life-Saving Club and on the Central Council of the Red Cross. In 1944 she accompanied John Curtin on his trip to the United States and Canada.

When Curtin's health deteriorated, Elsie stayed in Canberra from February 1945 and was with him until his death on 5 July.

Her community and political work continued after her husband's death. Elsie became a Justice of the Peace in 1955 and served on the Married Women's Court and as a visitor to Fremantle Gaol. As well as being the recipient of a number of organisations' life memberships, Elsie was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1970 in recognition of the support she gave her husband in his war-time prime ministership.

What's in the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library on Elsie Curtin?

The JCPML collection comprises personal papers, photographs, oral histories, copies of official records and other archival material relating to the life and times of John Curtin. The Electronic Research Archive (ERA) provides digital access to the collection and to John Curtin related materials held in other institutions around the world.

Through ERA you can access:

  • Images (photographs, documents)
  • Full text (contents of documents)
  • Audio and video (oral histories, sound recordings, motion pictures)
  • Finding aids (text containing information about the titles and descriptions of material which has not been digitised)

ERA contains finding aids of material which is not related to John Curtin but which falls into other collection focus areas. The content of items is only digitised if it relates to John Curtin. You may find it useful to check out the technical information and try the online tutorial before starting your search.

The freely downloadable publication John Curtin: Guide to archives of Australia's Prime Ministers is an excellent starting point for exploring what's in the JCPML collection. It includes a section on Elsie Curtin and has links from the record listings directly into ERA where the digital item can be viewed.

To sample the collection, explore the following selected records that relate to Elsie Curtin.

Selected records

View Photographs collected by John Curtin Family in ERA.

For example: Records of the Curtin Family. Mrs Curtin "Home away from home", The Lodge, Canberra, ca 1941. JCPML00376/20.

Records of the Curtin Family. Mrs Elsie Curtin in a Lancaster bomber, 1943. JCPML00376/26. (Mrs Curtin's flight over Canberra was part of a national tour by the bomber to promote the current Liberty Loan.)

Mrs Curtin at the Lodge, 1941

Elsie Curtin in Lancaster bomber, 1943

Records of the Curtin Family. Labor Women's Group outside Museum & Art Gallery, n.d. JCPML00376/162. (Mrs Elsie Curtin - 4th from left in front row.)

Labor Women's Group outside Musem and Art Gallery, n.d.

View Personal correspondence of the Curtin Family in ERA.

For example: Records of the Curtin Family. Letter from John Curtin to Elsie Curtin, 30 April 1944. JCPML00402/44. (John Curtin wrote this letter to Elsie when he was in London for the Dominion Prime Ministers' Conference and she was waiting for him in the United States.)

Letter from John Curtin to Elsie, 30 April 1944, page 1
(page 1 of 4)

Text version
(of whole letter

Records of the Curtin Family. Letter from John Curtin to Elsie Needham, 2 February 1917. JCPML00402/19. (Needham was Elsie Curtin's maiden name.)

Letter from John Curtin to Elsie Needham, 2 February 1917, page 1

Letter from John Curtin to Elsie Needham, 2 February 1917, page 2

Text version

View The Curtin Story (a five part series of articles by Elsie Curtin published in Woman magazine in 1951) in ERA.

For example: Records of Woman magazine. The Curtin story by Elsie Curtin, part 4, Woman, 2 April 1951. JCPML00577/4

The Curtin story
Part 4:
His greatest triumph

View Personal papers of John Curtin family in ERA.

For example: Records of the Curtin family. Proposed script of ABC broadcast by Irene Greenwood, "Mrs John Curtin - a personal sketch", 27 July 1945. JCPML00398/74

'Mrs John Curtin:
a personal sketch'

View and listen to Interviews conducted for JS Battye Library and JCPML in ERA.

For example: Records of the JCPML. Interview of Elsie Macleod, 1994 1995. JCPML00012. (Elsie Macleod is John and Elsie Curtin's daughter)

Link to oral history of Elsie Macleod
& transcript
(requires Quicktime)

View Personal possessions of Elsie Curtin in ERA.

For example:

Records of Elsie Curtin. Commander of the British Empire medal & case awarded to Mrs Elsie Curtin 1 January 1970. JCPML00373/1

Records of Elsie Curtin. Commander of the British Empire patent awarded to Mrs Elsie Curtin 1 January 1970 by Governor Kendrew. JCPML00373/2.

CBE medal and case awarded to Elsie Curtin, 1970

CBE patent awarded to Elsie Curtin, 1970

Text version

JCPML online resources

Biography of Elsie Curtin

John Curtin, fairest and best (an online exhibition telling the story of Curtin's life from his early days to his time as prime minister)

On Track: John Curtin's railway journeys (an online resource about John Curtin's lifelong link with train travel. Images, film clips and the memories of the people who travelled with Curtin bring this story alive.)

Visiting John Curtin at home: 24 Jarrad St, Cottesloe (Photographs, video and sound help to bring to life the story of the Prime Minister's modest home in Cottesloe in this online resource)

Link to 'John Curtin: Fairest and  Best


Link to 'On Track: Curtin's railway journeys'


Link to 'Visiting John Curtin at home'

What's in the JCPML on John Curtin l Elsie Curtin l Hazel Hawke?

Go to the National Archives of Australia's Go to the NAA's  'Australia's PMs website'