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Curtin University
John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library
Curtin University Library

John Curtin - Prime Minister of Australia (1941-1945)

John Curtin (1885-1945) was the poor country boy who rose to become prime minister, the revolutionary young socialist turned political pragmatist, the pacifist called upon to lead Australia during World War II.

As wartime prime minister and international statesman, John Curtin's inspirational leadership and political courage unified Australia during the grim years of 1941 to 1945.

His focus on a more independent Australia and his ideas for social welfare in the postwar economy have become the foundation for contemporary Australian politics.

It was John Curtin's government which put in place the mechanisms for Federal control and instigated policies which allowed Australia to participate in the global economy.

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

John Curtin 1941. JCPML00376/133
John Curtin 1941. JCPML00376/1

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. The publication 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 different facets of John Curtin's life.

John Curtin's personal life

Born in Creswick, Victoria, in 1885 to Irish immigrants, John Curtin's early life saw him embracing labour and Socialist ideals. After moving to Perth, Western Australia in 1917, Curtin married Elsie Needham and the couple had two children. They made their home in Cottesloe, a beachside suburb of Perth.

Selected records

View Photographs collected by John Curtin Family in ERA.

For example: Records of the Curtin Family. John & Elsie Curtin, 1 October 1917. JCPML00381/17.

John and Elsie Curtin, 1 October 1917

View Personal correspondence of the Curtin Family in ERA.

For example: Records of the Curtin Family. Letter from John Curtin to Elsie Curtin, 3 March 1941. JCPML00402/36.

 

letter from John Curtin to Elsie,  3 March 1941, page 1

Letter from John Curtin to Elsie, 3 March 1941, page 2

Text version

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 Curtin's daughter)

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

JCPML online resources

John Curtin: a biography (a brief illustrated biography of John Curtin)

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)

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.)

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)

John Curtin: A good sport - Australians are known for their obsession with sport and John Curtin shared this national passion, both as a participant and as a spectator.

Link to 'Visiting John Curtin at home'

 

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

 

Link to 'John Curtin: Fairest and  Best

 

John Curtin: A good sport

John Curtin's career out of Parliament

In 1903, at the age of 18, John Curtin worked as an estimates clerk with Titan Manufacturing Company in Melbourne. From 1911 to 1915, he was Secretary of the Timber Workers Union of Victoria, founding and editing the union paper. Curtin was a staunch anti-conscriptionist and in 1916 was appointed secretary of the National Executive of the Anti-Conscription Campaign of World War I. From 1917 to 1928, he was editor of the Westralian Worker, the 'Official Organ of the West Australian Labor Party'. Later, when he was out of parliament between 1931 - 1934, Curtin wrote sporting columns for the Worker and political commentary for the two Perth daily newspapers. In this period, he also worked as publicity officer for the Perth Trades Hall Council, and as chairman of the advisory council preparing WA's case before the Commonwealth Grants Commission.

Selected records

View Timber Worker articles by or relating to John Curtin in ERA.

For example: Records of the Timber Workers Union. 'What's wrong with the workers?' Timber Worker, 8 July 1915. JCPML00615/47

Link to Timber Worker article of 8 July 1915

View Personal correspondence of the Curtin Family in ERA.

For example: Records of the Curtin Family. Letter from John Curtin to Elsie Needham, ca November 1916. JCPML00402/15. (This letter was written on the back of a poster 'Labor starts a newspaper' while Curtin was fighting the 'No' case in Victoria in the conscription referendum of 1916.)

Letter from John Curtin to Elsie Needham, 1916

'Labor starts a newspaper' poster

Text version

View Westralian Worker newspaper editorials by John Curtin in ERA.

For example: Records of the Australian Labor Party (WA Branch). Westralian Worker editorial, 18 March 1927. JCPML00302/523 (This editorial is entitled Labor and the case for high wages.)

Link to 18 March 1927 editorial

View Photographs collected by John Curtin Family in ERA.

For example: Records of the Curtin Family. Directors and staff of the Westralian Worker gather to bid farewell to Mr J Curtin MHR on his retirement from the editorial chair, 1928. JCPML00376/154.

Westralian Worker staff, 1928

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

For example: Records of the JCPML. Interview of Frances Shea, 1995. JCPML00013. (Mrs Shea worked with John Curtin at the Westralian Worker from 1926 to 1928.)

Link to oral history interview with Frances Shea
& transcript
(requires Quicktime)

JCPML online resources

John Curtin: a biography (a brief illustrated biography of John Curtin)

John Curtin: From revolutionary firebrand to journalist in spirit (an online resource exploring Curtin's development as a journalist and his special relationship with the media as prime minister.)

Diary of a Labour Man: 1917-1928 Editor of the 'Westralian Worker' documents John Curtin's life during the years he was editor of the WA Labor weekly, the Westralian Worker.

Link to 'John Curtin: From revolutionary firebrand to journalist in spirit'


Link to Diary of a Labour Man

John Curtin's parliamentary career

In 1928 Curtin was elected to represent the Federal seat of Fremantle and sat in parliament as a member of the Labor government. However, his term was cut short when Labor was defeated in 1931 and he lost his seat. In 1934 he was once again elected as Member for Fremantle.

When Scullin resigned as leader of the Labor Party in October 1935, Curtin was elected to the position. As Labor Leader Curtin's immediate task was to build party unity. Curtin had to struggle to find compromise policies among the isolationists, pacifists, socialists, communists, Catholics, and opportunists who made up the Labor movement.

Curtin very nearly won the 1940 election when the Party was reinforced by Chifley, Evatt and Calwell. When the Menzies war government collapsed, Curtin became Prime Minister in October 1941.

Selected records

View Photographs collected by John Curtin Family in ERA.

For example: Records of the Curtin Family. John Curtin, 1937 Federal Election souvenir. JCPML00382/56.

John Curtin, 1937 Federal Election souvenir

View the Personal papers of John Curtin in ERA.

For example: Records of John Curtin. Appointment of John Curtin as member of Australian Advisory War Council, 1940. JCPML00005.

appointment of John Curtin as member of the Australian Advisory War Council,  1940

Text version

View and listen to Election speeches of Curtin and Scullin in ERA

For example: Records of Helen Ralston. John Curtin, 1937 Federal Election speech on national defence, employment & banking policy. JCPML00128/1/1.

Link to 1937 Federal Election  speech by John Curtin
& transcript
(requires Quicktime)

View the Personal papers of Adele Hodges in ERA.

For example: Records of Adele Hodges. Letter from John Curtin to Adele Mildenhall, 27 July 1940. JCPML00703. (Mrs Hodges, nee Mildenhall, worked as John Curtin's secretary from 1936 to 1941.)

Letter from Curtin to Adele Mildenhall, 17 July 1940, pages 1 and 2

Letter from John Curtin to Adele Mildenhall, 17 July 1940, page 3

Text version

JCPML online resources

Shaping the Nation: John Curtin and Australia (an online exhibition that traces the development of Australia from Federation to full adulthood, following the development of John Curtin's political thinking and career)

John Curtin: a biography (a brief illustrated biography of John 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)

Link to - 'Shaping the Nation: John Curtin and Australia'

Link to 'John Curtin, fairest and best'

John Curtin's prime ministership

John Curtin became Prime Minister in October 1941, just two months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In the crisis days of early 1942, when invasion seemed almost certain, Curtin recalled the AIF from the Middle East against the wishes of the Prime Minister of Britain, Winston Churchill. In March 1942 Curtin was instrumental in having General MacArthur appointed supreme commander of the South West Pacific, thus ensuring American support. Curtin worked to ensure the passing of the Militia Bill in 1943, allowing Australian conscripts to serve overseas.

In February 1942, Curtin announced a National Economic Plan which included pegging wages and profits, closing non-essential industries and taking control of manpower. In May of the same year, the Commonwealth implemented uniform income taxation across Australia, beginning the process of Commonwealth dominance of finance and taxation that continues to the present time.

Under the Curtin government, a series of social welfare measures were introduced, commencing with widows pensions in 1942. In the budget for 1943-44 the government announced funding for the newly established National Welfare Fund. The Australian welfare state as we know it today is one of the Curtin government's most significant and enduring legacies.

Selected records

View Articles and papers by John Curtin in ERA.

For example: Records of John Curtin. 'The Task Ahead' by John Curtin, December 1941. JCPML00468. (First published in The Herald (Melbourne), 27 December 1941 and often referred to as Curtin's 'Look to America' speech.)

'Australia looks to America'
(transcript)

View Personal papers of F A McLaughlin in ERA. Mr McLaughlin was Private Secretary to Prime Minister John Curtin.

For example: Records of Frederick McLaughlin. John Curtin with Frederick McLaughlin, 194?. JCPML00129/ 20.

John Curtin with Frederick McLaughlin, 194?

View and listen to selected items from ABC Radio Archives in ERA.

For example: Records of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Austerity speech by John Curtin, 3 October 1942. JCPML00408/10. (Courtesy ABC Radio Archives)

Link to 1937 Federal Election  speech by John Curtin
& transcript
(requires Quicktime)

View Personal possessions of John Curtin in ERA.

For example: Records of John Curtin. Illuminated address conferring Freedom of City of London, 10 May 1944. JCPML00287/2.

Illuminated address conferring Freedom of the City of London, 1944

Text version

JCPML online resources - There's a huge range of resources with a focus on Curtin's prime ministership including a biography, online exhibitions and web publications.

 

 

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'