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

Friday, July 27th 1945


by Irene A Greenwood.

"Mrs John Curtin - A personal sketch"

This is one of those occasions when I could wish that my medium were brush and canvas and colours, instead of so ephemeral and transitory a thing as words. Then I would paint, for future generations to see, an enduring portrait of the woman who has been the help-mate of John Curtin - not only during the hard war-time years of his Prime Ministership (years which brought about his early death,) but also throughout the whole of their married life; his companion, comforter, consoler and friend; his dearly loved wife, the mother of his children.

Here is the picture I would portray. A gracious woman sitting before a wood fire in a long, spacious room - a room book-filled, with a lived-in, well-loved air about it, furnished simply with easy chairs, a radio, an upright piano. She wears a plain black frock, totally unadorned. Dark hair, now greying telling of the years' onward march towards middle age, is piled in high, soft rolls above a good broad brow. There is a warm colour of health glowing in the clear, fine olive skin. Brown eyes are friendly in their direct gaze, but they can twinkle with humour on occasions. A generous well-controlled mouth completes the general impression that here is a person kindly, serene, and sincere.

But it is the hands, most of all, that reveal the character of this woman. Such small hands, plump, well-kept, yet strong and capable, combining the practical and the artistic; hands equally at home in the laundry, the kitchen, the garden, or at the keyboard of her piano.

Into these hands John Curtin has placed his future destiny more than once, and her decision and advice has re-acted to Australia's great gain. These hands have ministered to him in sickness and in health right up to his last moment on this earth and the third finger of the left hand bears the very wide gold band which he placed there twenty-eight years ago. This day it is the sole article of jewellery she wears, and the fire light catches it as she talks of her early life.

It was on April 21st, 1917, that Eslie Needham and John Curtin were quietly married in the dining room of the Registrar who performed the ceremony, before but a small group of people. For two months only, he had been in Perth, Western Australia, acting as editor of the labour paper called "The Worker". She had come from Tasmania where she had met this fiery young orator, who had spoken as secretary of the Timberworkers' Union at a meeting where her father was so impressed by him that a week later he brought him home to meet the family. They were immediately attracted, and their shared ideas drew them together, so that they became engaged.

From her parents, Abraham and Annie Needham, both Australian born, little Elsie learned the political and humanitarian creed that coloured all her subsequent life. They were socialists, with a wide interest in the movement, and many books, pamphlets, and periodicals came into the household, notably Robert Blatchford's "Clarion". The first eight years of her life were spent in Ballarat where she was born and where her father had mining interests, but then - just a year before the Boer War - the family moved to South Africa.

Till she was 18, there was an interlude in Capetown, where she grew to young womanhood in an atmosphere of intense activity, with constant contacts with people of culture, intellect and ability - all of them eagerly and ardently engaged in some labour or other aiming towards a better world.

It was the period when Olive Schreiner's book "Life on an African Farm" had awakened the women of the English-speaking countries to the legal and political disabilities of women, and had set up a ferment amongst them which culminated in agitation for "Votes for Women". Elsie's mother joined the Capetown group, and won her husband's sympathies for their cause. When a band of leading British suffragettes came to South Africa to lecture and speak, it was but natural that the Needhams should meet them. In later years, since her marriage, she has met and corresponded with many of the women whose names then became familiar to her as leaders of the movement. Her mother, by the way, lived on until last year, in full vigour and retaining those interests of her earlier life. On 5th September she died, having passed her 86th birthday, just 10 months before Mr Curtin's death to the day.

In Capetown, Mr Needham edited a socialist newspaper as well as running his business. Elsie's memories of her father at this time are of him sitting up late, night after night, burning the midnight oil while he studied, read, or wrote articles for his paper and poems, which he had published in one volume. This talent for writing verse, has been inherited by his grand-daughter, Elsie, who is now Mrs Cole. Bernard O'Dowd was a close friend and associate of these days, and they exchanged the poems they wrote.

Music played a vital part in the life of the Needham family in these days too, and although Elsie had but one year's tuition, she became an accomplished pianist, a gift that has brought her hours of surcease from care, and has given enjoyment to her friends. With her brothers who played the organ or sang in the choir, she attended the local Methodist church, taking her part in the services.

To this day one of her brothers, Mr Leslie Needham, acts as organist at the Mosman Congregational Church, whose minister is the young Rev. C.H. Denny, M.A., formerly of Perth. He played the organ at Pitt St. Congregational Church, Sydney, for the big memorial service held there on the Sunday of Mr Curtin's State funeral, releasing in the grand flood of music all the feelings of sorrow for the passing of this man he had learned to love as a brother.

Late in 1908 Mr Needham brought his wife and family back to Australia and settled in Tasmania, buying a house on the Esplanade, at Bellerive. On one occasion he stood for Parliament in Hobart, and came to within 5 votes of winning one selection of the ballot. His successful opponent was Mr Cosgrove, who retained his seat ever since and is the present Premier of Tasmania.

Growing up in such a household then, fitted Elsie Needham for marriage with such a man as John Curtin. From the day of their wedding she was to know what it meant to have to stand back and watch him devote himself untiringly and without stint to some pressing, immediate task. In 1917 it was the Anti-conscription issue. Later, it was to be election after election, or some great matter of national import to which he had to turn his talents of oratory or writing, and which necessitated his absence from home for long periods.

The first of Mr Curtin's overseas trips came in June 1924, when he went as Australian delegate to the International Labour Conference at Geneva. By that time Mrs Curtin was well settled into the niche she was to fill so well, and which she loved best - that of wife and mother. At their wide-verandahed bungalow home at Jarrad St. Cottesloe, within sight and sound of the ocean, she waited his return while happily occupied with their two children, Elsie, born the first year of marriage, and John who came along in January 1921.

From 1928, when her husband first entered the sphere of Federal Parliament as Member for Fremantle, she was to experience the tug of loyalties which became divided when he was made Prime Minister, for, though she spent many happy times at "The Lodge" at Canberra, it was never really "home" to her. Nor did the social life of the Capital appeal to her half so much as the meetings she had grown to love back home at Fremantle, where for years she held an executive position with the labour women's group, or in Perth where more lately she has been State President of the Central Executive of the Labourwomen of W.A.

In that capacity she opened their tri-ennial Conference at Adelaide early this year, and there renewed friendships of long years.

Mrs Curtin has a memory for minutest details, and is a stickler for meticulous accuracy. When separated from her husband, she nevertheless talked with him every night or morning by telephone and recounted all that was happening at home. This vital contact meant much to him. She has stored away all the momentous events of the immediate past in her mind, and some day Mr Curtin's biographer will find in her a mine of information. In her assessment of persons or events, she uses a simple touchstone of absolute honesty and sincerity. This is the keynote of her character, and it accounts for her ability to feel equally at home dining with the Gowries in [their] Canberra home, or the Roosevelts in America. Eleanor Roosevelt recognised this, and it is evident in the cable of condolence she sent. That journey abroad is among the notable memories; just two days notice, then by train to Canberra, two more days for vaccinations, and the sea trip to San Francisco, and the train again to Washington and residence at Blair House opposite the White House, domicile of all official visitors. By plane, then, to South Carolina to meet the President and his wife and lunch with him in the bosom of the family..... where Mrs Curtin was quick to discover the eternal touch of nature in that he was "Dad" to his family too, and that she and Mrs Roosevelt were both a little deaf.

While Mr Curtin flew to England for the meeting of Dominion and Empire Prime Ministers, she remained as guest of Sir Owen and Lady Dixon at the Legation, and saw things and went places. As, for instance, to the I.L.O. Meeting at Philadelphia where she heard Miss Frances Perkins (Minister of Labour, recently retired,) whom she'd long admired. With Mr Walter Nash and his wife (he is now acting P.M. of New Zealand,) she stayed at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. Then to Ottawa to stay with Sir William and Lady Glasgow, meet Mr McKenzie King, and listen to her husband address both houses of Parliament on the floor of the Dominion House of Commons amidst terrific crowds. Washington - New York - and home, but not before a wonderful day being shown all over Dumbarton Oaks by the owners, Mr and Mrs Bliss who made this old residence in its vast grounds a gift to Harvard University and later, while Mr Curtin paid official visits, an inspection of New York from the waterside, with General Blamey. And so, home by boat again.

To these memories of the past Mrs Curtin now adds those of a nation in mourning, the crowds at Canberra, the vast concourse at Karakatta..... that sunny Sunday afternoon, when birds twittered quietly and men offered eloquent words of tribute to the passing of a great Australian; of cables and messages of sympathy from all round the world in praise for his deeds while living and regret for his dying. By her dignity of bearing, her courage in sorrow, her steadfastness throughout this - her greatest ordeal - Mrs John Curtin adds to a nation's sympathy, its admiration.

Irene A Greenwood

Dear Mrs Curtin

I do trust this meets with your approval. Being late with the script I have submitted it already to the A.B.C. It is programmed for Tuesday, 27th July at 3 pm (5 pm E.S. time) and again at 4.25 for State Regionals.

Very many thanks for so kindly seeing me so soon after your period of sorrow. I will ever remember that afternoon with you and our dear Rev. Sullivan.

Very sincerely Yours

Irene Greenwood