Like John Curtin, Elsie Needham had a radical background. At the age of 17, she had joined the Social Democratic Federation in Cape Town, South Africa, where her family lived from 1898 to 1910. After moving back to Australia and settling in Hobart, the Needham family met Curtin in May 1912, when he was in Hobart working on Labor’s state election campaign.
Elsie Needham and Curtin conducted a 5-year courtship, mostly by correspondence. Elsie was 27 when she married Curtin in Perth on 21 April 1917. She travelled to the other side of the continent to make a life with her new husband, far away from her family in Hobart and his in Melbourne. She had chosen a man engaged in both public and private battles. When they married, he was recovering from the exertions of the campaign against conscription and from his personal campaign against alcoholism. He had moved to Perth to accept the helping hand of friends in the form of a job as editor of a weekly labour newspaper, the Westralian Worker.
The Curtins had 2 children, a daughter, Elsie, born in 1917 and a son, John, in 1921. Curtin’s political career dominated their family life. He fought 3 federal election campaigns in the first 10 years of their marriage. He also travelled interstate to Labor conferences and, in 1924, to Geneva as a delegate to an International Labour Organisation meeting. Mrs Curtin filled the role of ‘political wife’, including dealing with unexpected guests at unexpected times. One evening in 1921, Curtin brought home as unannounced guests Andrew Fisher, then Australia’s High Commissioner in London, and interstate Labor colleague, Norman Makin.
Mrs Curtin always maintained her active membership of the Labor women’s organisation. As soon as they moved to Perth in 1917, she had joined the Perth branch. She transferred to the Fremantle branch in 1925 when Curtin made his first bid for the seat. After he was elected in the by-election in 1928, Mrs Curtin dealt with the stream of constituents calling at their Cottesloe house.
When Curtin went to Canberra in January 1929 to take his seat, Mrs Curtin brought their 2 children too. The family attended the opening of Parliament, and stayed together in a hotel until April when Mrs Curtin moved the children back to Perth. She later recorded that Curtin, teetotal since their marriage, had begun drinking again, and the addiction was again out of control.
Curtin retained Fremantle in the October 1929 election that swept Labor into government. On 9 November, the family came back to Canberra, returning home for Christmas. Although Caucus did not elect him to Cabinet, Curtin was a busy backbencher for the next 2 years. Then, at the Christmas 1931 election, Curtin lost his seat, returned to Perth and became a teetotaller.
2 years later, Curtin regained the seat of Fremantle, and in 1935, became Labor leader. Mrs Curtin spent several months in Canberra with Curtin in 1936, when she worked with him to forge a united party after the Lang Labor fracture. During that visit, Mrs Curtin got to know prime ministerial spouse Enid Lyons.
From 1936, Mrs Curtin travelled to Canberra after each federal election. The openings of parliament were opportunities for both formal events and the networking that was one of the implicit roles of the ‘political wives’. She was at this work in Canberra in November 1937, and again in October 1940, after the election that made Robert Menzies Prime Minister in the finely balanced 16th parliament.
Curtin became the 3rd Prime Minister of that parliament on 7 October 1941, after the governments of both Robert Menzies and Arthur Fadden fell. Mrs Curtin returned once more to Canberra, this time not to a hotel, but to move into The Lodge. Ilma Fadden did not move to Canberra from her north Queensland home when Arthur Fadden became Prime Minister on 29 August that year. In 1939, however, Pattie Menzies had enthusiastically thrown herself into supervising the redecoration of the prime ministerial residence after its 7 years as official home of the large Lyons family.
Mrs Curtin was at The Lodge from October to December 1941. Her first official duty was to open a garden fete in the grounds. She returned to Perth on 8 December, telling a reporter at the time that she was ‘always happier going west than going east’, as the ‘family home at Cottesloe means much more to me than my political home in Canberra’.
The official duties of a prime ministerial spouse included visits to state capitals and, in 1942, Mrs Curtin attended events in each capital city. In Sydney, she launched a ship, then gave an interview to the Australian Women’s Weekly, run by EG (Ted) Theodore and Frank Packer, then officials of Curtin’s Allied Works Council. The Weekly’s full-page spread presented Mrs Curtin as a ‘shock trooper’ in the government’s austerity campaign.
For almost 4 years, Mrs Curtin managed her duties in Canberra and the states, electorate work in Fremantle, and 2 households on opposite sides of the continent, with the capable help of her daughter in Perth and Lodge housekeeper Mrs Pincombe in Canberra. Each year, she lived for several months at The Lodge, scheduling as many official events as possible into these months.
Like all prime ministerial spouses, she was beset by correspondence – often requests for her intervention in policy or administrative decisions. A joking reference in the press to the fact the family did not own a car and that she might learn to ride a bicycle around Canberra, prompted offers of the latest model ladies cycle. The ‘austerity’ feature in Women’s Weekly produced a series of letters in complaint, as well as support. To all she composed diplomatic replies, recognising a word from a prime ministerial wife easily triggered further correspondence.
In April 1944, Mrs Curtin learned of the Curtins’ 3-month official visit overseas only days before their ship sailed for San Francisco. She was ready to catch the transcontinental train and board SS Lurline with Curtin. But with no time to recover from the necessary vaccinations, she was ill for days during the first part of the voyage.
Mrs Curtin was involved in formal and informal events both in Ottawa and in Washington. These included press conferences, state dinners and receptions, as well as events Eleanor Roosevelt organised for her at the White House. When Curtin would not agree to her flying to London with him, Mrs Curtin unwillingly kept occupied at the Australian Embassy in Washington until his return.
In Canberra in July, Vera Forde held a welcome party for Mrs Curtin and, on 18 July, Mrs Curtin hosted the farewell for Lady Gowrie.
Although Curtin was ill during their overseas trip, as he had been the year before, it was not until his heart attack in Melbourne on 3 November 1944, that the seriousness of his condition became obvious. After their son’s wedding in Perth in December, Mrs Curtin travelled to Canberra and stayed at The Lodge for the next 5 months. She maintained a schedule of official duties and events. On 22 January 1945, she gave a tea party for women journalists at The Lodge, and travelled to Adelaide in February to open the Labor Women’s conference. That same month, she welcomed the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester when they arrived in Canberra. Ben Chifley had taken Curtin’s place in Sydney to greet the new Governor-General on his arrival in Australia.
Curtin was in hospital for several weeks during May. When he was back at The Lodge, Mrs Curtin dealt with visitors and any task relayed to her by acting Prime Minister Ben Chifley.
Curtin died in office, aged 60, on 5 July 1945. Mrs Curtin then took on the most poignant of political roles, that of prime ministerial widow, as Enid Lyons had just 6 years before. The solemnity of the funeral was accentuated by the timing of Curtin’s death – just 3 months after the end of the war in Europe and 6 weeks before the end of the war in the Pacific. Mrs Curtin took part in public ceremonies in both Canberra and in Perth, aware of the widespread national mourning of the wartime leader.
Mrs Curtin’s official role did not end with her husband’s death. In October 1949, she was a guest of the Chifleys at The Lodge when she was in Canberra for the ceremonial founding of the John Curtin School of Medical Research. She went to New Zealand as the guest of the government and, on her return to Canberra, was again a guest at The Lodge, but this time with Pattie and Robert Menzies in residence. Mrs Curtin’s Labor Party work continued for some 20 years, including campaigning for HV (Bert) Evatt, and serving as state president of the Labor Women’s Organisation. In 1955, Mrs Curtin became a Justice of the Peace, and in 1970, she was made a Commander in the Order of the British Empire.
Mrs Curtin died aged 84, at Cottesloe, on 24 June 1975.
- Curtin, Elsie, ‘Be a shock trooper in the Austerity Army!’, Australian Women’s Weekly, 19 September 1942.
- Curtin, Elsie, ‘The Curtin story: prelude to war’, Woman, 26 March 1951.
- Day, David, John Curtin: A Life, Harper Collins, Sydney, 1999.
- Langmore, Diane, The Prime Ministers Wives: The Public and Private Lives of Ten Australian Women, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1992.