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Curtin’s home

Homes for all

John Curtin’s parents never knew the security of home ownership.

When Curtin was only five years old his father was forced through ill health to resign from the police force and seek employment as a publican. For the next eight years the family lived in increasingly impoverished circumstances, first in Melbourne and then in a succession of country towns before returning to Melbourne where Curtin’s mother assumed the main burden of supporting her husband and four children. It’s not surprising then, that once installed in his own home in Cottesloe, Curtin refused to move to a bigger home despite his wife’s urging and their capacity to afford a more substantial house.

When Curtin became prime minister in 1941, Australia was experiencing a housing shortage which grew to an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 houses by the end of the war.

In 1943, as part of the Curtin Government’s plans for post war reconstruction and Curtin’s own dream that all Australian families would be able to own their own homes, the Commonwealth Housing Commission was established. Its brief was to investigate how adequate housing could be provided for Australians. The War Service Home Scheme, which built houses for ex-service personnel, was one outcome of the Commission’s work.

Designs tended to be simple and utilitarian not only because of lack of materials or money but also because until 1952 house size was limited by legislation. By 1954 most Australian homes had only five rooms, but the bathroom had moved indoors and there was space for the family car in the yard.

The Curtin House

The Curtin’s modest home in Jarrad Street, Cottesloe served as both a working office for John Curtin the politician and a place of refuge and leisure where he could relax with family and friends.

In 1923, John and Elsie Curtin and their two young children moved into their new home in Cottesloe – a four room brick bungalow, skirted by a timber verandah on three sides. In 1924, when Elsie’s widowed mother, Annie Needham, moved in, the two-bedroom home had to accommodate three adults and two children.

Enclosing the verandahs

Initially, part of the front and side verandah was enclosed with lattice-work and the Curtin’s son John may have slept there for a time, while Annie shared a bedroom with their daughter Elsie. Later, the kitchen was relocated to the back verandah and the former kitchen area converted to a bedroom for the children to share, leaving Annie in sole possession of the original bedroom.

By 1934, the back verandah was completely enclosed and the lattice-work on the corner of the front verandah had been replaced with weatherboard and windows, providing a separate bedroom for son John, then aged 13. The breakfast room was converted into a sleep out for Annie Needham and her original bedroom was transformed into the family dining room.

Home for a working journalist and parliamentarian

As John Curtin became better known, as editor of the Westralian Worker and as Member for Fremantle, the lounge was enlarged to allow him working space and room to meet with visitors. His political activities took up a good deal of his time at home and intruded into his family life, particularly after he became Leader of the Opposition in 1935.

Curtin did not have an office in Fremantle and meetings were often held at his home. When he was away in Canberra, he relied on his wife to manage the electoral correspondence and other commitments which today would be undertaken by electoral office staff.

Around 1935 Elsie had a telephone installed in the hallway of the house. Few families in Cottesloe had their own telephone at this time – most used public telephone booths when they needed to make phone calls.

Son John recalled visitors being ushered into the lounge to meet with his father. Daughter Elsie recalled that ‘while he was just the Member for Fremantle, and even when he became Leader of the Opposition, there would be quite a lot of callers to the house, or non-stop telephone calls.’ [1]

Elsie received the news via telephone that her husband had become Prime Minister in October 1941.
‘The telephone bell has been ringing so persistently in the Curtin home, with congratulations that the domestic time-table was upset. “They would keep ringing when I was trying to get the dinner on,” Mrs Curtin said…’ [2]

‘There is nothing that is not in a great book’

In a 1912 letter to his future wife’s family, John Curtin wrote: ‘There is nothing that is not in a great book… There is meat and drink and love’ [3].

John Curtin, his wife and their daughter Elsie were all avid readers and the renovated lounge contained the extensive family library. Son John described his father as an omnivorous reader who ‘read everything. Honestly he’d pick up the grocery list and read that…he had a wide range of books…pretty deep stuff too a lot of it.’ [4]

Kip – the real master of the Curtin household?

From the garden enters the real master of the house – Kip, a black kelpie, who knows his own mind. Mrs Curtin tells Kip confidentially that he’s a nuisance, but Kip doesn’t take her seriously. Has he not been her sole guardian for as long as two months at a time? Kip knows he has a right to the special chair in the huge room.

Does Kip obey the mistress? More or less, she says.
Does Kip obey the Prime Minister? Not at all.

Once upon a time the Prime Minister cherished hopes of getting Kip to relinquish his claim on the lounge chair. There was somewhat of an “incident” between them.

Kip as Opposition Leader, at least retained his dignity throughout the lively proceedings. As a result of the division, the Prime Minister was overwhelmingly defeated, and Kip retained his seat.’ [5]

More information on John Curtin at Home is available in the web resource Visiting John Curtin at Home.


1. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Interview of Elsie Macleod, 10 May 1994 – 20 February 1995. JCPML00012/1.

2. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Curtin Family. Non-stop phone ring at Curtin home. Melbourne Herald, 4 October 1941. JCPML00964/20.

3. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Curtin Family. Letter from John Curtin to Needham family, 9 August 1912. JCPML00402/2.

4. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Interview of John Francis Curtin, March – April 2004. JCPML00855/1.

5. Excerpt from: John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Curtin Family. The P.M.’s Shangri-La…where he is just ‘Dad’. Alice Jackson, Women’s Weekly, 31 July 1943. JCPML00964/95.