Almanac (Sports) History: John Curtin, PM…and footy lover.

John Curtin with the 1905 Brusnwick VFA team.

 

 

Wartime Prime Minister John Curtin died seventy-five years ago this month.  A lifelong socialist and humanist, a genuine Man of the People, Curtin often had trouble reconciling wartime imperatives with sending young men off to fight and die.  His various physical ailments and the stresses of the job eventually caught up with him: he died in office just a few weeks before the Japanese surrender in August 1945.

 

Born in Creswick, Victoria, in 1885, Curtin developed an enduring love of sport from a young age. His early sporting endeavours included playing grade cricket with Brunswick and first grade football for Brunswick from 1903 to 1907 as a half-forward flanker with the Magpies in the Victorian Football Association (VFA).

 

Brunswick Club Secretary George Chisholm recalled that while Curtin was no star, he ‘always managed to get a game’.  He was also interested in the club’s administration and became a club delegate, noted for being ‘…a stickler for detail….’ and with a ‘…passion for punctiliousness.’  Chisholm balanced this characterisation of a somewhat serious, even dull individual with the observation that ‘…despite this, he was always one of the boys…in every party and social gathering, and could hold his liquor with the best of them.’  (Curtin got to like alcohol a bit too much – to win the leadership of the Labour Party in 1935 he had to swear off the grog, which he did.) His first run for any office was for secretary of the Magpies. He lost.

 

Curtin was active in the union movement from the time he left school aged 13 and by 26 was Secretary of the Victorian Timber Workers Union.  A leading figure in the 1916 Victorian campaign against conscription during the First World War, he moved to Western Australia in 1917 to take up the editorship of the Westralian Worker. Winning the seat of Fremantle for Labor in 1928, Curtin demonstrated an ecumenical approach to his football barracking, taking up following the fortunes of all three Western Australian Football League (WAFL) clubs in his electorate, Claremont and South and East Fremantle.

 

Curtin liked nothing more than heading off to watch a football match, usually preferring to stand in the outer, surrounded by ordinary barrackers.  As Anne Spence recounted:

 

He was a great football fan of South Fremantle and every Saturday we’d go to the football and stand together, my father, John Curtin and myself.  He was always a very quietly spoken man.  I could remember him wearing the glasses and long overcoat and a hat pulled firmly down over his face…I don’t think he really wanted people to know how hard he was barracking or who he was at the time…(he) never raised his voice, he just sort of had that look on his face that was determined that (he’d) like them to win…

 

After losing his seat in 1932, Curtin’s sporting passions lead him back to the Westralian Worker, this time as sports editor, a role he continued with until reclaiming the seat in 1934.  His familiarity with sport and its role in Australian culture saw him frequently using sporting analogies to make political and social points, as this extract from a Prime Ministerial wartime broadcast on 6 July 1943 shows:

 

If I liken the Pacific War to a football match, I can say to you that the first half is over, we have kicked off after the interval, and we are going to carry the ball into enemy territory for a smashing victory.

 

Ken Ferguson, secretary of the NSW Australian National League, recalled that at an RAAF v Naval match at Sydney’s Trumper Park in 1942, he heard Curtin was in the crowd.

 

I found him and invited him into the official stand and asked him to meet the teams just before the kickoff.  He declined, smiling, ‘I’m just here as a barracker. I don’t want to foist myself on the boys.’  That day he became a patron of our League, and whenever he was in Sydney on a Saturday he was at one of our Aussie Rules games.  He followed the RAAF team (note: his son John was in the RAAF), and, no matter where the game was, paid his way at the gate and came in with the crowd.

 

George Chisholm commented that Curtin stayed in contact with the Magpies over the years and once on the eve of an important match, “…phoned me from the Prime Minister’s Lodge, Canberra, and spoke for 20 minutes about the team’s prospects.”

 

Curtin loved cricket too.  Test cricketer Arthur Mailey recalled chatting with him in 1942 about cricket books.

 

Curtin had read nearly all the cricket classics…but I found he had not read Robertson Glasgow’s The Bright Side of Cricket. I lent him the book. He read it until 4 a.m. next day, and on the following night he made one of the most moving of all his speeches – his appeal for the Austerity Loan.  He wrote to me later saying that staying up late reading cricket stories had freshened his mind for the speech.

 

Curtin also knew plenty about racing – but never bet on the sport, viewing it as a mug’s game.  His passion was for breeding – and he knew plenty on the subject.  When Joan de Mestre of the Daily Telegraph was introduced to him for the first time, Curtin commented about her uncommon name and then asked, ‘Are you a relative of the de Mestre who owned Archer?’  She was.  Archer was owned by her grandfather and had won the first two Melbourne Cups.

 

Curtin’s nephew Claude was a mainstay of Fitzroy during the war years.  A talented full-forward, Claude played ninety-three games for the club, topping the goal kicking from 1940-1942 and again in 1946. John Curtin kept up with his nephew and Fitzroy’s efforts during the war, occasionally managing to watch Claude and the Roys in action.  Unfortunately Claude missed out on the Maroons 1944 premiership win as he was away on war service at the time.  (The Curtin connection with Fitzroy was there at the club’s final VFL/AFL game at Subiaco in 1996. In that last Roys team was John Barker, grandson of Claude, and grand-grand nephew of John Curtin. Barker was a real mess when the hooter blew on Fitzroy for the very last time.)

 

Curtin died in the early hours of 5 July 1945.  On the night of 4 July his longtime driver, Ray Tracey, went up to Curtin’s bedroom at the Lodge in Canberra to say his farewells. Despite being barely conscious, Curtin asked Tracey who had won the football. Being a Wednesday night there had, of course, been no matches played that day but Ray indulged him anyway.  ‘Fitzroy won, Sir’.  ‘That’s fine, a very good team, Fitzroy’ responded Curtin.  He died a few hours later.

 

The Sporting Globe reported that in Melbourne the following Saturday, a minutes’ silence was observed before all League matches while at Brunswick the crowd ‘stood bare-headed’ whilst ‘Abide with Me’ played.  Magpie players wore black armbands in memory of Curtin.  The Sydney Morning Herald noted six thousand stood in silence at Trumper Park before the match there.

 

Almost 100,000 people, a third of Perth’s population at the time, lined the streets for the three-and-a-half-mile route of Curtin’s funeral procession.  ‘Men in uniform stood at attention and saluted as the gun-carriage passed, footballers stopped their games and stood in silence, and children watched from windows, trees and the tops of trucks,’ reported the Newcastle Sun.  A thousand union members swung in front of the cortege as it neared the gates of Karrakatta Cemetery, marching eight-abreast towards the graveside.  Some 25,000 people crowded into the cemetery.

 

There were tears in many eyes as the plain oak coffin was lowered by six Servicemen into the grave in the beautiful cemetery on a bright, sunny winter’s afternoon.  SMH, 9 July 1945.

 

Curtin may well have observed that it was a very fine, Sunday winter’s afternoon, just perfect for a footy match.

 

+++++++++

 

Below is a taste of John Curtin’s footy writing from the Westralian Worker.

 

 

A FINE START

 

Ideal weather conditions helped to give the new season a splendid opening last Saturday.  At Fremantle, last year’s pennant was handed to the famous veterans, and on behalf of “The Mirror”, Mr J.J. Simons, himself a former secretary to the League, presented the shield donated by that paper.  “Old Easts” are the greatest club in the State, and one whose organisation and control takes rank with the best playing the Australian rules in the Commonwealth.

 

And they started off this year by beating Claremont to a frazzle.  The first quarter saw the visitors with the wind, but their forward work was almost helpless, and East Fremantle went steadily ahead with play that was by no means first-class, but was still too good for their opponents….

 

From the Westralian Worker, 29 April 1932.

 

 

Sources:

 

John Curtin: A Life. David Day (1999)

 

John Curtin – A Good Sport. Debbie Hindley (2002).  http://john.curtin.edu.au/sport/index.html

 

Trumper Park – why it is Australian Football’s Prime Piece of Real Estate in Sydney.  Miles Wilks (2012)  https://www.nswfootballhistory.com.au/tag/john-curtin/

 

Various newspaper from the 1940s – Sydney Morning Herald, Daily Telegraph, Sporting Globe, Australasian Worker, Westralian Worker, accessed via TROVE (National Library of Australia)

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

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About Adam Muyt

Born into rugby league, found aussie rules, fell for soccer, flirts a little with union. Author of 'Maroon & Blue - recollections and tales of the Fitzroy Football Club' (Vulgar Press, 2006). Presently working on a history of postwar Dutch migrants and soccer in Australia.

Comments

  1. Kevin Densley says

    I really enjoyed this informative biographical piece about an important Australian, Adam.

  2. Wonderful moving piece. Thanks Adam. John Curtin is a personal hero – for many reasons. Have Vol 1 of John Edwards two volume war biography on the bedside table. You have inspired me to get stuck into it.

  3. Shane Reid says

    I found this fascinating Adam, thank you. Curtin is someone I wish I knew more about. It would make for an interesting book to explore the footy and other sporting allegiances of all of our PMs. I think Bob Hawke also swore of the grog to further his political ambitions. Thanks for your piece.

  4. Thanks Adam.

    During WWII he said of Lord’s: “Australians will always fight for those 22 yards. Lord’s and its traditions belong to Australia just as much as England.”

  5. Adam Muyt says

    That’s a great – and revealing – quote, John.
    True, Shane, Bob Hawke did a Curtin. And that’s an interesting concept for a book. Menzies in his roller at Princes Park…Frazer in the Blues premiership rooms…Howard and THAT terrible bowling action…a grinning smirk below a Sharkies cap….
    Peter, maybe you can give us a part 2 to this Curtin story?
    And thanks Pete!

  6. Adam Muyt says

    Oops…meant ‘thanks Kevin!’

  7. Bernard Whimpress says

    A lovely piece of writing, Adam. West Australian historian Debbie Hindley published a piece on Curtin and Cricket in my journal Baggy Green in the early 2000s.

  8. Bernard,

    Was there a similar Menzies quote re Lord’s and the Australian war effort?

    And would it be possible to publish Debbie Hindley’s piece here at the Almanac?

    JTH

    PS Onto your golf piece this weekend.

  9. Adam Muyt says

    I second John’s comment re: Debbie’s piece, Bernard. I admit I focused my research efforts on Curtin’s footy story. Am curious to know more of his other sporting interests.

  10. I’m not an ALP supporter, last time i voted ALP was in 1983, but credit is due to Curtin as Australia’s Greatest ever PM. To lead the nation when it faced it’s ‘darkest’ hour should have him remembered and honoured for his contributions.

    Of the many actions he undertook to protect Australia during this tumultuous time the one is cherish most is from 1942 when vessels carrying Australian troops returning home from the Middle East were directed by Churchill’s British Government to change course and head to Ceylon/Burma. The Australian High Commissioner in England, former Conservative Prime Minister, Stanley-Bruce was complicit in this action. Curtin was quite rightly furious and made it clear it was non-negotiable: Australian troops were returning home to protect Australia, not going elsewhere @ the behest of the British Empire.

    The war killed Curtin, the incredible stress draining him. Sadly he didn’t see the victory over fascism. His legacy is the greatest PM in our history.

    Certainly worth mentioning his friend, team mate Frank Hyett who tragically lost his life during the Spanish Flu pandemic. There’s an article on Frank Hyett floating around in the Almanac vaults.

    Glen!

  11. Here’s the Frank Hyett piece:
    https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/frank-hyett/

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