The ABC drama “Curtin” put into focus the life of John Curtin – one of Australia’s greatest Prime Ministers.

Like so many people, alcohol was Curtin’s greatest challenge. He had grown up around it with his father running several pubs. But it was during his time as the Victorian Secretary of the Timber Workers’ Union that Curtin’s fondness for the demon drink grew into a major disability. According to his biographer David Day: “the culture of the male-dominated union movement was steeped in beer” and Curtin was steeped in the culture.

Suddenly in November 1915 Curtin resigned his post. He went briefly to work for the Australian Workers’ Union and then was appointed the organiser of the anti-conscription campaign being run by the Congress of Australian Trade Unions. The work was stressful and intense and his drinking continued and became worse.

Finally in July 1916, in modern parlance, Curtin checked himself into rehab. It was the lowest point of his life. And the place he came was Lara, just north of Geelong, in my electorate.

David Day described this event as Curtin being “admitted to a convalescent home” in Lara. But where? At this point I began my own historical sleuthing.

Curtin’s wife-to-be Elsie came from a Methodist family, a denomination well known for its abhorrence of alcohol. Perhaps Elsie’s family had directed Curtin toward a Methodist institution in Lara devoted to tackling the demons of drink.

A call to Reg Davies the Uniting Church Minister in Lara at the time dispelled this theory. He was unaware of any such institution being a part of the Methodist history of Lara.

But he did put me in touch with one of his parishioners Reg Spalding a Lara local in his 90’s. I was assured that if I needed to know something about Lara’s history then Reg would have the answer. And so he did.

Without hesitation Reg told me about the Lara Inebriates Institution which operated in the first part of the twentieth century. Reg remembered various colourful locals who had done a stint at the Institution. He was unaware that Curtin was one of them.

The Lara Inebriates Institution operated at what is now Pirra Homestead owned by the Bisinella family who are busily restoring it. A visit to the Pirra Homestead’s website confirms that the Lara Inebriates Institution operated from 1907 to 1930. But there is no mention of Curtin.

There seems little doubt, however, that this is where Curtin spent these crucial months of his life in 1916. Having shown David Day the evidence he agrees.

I asked David to give his assessment of what that time meant in Curtin’s life.

“… it was both a turning point and perhaps the lowest point in his life, when Curtin admitted for the first time that he had a problem and became determined, with the help of his friends, to confront it. … it was the end of a major chapter in his life and the beginning of another. “

Curtin’s battle with alcohol didn’t end in Lara. He relapsed on many occasions. But it was the first time that he joined the battle.

In waging that battle and mostly winning it Curtin was able to realise his potential.

In Lara Curtin began a journey back which ultimately led him on to becoming one of our finest Prime Ministers.

The period from the fall of Singapore in February 1942, through Curtin’s dramatic decision about the troops later that month, to the passage of the Statute of Westminster in September 1942 which removed the British Government’s right to make law for Australia, has rightly been regarded as the period when Australia truly gained its independence.

John Curtin presided over it all.

Lying at the foot of the You Yangs the Pirra Homestead is one of the Geelong region’s greatest treasures. Kangaroos rest in the shade of beautiful gums which surround a quaint cricket oval that would have so appealed to the cricket loving Curtin. The place is a picture of tranquillity.

Confronting an alcohol problem is not pretty. But one can imagine that it was here this great Australian made a decision to fulfil his destiny and it is hard to imagine a more beautifully Australian place to do it.

Last Sunday Pirra was the venue of the Lara Food and Wine Festival hosted by Catriona Rowntree and featuring Gabriel Gaté. It was an event that provided joy to thousands. But while many are aware of Pirra’s beauty, it turns out to be steeped in more history than perhaps of any of us knew.

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19 comments

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    • seamus says:

      05:52am | 31/03/10

      Nice article.

      You make it look so easy to identify and uncover a missing piece of Australian History. I always appreciate journos who do some actual research rather than reeling off opinion based on established sources.

      Gerard Henderson’s History Corner is also a worthwhile read for learning more about our political past.

    • Cameron says:

      08:49am | 31/03/10

      At the risk of starting an argument here; not just one of the greatest. He was the greatest!

    • T.Chong says:

      10:11am | 31/03/10

      No argument from me Cameron.
      Chifley, Curtin and (please genuflect ), E.G. Whitlam.
      No more needs to be said !

    • Ziggy says:

      10:50am | 31/03/10

      No argument from me either. Great leader, great man.And I’m in no danger of being called a labour supporter believing, as I do, that Atilla the Hun was a left wing wimp.

    • Trent says:

      11:15am | 31/03/10

      Menzies… hello??

      You’re all crazy.

    • Formersnag The Child Protector. says:

      12:25pm | 31/03/10

      Disclaimer, i am no big fan of the liberal/national coalition.

      @ Tommy, you have obviously had a few too many “hits from the bong”. Even Keating would be further up the list than Whitlam.  Who has gone down in history as the worst ever. Millions of Australian children have been neglected & abused as a direct result of the Anti Family law act of 1975. To name just one of Labour’s 1972 to 1975 atrocities.

      As for today, Curtin & Chifley would be turning in their graves if they could see what the red/green/labour coalition has degenerated into.

    • Saskia says:

      01:59pm | 31/03/10

      Menzies

      Daylight

      Howard

      daylight

      Billy Hughes

      daylight

      The rest

    • A Dose of Reality says:

      12:51pm | 31/03/10

      Menzies was a pragmatist who made the best of every situation (and a far better leader than any “conservative” since, as they have lost the liberalism he started and now represent right-wing loonies). 

      Curtin was a leader who put his country first, and was the first to do so, defying a “world power” in this endeavour.  It was his decision to have Australian troops defend Australia rather than some dirt on the other side of the world that saved this country in WWII.  It was nice that the yanks won the pacific, but it was in New Guinea that the Japanese army was halted, and turned back.  The Australian troops Curtin called back, in the face of another churchill betrayal (he refused an escort, in occupied waters), played a major role in this.

      As an aside, that churchills’ name is given any reverence in this country is an abomination, and a distortion of the grief and death this idiot caused Australia in BOTH world wars.

    • TheRealDave says:

      01:46pm | 31/03/10

      I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments ‘A Dose of Reality’  but for all his strengths Curtain basically was a fawning fop when it came to MacArthur - one of the most overrated military ‘leaders’ of all time.

      Curtins decision to let MacArthur have his way resulted in not only thousands of needless Australian deaths but also their suffering and denigration a tthe hands of clueless leaders like MacArthur and Blamey. MacArthur and Blamey never went near the front lines, hell MacArthur only went to Port Moresby from memory, and the two of them sat back and sacked great leaders who were stemming the Japanese tide along the Kokoda Trail and denigrated what those young militia diggers had done. They called those brave kids cowards for running and not being able to push the Japanese back despite being undermanned, underequipped, barely trained. They were looking at outdated incompleted pre-war maps, telling the remants of a battalion to hold a gap that looked feasable on a 1930’s sketch but turned out to be near 6 miles wide in reality. These men had Curtains unequivocal and unconditional support so he needs to share the blame for that.

      Curtin brought the AIF home alright. And then let them be misled and mistreated by those he championed.

    • Henry says:

      01:42pm | 31/03/10

      Churchill was ten times the leader and statesman than John ‘Beef’ Curtain ever was.
      Most over rated PM ever.  But I guess the ALP needs to lay claim to one even average PM.  He really controlled the Unions during war time didn’t he?  Curtain was a drunk and a Union puppet.

    • Ziggy says:

      03:22pm | 31/03/10

      Agree with comments on MacArthur - an over rated egoistic icompetent who gave away mens lives needlessly but this does not detract from Curtains record of achievement.

    • Willy K says:

      01:44pm | 31/03/10

      Fine Prime Minister?  You are joking.  Curtin could not even put partisan politics aside in war time and would not form a war cabinet with the opposition parties.  He was a union hack and old diggers still remember the Unions striking and refusing to unload AIF warships!  The soldiers and farmers had to do it.  Unions were holding the nation to blackmail for more money during a World War!  All on Curtains cowardly union soaked watch.

    • Henry says:

      02:06pm | 31/03/10

      Very true.  And he handed over control of out troops to MacArthur a shocking US general who Curtain was in love with and resulted in thousands of needless Aussie deaths.

      He refused to form a national government during WWII which shows how small minded he was and also brought in conscription despite having fiercely opposed in in WWI and 1939!!!

      He is a shining example of revisionist history.  Curtain was nondescript at best.  Drunken petty minded, hypocritical fool at worst.

    • Kim says:

      01:55pm | 31/03/10

      Well researched Richard.

    • S.L says:

      03:01pm | 31/03/10

      Great article Richard and well researched.
      I agree Curtin is up there with Chifley as one of our greatest prime ministers.
      How can anybody mention Menzies and Howard as comparable or better than those two I’ll never know. Neither Curtin or Chifley bowed down to anyone. With Menzies it was “the mother country” and Howard good old “Dubya”!
      Dear Henry if you think Churchill was 10 times the leader Curtin was you better check your history books my friend. He was an idiot from the ruling classes and is more myth than legend. Even his “We’ll fight them on the beaches” speech wasn’t him, it was an actor…..............
      I will leave it there because if I start on what I think of Prime Ministers Menzies and Howard (I mightent like them but as they have both held the office they will get my respect) I will wear this old keyboard out!!!!!!

    • Brian Connor says:

      04:37pm | 31/03/10

      Silly article.

      As I asked last time? when are you going to clean up all the messes and stop the spending Richard?

      I would really appreciate knowing you actually have a plan Richard i/o insulation deaths, hoomes burning down, school halls overpriced, no computers and a monster debt.

      It is not hard to copy Wikipedia.

    • Wombat says:

      07:35pm | 31/03/10

      The denigration of the memory of a great Australian that some have engaged in here is disgraceful.
      Menzies just wanted Curtin to join a wartime government to solve his own terminal political problems. In the end Menzies even offered to serve under Curtin. Curtin made the correct decision in refusing the offer. The bickering rabble of a government soon imploded and Curtin was free to govern without the British-infatuated Menzies getting in the way.
      So Macarthur was a megalomaniac. Curtin’s appeal to the Yanks worked. He brought Australian troops back from the Middle East (would Menzies have done that?) and he appealed to the most reliable quality of Americans - self interest, by presenting Australia to the Yanks as “the last bastion between the West Coast of America and the Japanese.”
      After the success of this appeal, what should he have done? Run an Australian campaign against the Japanese separately from the US? Absurd!
      The conscription that Curtin introduced was very different to that which pro-Empire conservatives had previously tried to force on Australians. “Curtin’s conscripts” were confined to an area south of the equator and east to the Soloman Islands: in effect, the defence of Australia.
      John Curtin was not only our greatest Prime Minister, he was also the first truly Australian PM. And the last truly Australian PM that this country would see for many years.
      He was a great Australian statesman and deserves better than the deliberate misinformation and half-truths posted about him here.

    • Daniel says:

      07:31pm | 31/03/10

      I think its a real shame that the ideals that Chifley had have not carried over into the current ALP. Its now the Australian Greens that is the only party that is interested in these “true believer” ideals. ALP get with the program and Lindsay Tanner needs to stop attacking the Australian Greens for the ALP failings.

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