Rehab 1916-style for a future Prime Minister
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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