Australian Women's Register

An initiative of The National Foundation for Australian Women (NFAW) in conjunction with The University of Melbourne

Skip to content


  • Faith, Hope and Charity Australian Women and Imperial Honours: 1901-1989

Use Trove to find more resources by/about this Woman

  • Trove

Curtin, Elsie (1890 - 1975)


4 October 1890
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia
24 June 1975
Cottesloe, Western Australia, Australia
Community worker
Alternative Names
  • Needham, Elsie (maiden name, 4 October 1890 - 21 April 1917)


Elsie Curtin maintained an interest in social issues and politics throughout her entire life. Her work in these areas continued even after the death of her husband, Prime Minister John Curtain. For her service to the community, Elsie Curtin was appointed Commander to the Order of the British Empire (CBE) on 1 January 1970.


The youngest daughter of Abraham and Annie Needham, Elsie was born in Ballarat on 4 October 1890. The family migrated to South Africa in 1898 and it was here Elsie received her education. At the age of 17, she joined the Social Democratic Federation in Cape Town, however in those early years, she maintained a strong commitment to the Methodist Church.

The family returned to Australia in 1908, settling in Hobart. She met John Curtin (Prime Minister of Australia, 1941-1945), the newly-appointed Secretary of the Victorian Timber Workers' Union, whilst he was in Hobart working on Labor's State Election campaign. The pair were married in Perth on 21 April 1917 and later had two children; Elsie Milda in 1917 and John Francis in 1921.

Elsie maintained an active membership in the Perth branch of the Labor Women's Organisation (LWO), which she had joined in 1917. In 1924, she became the founding Treasurer of the Fremantle branch and also served on the committee responsible for building the Cottesloe Infant Health Clinic and the Subiaco Choral Society, where she sang contralto.

During John Curtin's prime ministership, Elsie spent time at The Lodge in Canberra, as well as maintaining the family home in Cottesloe and assisting with the electorate work in her husband's absence. She supported her husband in all aspects of his prime ministership and undertook many public engagements as his wife including launching ships, entertaining official visitors, attending diverse functions, and promoting the austerity campaigns and war loans. For almost four years, Elsie managed her duties in Canberra, electorate work in Fremantle, and two households on opposite sides of the continent, with the capable assistance 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. After her husband died in office on 5 July 1945, Elsie took part in public funeral services in both Canberra and Perth, aware of the widespread national mourning of the wartime leader.

Elsie was elected as the Western Australian President of the LWO in 1944; a position which she held until September 1946. She continued to maintain an active association in the proceeding years. During the war, Elsie had also been patron of the Cottesloe Surf Life-Saving Club and served on the Central Council of the Red Cross Society. In October 1949, she was a guest of the Chifleys at The Lodge while she was in Canberra for the ceremonial founding of the John Curtin School of Medical Research. Elsie was also a guest at The Lodge during Prime Minister Menzies administration, after a visit to New Zealand.

In 1955, Elsie became a Justice of the Peace and served on the Married Women's Court and as a visitor to Fremantle Gaol. She was also awarded life memberships of a number of organisations, including the Perth branch of the Association of Civilian Widows, the Royal Association of Justices, the Women's Justice Association and the Fremantle LWO. She was also a member of the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Cottesloe Women's Service Guild and was president of the Ship Lovers Society. In 1970, Elsie was appointed Commander to the Order of the British Empire for 'services to the community'.

Elsie Curtin passed away at Cottesloe on 24 June 1975.


1917 -
Member - Labor Women's Organisation (Perth Branch)
Founding Treasurer - Labor Women's Organisation (Fremantle Branch)
1944 - 1946
President - Labor Women's Organisation (Western Australian)
Appointed Commander to the Order of the British Empire (CBE) - For 'services to the community'

Sources used to compile this entry: Black, David (Prof.), Biography of Elsie Curtin, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, 2017-07-10,; Black, David and Wallace, Lesley, John Curtin: Guide to Archives of Australia's Prime Ministers, National Archives of Australia and John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library,; National Archives of Australia, 'John Curtin/Elsie Curtin', in Australia's, prime Ministers, National Archives of Australia, 2002, accessed 2004-06-16 and John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, 'What's in the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library on John Curtin, Elsie Curtin and Hazel Hawke?', in Australia's Prime Ministers, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Accessed 2004-06-16.

Archival resources

National Archives of Australia, National Office, Canberra

National Library of Australia

  • [Biographical cuttings on Elsie Curtin, wife of the former Prime Minister, Mr John Curtin, containing one or more cuttings from newspapers or journals], Bib ID 1778280; National Library of Australia. Details

National Library of Australia, Manuscript Collection

  • Papers of Hector Harrison, 1915-1978 [manuscript], 1915 - 1978, MS 6277; Harrison, Hector; National Library of Australia, Manuscript Collection. Details

State Library of Western Australia, J.S. Battye Library of West Australian History

  • Sir Frederick Samson personal film [videorecording]. Reel 6, 1940 - 1945, BDVA60; E1100; Air raid wardens, Fremantle.; Samson, Sir Frederick; State Library of Western Australia, J.S. Battye Library of West Australian History. Details
  • Women's Service Guild Silver Jubilee dinner [picture], 1945, 007406D; BA1272/42; State Library of Western Australia, J.S. Battye Library of West Australian History. Details

Anne Heywood

Site-wide information and acknowledgements

National Foundation for Australian Women The University of Melbourne, eScholarship Research Centre

© Copyright in The Australian Women's Register is owned by the Australian Women's Archives Project
and vested in each of the authors in respect of their contributions from 2000

The Australian Women's Register is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

The Australian Women's Register is published quarterly by the Australian Women's Archives Project
ISSN 2207-3124