June 5, 2012
An important document in WA journalism history has been donated to Curtin University’s John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library.
Wartime Prime Minister John Curtin’s original application to join the journalists’ union had long been stored by the WA Journalists’ Association but it will now be preserved in a permanent collection at the library.
The application form is dated February 22, 1917, five days after Mr Curtin arrived in Perth to become editor of Labor’s weekly newspaper, The Westralian Worker.
The form is printed and handwritten on thin, pink paper that measures 13cm by 20cm.
The library believes the thinness of the paper is probably a reflection of wartime shortages.
Mr Curtin’s postal address is shown as the ‘Worker Office, Perth’.
The form reveals that Roy Curthoys, then a journalist at The West Australian newspaper, sponsored Mr Curtin’s application.
WAJA president Martin Turner said the form reflected Mr Curtin’s high regard for the union.
“He placed a lot of significance in his membership,” Mr Turner said.
“He continued to be a member and pay his dues until he died in office as prime minister.”
Mr Turner said that Mr Curtin’s sense of belonging to the union was not as common among today’s journalists.
“Young journalists now have a different attitude to belonging,” he said.
“A lot of them don’t want to make the financial commitment that comes with being a union member.”
Library archivist David Wylie shared the story behind the little pink document.
“Curtin was offered the job at The Westralian Worker based on [a] recommendation by Alexander McCallum, a WA Labor politician,” Mr Wylie said.
“McCallum saw Curtin talking to crowds on the bank of [the] Yarra River in Melbourne one Sunday afternoon and he was very impressed.
“Curtin was well known as a good orator and he was writing for newspapers [in Victoria] though he wasn’t working as a journalist.”
Mr Wylie said Mr Curtin had never trained as a journalist because there were no journalism courses available.
“Curtin left school at the age of 13 and went to work for a newspaper as a printer’s devil,” Mr Wylie said.
“He educated himself by reading at the library.”
Mr Turner said that despite Mr Curtin’s lack of formal training the late prime minister was an exceptional journalist.
“He had this kind of fervour about what he was doing, which is a very important thing for journalists,” he said.
“He strongly believed in education and saw journalism as a very valuable educational tool.”
University of Western Australia archivist Maria Carvalho said Mr Curtin was instrumental in starting the first journalism course in the state.
“Curtin helped establish a journalism diploma at UWA in 1928, but the course was discontinued in 1941,” Ms Carvalho said.
“I have no concrete evidence of the specific reason why it was discontinued, but it was possibly due to lack of funding and support for the course.”
By contrast, WA’s oldest existing journalism program – the one offered at the university named after Mr Curtin – turns 40 in 2013.
Mr Curtin’s great granddaughter Rebecca recently graduated from Curtin University after having studied in the Department of Journalism, among other areas.
Photos of Mr Wylie and Mr Turner: Alfinda Agyputri
Photo of the form courtesy WAJA.