Daily Archives: 10/10/2012

Political Partners

In June 1951, Ben Chifley, the former Labor Prime Minister and now Leader of the Opposition, had a massive heart attack in his rooms at the Hotel Kurrajong.  The Hotel Kurrajong was essentially an up-market boarding house, built at a time when Canberra was still a country town without many places for its floating population of politicians and public servants to stay.  Chifley was moved to Canberra Hospital, but died later that night.  He was 65.

L. F. (Fin) Crisp was the professor of political science at Canberra University College.  He was working on The Australian Federal Labour Party, 1901-1951 (1955), and was fascinated by the story of Chifley, self-educated and rising from extreme poverty in the 1890s to become an engine driver, then a union leader, and finally Prime Minister.  Crisp was already gathering materials for Ben Chifley: a biography (1961).

Crisp knew that a lot of papers dealing with Chifley’s early union and political work must be in Bathurst, where Ben and his wife Elizabeth still lived in the house they were given as a wedding present by her parents, back in 1912.  Crisp desperately wanted to look at this material, but he didn’t want to impose on a grieving widow, so he waited a week before he arrived at the Bathurst home.

He was already too late.  During that week, Elizabeth Chifley had burned all her husband’s papers.  According to the story I was told many years later (and which I freely admit, was by then well polished) the smoke was still rising from the backyard incinerator when he arrived at the front door.

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