Sam Malloy (pictured) is a Lecturer in history and politics, a PhD candidate, and a Research
Fellow of the Australian Prime Ministers’ Centre in Canberra.
Compared to America and Britain, where there are numerous residences of presidents and prime ministers opened to the public, here in Australia such ‘house museums’ are extremely rare.
In Bathurst, NSW, there is ‘Chifley Home’, the home and collection of post-World War II prime minister, Ben Chifley.
There is also ‘Home Hill’ in Devonport, Tasmania, the home of 1930s prime minister, Joseph Lyons.
In Perth, Western Australia, there is the family residence of Australia’s wartime prime minister, John Curtin.
All these homes capture a life of a prime minister in their domestic setting along with what society was like at that moment in history.
Through my various roles associated with the home of Ben Chifley and his wife Elizabeth, I have been fascinated in how a residence of a prime minister can reveal exciting and engaging stories.
Such histories can include family conversations and community contacts that inspired political thoughts and actions.
For instance, Chifley would regularly talk to and assist his neighbours when home as prime minister, which no doubt inspired ideas for his parliamentary work and speeches.
The home of a former prime minister is also where political work was undertaken, often in a ‘home office’ and on the telephone, as well as where campaign workers and the media would gather on important political occasions.
Furthermore, the rooms’ décor and furnishings showcase the taste and times of a prime minister and family members, an aspect that really interests contemporary audiences.
At Chifley Home, the role of Ben’s wife Elizabeth has aroused greater awareness, so family stories and recollections are particularly important in evoking a political leader at home.
In Bathurst, a neighbour recalled the character reference that Chifley wrote on government letterhead when she was a teenager looking for work; it was a letter she kept.
A prime minister’s house can also tell of celebrations, hobbies and past-times, and clues to former times and careers before entering politics.
As with the Chifley Home, oral histories from family members and former neighbours will prove highly valuable to the Whitlam domestic story.
Gough Whitlam, his wife Margaret and their family called the house at Cabramatta in south-west Sydney home from 1956 to 1978. This included Whitlam’s period as the nation’s leader from 1972 to 1975.
The home of the Whitlam family will prove exciting for younger Australians, as it will document leadership and political events of the Whitlam era, as well as a period in Australia that was impacted by the 1960s counterculture, new fads of popular culture, and the dramatic happenings surrounding the Vietnam war – occasions all relayed by one’s black and white television in the corner of the living-room.
Similar to the Chifley Home, the opportunities for the Whitlam residence to engage audiences will prove endless, so Australians are fortunate that there was passion and a vision by those who led the recent campaign to purchase Gough and Margaret Whitlam’s family home.
Chifley Home at 10 Busby Street, Bathurst, is owned and managed by Bathurst Regional Council. The house is closed temporarily for conservation works, but further stories about the home and Ben and Elizabeth Chifley can be found on its website.
This story was originally published on Open Forum on 24 February 2021.