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16th Prime Minister of Australia, Ben Chifley (1885-1951), was in kinship care as a child.

Ben Chifley was born Joseph Benedict Chifley in Bathurst, New South Wales, to Mary Anne and Patrick Chifley.

When Ben Chifley was five years of age he was sent to live with his grandfather, also Patrick Chifley, in a small rural area called Limekilns, about 18km away from his parents and two younger brothers. He received occasional visits from his father but saw little of his mother and siblings.

“One can imagine the trauma this would have caused young Chifley”, writes biographer David Day.

The boy slept on a chaff-bag bed in a four-roomed, wattle-and-daub shack with whitewashed walls and an earthen floor. Cowherd, potato-bagger and general ‘dogsbody’, he attended a bush school which opened two days one week and three days the next. He was a ‘boy alone’ in a prolific Catholic community (Waterson).

In 1899, Ben returned to Bathurst and did two years at the Patrician Brothers High School.

When he left school, Ben worked in a variety of jobs, including as a shop assistant, cleaner and fireman.

Studying four nights a week, he attended classes run by the Workers’ Educational Association and the Bathurst branch technical school. By 1914 he was a first-class locomotive engine driver—the youngest in the State—and part of the ‘labour aristocracy’. An instructor at the Bathurst Railway Institute, a renowned country Rugby Union footballer, and a competent boxer and cricketer, he could look forward to a settled and improving life (Waterson).

Chifley began in politics through the Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Employees and was elected to the seat of Bathurst in the federal House of Representatives in 1928. He subsequently lost his seat in 1931 but regained it in 1940.

In 1941 Chifley was appointed Treasurer in the Curtin Labour government and was instrumental in the economic organisation for World War II. In July 1945 John Curtin died, subsequently Chifley was elected leader of the Labor Party.

 As Prime Minister, Chifley initiated major national projects such as the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme and an assisted migration scheme for 171,000 migrants from 1945 to 1952.

His government tightened control over the States, extended welfare services, eased ex-service personnel into civilian life (without the dislocation and suffering that had occurred after 1918), and initiated a host of liberal measures which bore fruit during the ‘long boom’ of the 1950s and 1960s (Waterson).

At the 1949 federal election, Ben Chifley lost to Robert Menzies, leader of the new Liberal Party of Australia.

When he died two years later, Chifley was given a state funeral at Bathurst.

Chifley left a modest £13,400, including his half-share in 10 Busby Street [Bathurst] which was opened by Prime Minister E. G. Whitlam in 1973 as a memorial to him. In his last three years Ben had secretly given away over £3000 to friends and relations. A posthumous portrait (1953) of Chifley by A. D. Colquhoun is held by Parliament House, Canberra (Waterson).

10 Busby Street, Bathurst is now the Chifley Home Education Centre opened by Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, on 18 September 2010.


“Ben Chifley.” National Archives of Australia.

Day, David. “Cabinet table and kitchen table: David Day uncovers the intersection of the public and the private in writing the lives of two Labor saints.” Meanjin, vol. 61, no.1 (2002): 35f.

Hawkins, John. “Ben Chifley: The true believer.” Economic Round-up, no.3 (2011): 103-125.

Waterson, D.B. “Chifley, Joseph Benedict (Ben) (1885-1951).” Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 13 (1993).

Image available here.