Inside Story

John Curtin’s potato

A gift to a prime minister gives a glimpse of the life of an Australian toiler

Anne-Marie Condé 26 January 2024 2256 words

John Curtin (centre) with former prime minister Billy Hughes in 1945. History doesn’t record whether they were discussing Mr Frith’s remedy. B.H. Mullaney/National Library of Australia

 

Dear Sir, I am sending you a cure for your akes and Pains.


On 9 September 1942, Mr W. Frith, an aged pensioner giving his address as Wattle Flat via Bathurst, sent prime minister John Curtin a small package containing a potato. So important was this potato that Mr Frith felt obliged to include detailed instructions on its use.

The prime minister was to put the potato in his pocket, specifically in his left pocket if he was right-handed. In “a few weaks time” it will get a bit soft, Curtin was told. Take no notice of that but leave it there and it will flatten out “like a half crown” and then go “has hard as a pice of wood.” After three years it will “whear away to nothing.” And then the prime minister should repeat the process. “While you carrie a Potato in your pocket you will never suffer with any Pains.” Frith himself had been doing so for the previous twenty-seven years, he said, and suffered no akes or Pains.

The prime minister’s private secretary wrote to Mr Frith acknowledging with thanks — but no further comment — the arrival of the package. Frith’s letter was carefully filed with hundreds of other personal and official representations under “Correspondence F” for the year 1942.

In 2017, while I was working at the National Archives of Australia, a colleague of mine stumbled with delighted amazement upon the Frith correspondence. John Curtin was a popular prime minister, yes, but to send a potato as a gift? There were peals of laughter in the office that day, let me say, at the thought of a potato-induced protuberance in the prime ministerial pocket.

When one of us finally got around to doing some actual research, we discovered that carrying a potato in one’s pocket was a Victorian-era cure for rheumatism. Exactly how it was thought to work is unclear — folk remedies and superstitions do not admit of much close investigation anyway — but it was commonly believed that the potato had to have been stolen for it to work. (Frith makes no mention of this in his letter to Curtin.) The Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University includes a number of withered therapeutic potatoes — here’s one — among its holdings of folkloric material.

So, would Curtin have given the potato cure a try? Could a potato have been a silent witness at the next war cabinet meeting, in Canberra on 21 September 1942? I suspect not. Curtin’s health was poor, but rheumatism is not known to have been one of his afflictions. If he knew about Mr Frith’s gift — and his staff may well have thought he would enjoy the diversion — Curtin may simply have kept it in his pocket for the five minutes it takes to walk from Parliament House to the Kurrajong Hotel, where he often stayed while in Canberra, before handing it to the manager for use in the kitchen. Nothing was allowed to go to waste in those austere times.

Surprised to learn that folklore and superstition still lingered in 1940s Australia, I wondered if Frith’s offering to Curtin was considered odd at the time. As it turns out, yes, just a little. In late 1942 and early 1943, several major newspapers ran stories poking gentle fun at the weird and wonderful letters and packages Curtin often received. Each of these pieces — here’s one — was essentially the same, and probably drew on a compilation of letters (writers’ names withheld) offered to the press by Curtin’s indefatigable press secretary, Don Rodgers. His aim, I imagine, was to rub some edges off his boss’s rather stern public image.

Christians sent religious tracts, widows sent wedding rings (goodness!), a lot of people sent money (which went straight to Treasury), inventors sent war-winning suggestions, and one woman sent a cushion embroidered “God Bless Our Prime Minister.” The public was entertained with excerpts from letters to Curtin from various charmers and crackpots, among whom Mr Frith comes off as comparatively sane. Who knows if a copy of any of these ever reached him at Wattle Flat?

Years later, Frith’s words still come back to astonish me yet again with their specificity and conviction. Tempting though it is to dismiss him as a bit of a weirdo, it’s good to remember that few of us are completely rational all the time. Even though the evidence for its efficacy is slender I keep a bottle of echinacea on hand for when I feel a cold coming on. Which of us has not done something similar? A well-known chain of Australian discount chemists devotes several aisles in its enormous stores to complementary medicines and dietary supplements, and people obviously buy them. If we laugh at Mr W. Frith of Wattle Flat via Bathurst, we also laugh at ourselves.


The other reason I often think of Mr Frith is that he reminds me of when I first met the peasant Bodo during my undergraduate days. I still have my copy of Eileen Power’s wonderful book Medieval People, which was first published in 1924 and went through many subsequent editions. Power chose six people and wrote a chapter on each to personify ordinary life in the Middle Ages. Bodo is the first. He was a peasant living in the early ninth century on an estate attached to an abbey near Paris, owned by the emperor Charlemagne. Because of Charlemagne’s close interest in how his lands were managed, the records are extremely rich.

Power discovered Bodo, his wife Ermentrude and their three children, Wido, Gerbert and Hildegard in the abbot’s estate book. With enormous skill and imagination she presents them to us as living, breathing people. We learn of a typical day in their lives by watching Bodo as he sets out on a frosty morning with his ox for a day’s ploughing, little Wido coming along to help. Ermentrude’s morning was spent at the big house, where she had to pay the chicken rent (a fat pullet and five eggs), and her afternoon at home weaving cloth. Power goes further, boldly proposing not just what her people did but how they thought and felt about it. Bodo wasn’t happy on that cold morning, having to plough the abbot’s fields when his own were crying out for attention, but he sang lustily to cheer himself and Wido.

We learn that Bodo and Ermentrude spent Sundays and saints’ days singing and dancing to ribald pagan songs, a practice that greatly annoyed church authorities. Frankish Christians such as Bodo still clung to much earlier rites and superstitions, but these the church wisely left alone. Charms were said over sick cattle and incantations over fields to make them fertile. The cure for a stitch in one’s side, or any bad pain, was to lay a hot piece of metal next to it and say a charm to draw out the nine little worms that were eating one’s bones and flesh. (The sensation of the hot metal probably distracted the mind from the stitch, thus making this cure a mite more rational than Frith’s potato remedy.)

If Eileen Power speculated beyond the evidence in conjuring up the inner lives of her medieval people, her thorough immersion in a broad range of sources enabled her to, as she put it, “make the past live for the general reader.” She was a pioneering social historian and for her book’s epigraph she quotes a famous verse in the book of Ecclesiasticus: “Let us now praise famous men and our fathers that begat us.” The problem for many of her fellow historians, she said, was that they had forgotten the fathers that begat us. Her aim was to recognise the “unnamed, undistinguished mass of people, now sleeping in unknown graves,” upon whose slow toil “was built up the prosperity of the world.”


John Curtin is absolutely one of those famous men, and William Frith one of the toilers. What can be learned about him? If I have my genealogical research correct — and there is some ambiguity in the records — William Thomas Frith was born in the small town of Hartley, in central west New South Wales, in 1869, the son of British migrant parents. His father Oscar was a labourer who, in 1882, appeared before a magistrate for failing to send thirteen-year-old William to school. Probably the boy’s labour was needed at home. I have not discovered any evidence that it was a large family, but not all parents bothered to register the births of their children then.

Frith’s story can be told only through snippets; in fact we probably know less about him than we do about peasant Bodo. The Friths were living in the Carcoar region in 1904 when Oscar and William were charged with assault; William was found guilty but the case against Oscar was dismissed. In 1907 Oscar, aged sixty-six and still working, was seriously injured and nearly lost an ear when his horse and cart toppled over an embankment. The first world war offered an escape (of sorts) for rural families living on the edge of poverty but not so much for the Friths. William was too old to enlist, although his younger brother John did scrape in at age forty-four, in 1915. He was returned to Australia medically unfit in 1917.

By 1930 their parents had died and the brothers were living in Wattle Flat, a village thirty-two kilometres north of Bathurst. This, of course, is the famous region of New South Wales where gold had been discovered in 1851, and Wattle Flat apparently once boasted a population of 20,000. A small renewal of mining activity during the Depression might explain why the Friths were living there, listed as miners (“fossickers” might be more accurate) on the electoral roll. John gave up eventually and “went on the track,” but William stayed.

He was apparently unmarried and had no evident involvement in any church, sporting club, trade union, friendly society or any other of those organisations that were the glue that held society together in those times. In 1935 the National Advocate, Bathurst’s main newspaper, noted that Mr W. Frith of Wattle Flat had been admitted to hospital for “medical attention” (for something beyond the powers of a potato, we assume), suggesting that he did have some standing in the community, but in general he appears to have been a loner.

He must have been paying attention to what was going on in the world, however, or he would not have written to John Curtin. The National Advocate was a left-leaning newspaper (it had future prime minister Ben Chifley on its board of directors) and would have been his main source of news. In its pages Frith could have learned of the Japanese entry into the war in December 1941, its aggression in the Pacific in 1942 and the gravity of Australia’s position as a consequence. He could have read Curtin’s exhortations to his people to expect that each and every Australian would have to make sacrifices. The paper covered Curtin’s appeal to the United States for support and his declarations about the need to reorganise labour and industry, introduce rationing and raise funds through war loans. The Advocate supported Curtin throughout. He was one of the “greatest leaders in Australian history,” the paper claimed.

Historians have noted how Curtin’s background as a journalist helped him craft the messages he needed to gain the nation’s support for the unprecedented interventions in social and economic life necessary to win the war. In this he was assisted by press secretary Don Rodgers, but Curtin already had a natural ease with journalists and was frank and informal with them in his twice-daily briefings. He also spoke directly to millions of people in his frequent radio broadcasts, and by adopting a plain and direct style of address came across as a hardworking, humble and honest man.

Not everyone could have afforded a wireless I suppose. I wonder if William Frith had one in Wattle Flat, or could have joined a neighbour to listen in. If so, back in November 1941, shortly after Curtin became prime minister, Frith might have heard Curtin proclaim that:

This Australia is a land of cities and golden plains, of great rivers and vast spaces. It is a land in which countless thousands of plain, ordinary men and women have toiled long, mostly for little reward; who sacrificed and who built our heritage. If this heritage was worth their lives to build, it is worth ours to preserve.

It’s almost as if whoever wrote the broadcast script (Curtin? Rodgers?) had read and remembered Eileen Power’s Bodo and Ermentrude, those slow toilers who built the prosperity of the world. In any case, rhetoric of that kind was exactly what was needed to inspire people like William Frith, whose family had indeed toiled long for little reward. He may have felt (yes, I am speculating beyond the evidence) that now, at last, there was a place for them in the national story.

The effect of that could have been profound, certainly enough for Frith to decide eventually to devise something out of his own small means, in the form of a curative potato, as an offering back to Curtin. And quite possibly he also gave something that Curtin would have valued much more: his vote. In the federal election of August 1943, Curtin’s Labor government defeated the Country–United Australia Party coalition by a landslide. It remains one of the greatest victories in Labor history.

History, as Eileen Power said, is largely made up of Bodos. •