Inside the humble home of Ben Chifley

By Esme Mathis | Photography by Liz Ham March 5, 2024
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Now a museum, the former home of Ben Chifley offers a window into the life of Australia’s working-class prime minster.

The home of Ben Chifley, Australia’s 16th prime minister (1945–49), was a remarkably modest two-bedroom, semi-detached house called “Carnwath”. Located at 10 Busby Street in Bathurst, New South Wales, the humble home – built between 1882 and 1891 – was, quite famously, a far cry from the huge rooms and manicured lawns of the official residences, The Lodge (Canberra) and Kirribilli House (Sydney). Instead, it was typical of working-class housing in Bathurst’s Milltown region, which was associated with mill and railway workers. Today, the house, now a museum called the Chifley Home and Education Centre, offers a window into the lives of Chifley and his wife, Lizzie, displaying the couple’s original furniture, kitchenware and personal decor.

Despite rapidly rising from railway-engine cleaner to prime minister, Joseph Benedict (Ben) Chifley never strayed far from his working-class roots. Born in Bathurst in 1885, his formative years were shaped by the economic depression of the 1890s and his entry into the railway labour force at the age of 17. In 1914 Chifley married local girl Elizabeth (Lizzie) McKenzie and they were given tenancy in Carnwath as a wedding gift by Lizzie’s father, who had bought the home in 1903 as a rental property and named it after his home town in Scotland. The single-storey Victorian-Italianate house had a symmetrical facade, bullnose verandah framed by cast-iron columns, and a central front door accessed by a brick staircase. It had two bedrooms, a dining room, parlour, kitchen and pantry, with an outside bathroom and laundry. 

By the age of 24, Chifley had become NSW’s youngest first-class locomotive driver, but his participation in a 1917 railway strike led to his demotion to engine cleaner. It was Chifley’s involvement in the Locomotive Engine Drivers’, Firemen’s and Cleaners’ Association that sparked his interested in politics. He studied economics, and in 1928 he was elected as Labor member for Macquarie, a seat he lost in 1931 but regained in 1940. The following year, he became treasurer of the Curtin Labor government. 

Despite developing into a “man of some means”, Chifley never upsized to a larger property, nor made substantial changes to Carnwath. “The furniture in the house was relatively cheap and mass-produced; the kitchen retained its one cold tap in the small sink; and the bathroom, laundry and toilet all remained outside the house,” recorded his biographer, David Day. “On a frosty winter’s morning, [the Chifleys] had to face the daunting prospect of going outside to reach both the toilet and the bathroom.” 

Carnwath aligned neatly with Chifley’s public image as a humble, unpretentious leader with frugal spending habits that allowed for the occasional indulgence, such as his American Buick motor car. He spent his ministerial career residing in Room 181 at Hotel Kurrajong in Canberra, which he left at 8.30am sharp every morning to walk to work at Parliament House. When he became prime minister, Chifley refused to move into The Lodge, preferring to stay in the same hotel room where he’d lived as treasurer. He returned to Carnwath regularly, driving back to Bathurst at least every second weekend. 

In the mid-1940s, Isabel Clark, the widow of a railway friend and a long-time companion of Lizzie, moved into Carnwath. Isabel outlived both Ben and Lizzie, who died in 1951 and 1962 respectively. After Isabel’s 1969 death, Bathurst City Council bought Carnwath and its contents. It was opened as a museum on 24 March 1973 by Gough Whitlam, prime minister at the time. 

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