Australian Historical Art Fund & Heritage Government Residences

Four Piece Silver Tea and Coffee Service, C.1942

W. J. Sanders & Co., NSW
Teapot 14.5 x 24.5 cm.
Coffee pot 19 x 17 cm.
Sugar bowl 6 x 9.5 cm.
Cream jug 9 x 10 cm.
Original box with engraved plaque

Presented to Mrs John (Elsie) Curtin, the wife of The Right Honourable John Curtin, MHR, PC, 14th Prime Minister from 1941 to 1945, by the Directors of the Cockatoo Docks and Engineering Co. Pty Ltd on the occasion of the launching of HMIS ‘Bengal’ at Cockatoo Island May 28th 1942.

The service comprises a teapot, coffee pot, sugar bowl and cream jug, all with pie crust borders, ovoid body and stepped foot, the tea and coffee pots with ebonised wooden handles and knobs. Each object in the service is engraved on one side with an entwined monogram ‘J C’ for John Curtin.

The Fund had the good fortune to acquire this service from an auction of the John Curtin family in 1990. 

It is extraordinary to have the Curtins’ tea and coffee service in the Prime Minister’s residence, available to be used by current Prime Ministers many years later. Besides this important historical link, the service was made by an Australian silversmith company, W. J. Sanders, and retailed by Percy Marks, both companies still in business with their original families.

During Curtin’s wartime Prime Ministership W. J. Sanders’ skilled metal workers were involved in the production of aircraft components for the Ministry of Munitions. This service also complements John Curtin’s Tasmanian Oak Fall Front Desk, c.1927, by W. E. Taylor, held by The Fund.

John Joseph Curtin (1885-1945), was the 14th Prime Minister, and is considered one of our most remarkable and great prime ministers. He is respected for his role in leading the nation through World War II. He gained success in New Guinea when he rejected Britain’s strategy for the Australian troops. He placed US General MacArthur in charge of the Australian troops. Curtin had fought against conscription in World War I in 1942 and in 1939 at the beginning of World War II, but when the strategic circumstances changed Curtin changed his thinking to allow conscripted Militia soldiers to be deployed outside Australia.

Early in Curtin’s political/industrial career, as the first federal president of the sawmillers' union he led the campaign for the Victorian Workers' Compensation Act (1914). He was able to create a strong and unified Labor Party. Curtin died in office in 1945, only six weeks before the war ended.

Elsie Curtin (1890-1975) was born Elsie Needham, and was the sister of Labor Senator Ted Needham. Like John Curtin she was a member of the Social Democrats. They married in 1917 and had two children. She supported Curtin through public and private battles. She died aged 84, at Cottesloe, WA on 24 June 1975, and was buried next to her husband in Karrakatta Cemetery. 

The Tea set commemorates the launch of HMIS Bengal, in May 1942 from Cockatoo Island in Sydney. The Bengal was a Bathurst Class Corvette/Minesweeper, and was set for her maiden voyage to India. On 11 November 1942, as an escort to an armed Dutch tanker, the Ondina she encountered two Japanese raiders 1,000 miles southwest of Java. Engaging the enemy ships she and the Ondina sunk one, with the other escaping. The Bengal saw active service for many decades and was decommissioned in 1960.

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This selection represents a small sample of our collection. Our book detailing the collection is currently out of print.
An updated edition has been published in 2017.
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