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Research Guides

Gough Whitlam: Guide to Archives of Australia's Prime Ministers

Chapter 3 - Education, early life and career

This chapter covers archival material relating to Gough Whitlam's education, war service and early career as a barrister in Sydney. It highlights the significance of his childhood in Canberra, his war service in the Pacific as air force navigator, and the 1944 Referendum on Post-War Reconstruction and Democratic Rights on his political development. A selection of speeches held at the Whitlam Institute show the development of Whitlam's view of the Australian Constitution, particularly in terms of its constraints on the possibility of enacting political reform. The section on his education includes references to the education and scholarship of his sister Freda.


Gough Whitlam is the only Prime Minister of Australia to have grown up in the nation's capital. His father, Fred Whitlam, moved to Canberra in 1927 and the rest of the family followed in time for the start of the 1928 school year. Whitlam went into Year 8 at Telopea Park School where he remained until, at his father's insistence and his own reluctance, he was moved to Canberra Grammar School for his final years and studied classics, English, history and Latin. His parents lived in Canberra for the rest of their lives. In 1935 Whitlam took up a scholarship at the University of Sydney to begin an Arts degree, living in St Paul's College and editing the college magazine, The Pauline. A young Enoch Powell taught him Greek and was one of his few stimulating teachers. On the completion of his Arts degree in 1937 Whitlam began a Law degree the following year. His studies were interrupted for nearly four years during his war service, and he finally completed his Law degree in 1946. Whitlam joined the Australian Labor Party while home on his final period of service leave in 1945, just weeks after the death of the ALP Prime Minister John Curtin whom he later described as 'Australia's greatest Prime Minister'.

Telopea Park School Archives

Gough Whitlam attended Telopea Park School from 1928 to 1930. He edited the school journal, The Telopea, for which he also regularly wrote, became treasurer of the school dramatic society, and performed in school plays. His classmates included Hope Hewitt (née Tillyard). These archives include local, unpublished histories of the school, photographs and copies of The Telopea.

Canberra Grammar School Archives

Gough Whitlam attended Canberra Grammar School from 1931 to 1934, completing the leaving certificate three times. He edited the school journal, The Canberran, and contributed poems and translations of the classics to it. He was also a school prefect. These archives include copies of The Canberran and other school documents.

University of Sydney Archives

Whitlam, Edward Gough, The University of Sydney Student Record

Gough Whitlam enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney in 1935 and lived at St Paul's College. His subjects included English, Latin, Greek and psychology He was involved in the college debating team and dramatic society, and edited the university's literary journal, Hermes, and college journal, The Pauline. His sport was rowing. In 1938, Whitlam completed his arts degree and enrolled at the University of Sydney Law School. He became editor of the Law School's magazine, Blackacre, in 1939. This item is Gough Whitlam's complete student record.

Australian National University Archives

Several members of the Whitlam family were, in different ways, involved with the Australian National University. Prime Ministers at the Australian National University: an archival guide explains the strong connection between prime ministers and the university. The description of the series below is from the guide.

Series: ANUA 133
Recorded by:
Council minutes, 1930–43

The minutes cover Gough Whitlam's award of a scholarship to study arts at the University of Sydney and deferment while he studied Greek (meeting of 13 February 1934); payment details (£40 a term); annual results; renewals (1935–38); letters of support; and a scholarship extension when, having obtained an Arts degree, he moved on to study law.

The minutes record the application by Gough Whitlam's sister Freda to sit for Honours, the meeting of 2 May 1939 noting this was deferred on technical grounds, and HFE (Fred) Whitlam's work as a member of the Council and a lecturer with the College, 1931–42. They cover, inter alia, his appointment as a lecturer in commercial law (meeting of 23 February 1931); details of students; and an 'in-kind' stipend and travel authorisation (26 March 1931). They also record Fred and his wife's contribution of £10.10.0 towards a university trust fund to promote university education and the establishment of a university in Canberra (2 November 1934); Fred's involvement on Council committees (29 March 1940); and Council's appreciation of his service (3 February 1942).

ANUA 133/1–4

National Film and Sound Archive

The Broken Melody – groups of men and women, well dressed seated at tables with Gough Whitlam, 1938
St Paul's College boys often appeared as extras in Cinesound Studio movies because they owned their own dinner suits. In 1938, Gough Whitlam appeared in a Ken Hall film, The Broken Melody. This item is one of the few still photographs from the film.

National Library of Australia

This series consists of letters written by Gough Whitlam to his parents and sister between 1936 and 1951. They cover his time at Sydney University, in the Sydney University Regiment, his service with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), married life with Margaret (née Dovey) in Sydney, and his early career as a barrister.
Series: MS 7653
Quantity: 0.3 metres
Recorded by:
Gough Whitlam, St Paul's College, to 'Mother and Father', 6 May 1937
Gough Whitlam wrote to his parents about the college 'Informal'. Along with friends Neville Howse and Hugh Murray, he was at the '400 Club' until 2.30am, which, he reported, was fortunately 'not raided'. Whitlam also wrote about the gags performed by 'Freshers'. They were made to climb 'right up into the branches of the old oak tree' and mimic bird cries.
Gough Whitlam, St Paul's College, to 'Mother and Father', 27 September 1937
Whitlam apologised for not having written sooner. He had been busy working on a 'confounded English essay'. He and 'St John' (Edward St John, later to be Liberal Party and Independent MHR for NSW 1966–69) took Freda Whitlam and her friend Marina to tea at Cahill's, Martin Place. Whitlam complained about the cost. He and Neville Howse had worked as extras in a film at Cinesound film studios, The Broken Melody. They were to appear in a cabaret scene and were paid 15/- for their efforts. This was Whitlam's first 'direct income'.
Gough Whitlam, St Paul's College, to 'Parents', 14 November 1938
Whitlam apologised for the lateness; he had been busy with The Pauline. He had also been busy entertaining visiting American violinist Guila Busatbo, whom he had taken to dinner at Romanos, a popular Sydney restaurant. The letter included extracts from the Sydney social pages.
This series consists of research notes, interview notes and transcripts, correspondence, data breakdowns, drafts and proofs of Walter's books: The Acculturation to Political Work: new members of the federal backbench (1979); The Leader: a political biography of Gough Whitlam (1980); and The Ministers' Minders: personal advisers in national government (1986).
Series: MS 7846
Quantity: 1.1 metres
Recorded by:
The Leader, 1949
There are four folders on Walter's biography of Gough Whitlam. The fourth contains Walter's notes on his interviews with Race Mathews and other members of Whitlam's personal staff. He also interviewed people who knew Whitlam's father, Fred, including Professor Manning Clark.
Folder 4

Private collection


Gough Whitlam's sister Freda holds a collection of family correspondence and memorabilia, including letters and materials relating to Gough Whitlam's school days, such as his school reports. In December 1931, concerned about his son's progress, Fred Whitlam arranged for the Australian Institute of Industrial Psychology to conduct a formal assessment of Gough's capabilities and potential. The report noted his 'high intelligence' and suggested some development 'in his social side', perhaps through involvement in debate and discussion.

War service

Gough Whitlam's service as a navigator with the RAAF is recorded in a number of series at the National Archives of Australia and Australian War Memorial. It is also recorded online on the World War Two Nominal Roll ( Whitlam served with Squadron No. 13 in the Pacific. His letters to family from that time are held in the National Library of Australia. The Whitlam Institute holds a collection of photographs taken mainly while Gough Whitlam was stationed at Gove in the Northern Territory in 1945, with RAAF Squadron No. 13 as air force navigator.

National Archives of Australia

This series was created in 1921 (at the same time as the RAAF itself) to hold personal and service history information on individual RAAF officers, including personal history prior to appointment and subsequent to separation. There is also a photographic listing.
Series: A9300
Quantity: 364 metres
Recorded by: Recorded by: 1921–48 Air Services Office, Department of Air (CA 35)
Whitlam, Edward Gough, 1939–48
This item is Gough Whitlam's personal file. It details where and when he enlisted, his service and discharge.
A9300, Whitlam E G
This series consists of pay and allotment history, individual payments and deductions, tax, promotion, superannuation and so on. There are pay history cards, pay history and ledger cards, allotment history cards and allotment history and ledger cards.
Series: SP504/1
Quantity: 181 metres
Recorded by: 1942–65 Area Finance Office, NSW, Sydney (CA 1019); 1942–65 Department of Air (CA 35)
Edward Gough Whitlam, 1939–48
This item is Gough Whitlam's personal file.
SP504/1, 423371
This series was created in 1921 to hold personal and service history information such as medical history, promotions and so on, on individual RAAF members who were not officers, including personal history prior to appointment and subsequent to separation.
Series: A9301
Quantity: 2.5 kilometres
Recorded by: Recorded by: 1921–48 Air Services Branch; Department of Air Central Office (CA 35)
Whitlam, Freda Leslie, 1939–48
Gough Whitlam's sister Freda enlisted in the RAAF during World War II. She was a non-commissioned officer. This item is her personal file.
A9301, 176974
These photographs cover Gough Whitlam's activities during his Parliamentary career from the time he became the Member for Werriwa until he retired from parliament in 1978. There are also some early photographs of Gough Whitlam in the RAAF.
Series: M155
Quantity: 3.7 metres
Recorded by: Recorded by: 1952–78 Department of the House of Representatives – Member for Werriwa (Leader of the Opposition) (CA 692); 1972–75 The Hon. Edward Gough Whitlam AC, QC (CP 99)
Bomber aircrew, Canberra, 1943
Squadron No. 13 was stationed briefly in Canberra in 1943 for re-equipping. Gough Whitlam stayed with his parents and often had his crew over for dinner. Also in this photograph is Whitlam's Pilot Officer, Lex Goudie, with whom Whitlam, as navigator, flew in the Pacific. The two formed a lifelong friendship.
M155, B34

National Library of Australia

This series comprises letters written by Gough Whitlam to his parents and sister between 1936 and 1951. They cover his time at Sydney University, in the Sydney University Regiment, with the RAAF, starting married life with Margaret Whitlam (née Dovey) in Sydney, and his early career as a barrister.
Series: MS 7653
Quantity: 0.3 metres
Recorded by:
Gough Whitlam, 'D's Company', Sydney University Regiment, Menangle Park, to 'Parents and Freda', 22 January 1940
Gough Whitlam, along with other St Paul's College boys, enlisted in the Sydney University Regiment. Whitlam wrote with annoyance at being 'compulsorily transferred from "A Company” to "D's" (called "Don Support")'. 'A' was a rifle company with better guns. He described his time in the Regiment: 'I'm not very mechanically minded, and I'm not physically too well suited to the work. I'm too tall to wrap myself round the [Vickers] gun or bend down to take difficult sights when sitting behind it. And I think I'm too heavy to be flinging myself down besides parts of the guns on the hard ground, in the unremitting drill.'
Gough Whitlam, Prince Henry Hospital, Little Bay Sydney, to 'Parents and Freda', 2 February 1940
Gough Whitlam, along with many others in the regiment, had come down with German measles. He wrote: 'I don't feel at all bad, and many people regard this sort of affliction with unconcealed joy.' He asked his parents to send him Heath's Practical French Grammar and 'a Murphy', so he could use his time convalescing to practise his French.
Gough Whitlam, 13 Squadron, RAAF, Bradfield Park NSW, to 'Parents and Freda', 22 June 1942
Gough Whitlam spent time at the Bradfield Park RAAF training school. He wrote that he was homesick: '…in none of my campaigns have I felt so nostalgic, in the literal sense, of aching to return home.'
Gough Whitlam, 3 Squadron, RAAF, Bradfield Park NSW, to 'Parents and Freda', 8 July 1942
Gough Whitlam wrote about his RAAF exams: 'For the first time in nearly a decade I passed a Maths exam, coming top of our Flight, I think, in the first fortnightly paper set for all new trainees. I got 65%, out of a possible of 70% for the questions I did, the paper being very long.'
Gough Whitlam, RAAF, Bradfield Park NSW, to 'Parents and Freda', 22 July 1942
Gough Whitlam wrote about the fast approach of final exams. He received 100 per cent in his second maths test.
Gough Whitlam, RAAF, Cootamundra NSW, to 'Parents and Freda', 3 December 1942
Whitlam wrote that his training period was coming to an end. He had impressed fellow students with his wit and wrote that 'on the score of personality, I have established as big an ascendency as ever in College – and that among a wider number and type of persons and with less heartburning. Good for Juries.'

Whitlam Institute

This series comprises several photographs taken by Gough Whitlam and others during his time in the RAAF, primarily when stationed at Gove, Northern Territory, in 1945. There are images of RAAF aircraft, Whitlam's RAAF friends, and of Whitlam himself. There are also photographs of Aboriginal people living at Yirrkala Mission.
Recorded by:
Pilot Officer Whitlam, 1943
This is an image of Gough Whitlam captioned 'Pilot Officer Whitlam commences duties with the Royal Australian Air Force after completion of his training'.
Royal Australian Air Force No. 13 Squadron, World War II, 1944
This is a photograph of the entire Squadron in front of a Ventura PV1 taken at Gove, Northern Territory, on 16 December 1944.

The 1944 referendum and Whitlam's 'passion for the Constitution'

One of the most important political events during Whitlam's RAAF years was the 1944 Curtin government's Referendum on Post-War Reconstruction and Democratic Rights. The failure of the referendum bitterly devastated Whitlam and shaped his political thinking, particularly on the need for constitutional change and what he called his 'passion for the Constitution'.

National Archives of Australia


This series contains records collected by Sir Frederick Shedden during his career with the Department of Defence. It also contains materials Shedden collated after he retired, when researching and writing a book on the history of Australian defence policy. The book was not published at the time of his death on 8 July 1971.

Drafts of Shedden's work are held in this series together with copies of departmental correspondence, files, reports and press cuttings. Copies of War Cabinet and Advisory War Council records are also held. The series is the major part of a larger accumulation of records, the remainder of which, including his history of Australian defence policy manuscript, formed part of Sir Frederick Shedden's personal estate.

Series: A5954
Quantity: 201 metres
Recorded by: Recorded by: 1937–39 Department of Defence [II] (Central Administration); 1937–71 Sir Frederick Geoffrey Shedden KCMG, OBE (CP 320)
Constitutional Referendum Campaign – addresses to troops in camp and petrol allowance for speakers and organisers, 1944
While stationed at Cooktown in the Northern Territory, Gough Whitlam was greatly concerned with the 1944 Referendum on Post-War Reconstruction and Democratic Rights. He campaigned strongly for the 'Yes' vote among Squadron No. 13 members, believing it was crucial that the Commonwealth have wider powers in the post-war years to meet the needs of reconstruction, rebuilding and the resettlement of the thousands of returning service personnel.

This item includes correspondence and memos between the Department of Defence and Attorney-General's Department regarding the distribution of pamphlets and other materials to the troops before the referendum.

A5954, 1948/11
Forde, FM to Menzies, RG, 15 June 1944

This correspondence shows that Robert Menzies, as the new Leader of the Opposition, sought permission to address troops on the subject of the referendum but was turned down by acting Prime Minister Frank Forde: 'It has been decided that no addresses by persons to troops in camps will be permitted.'

A5954, 1948/11

Whitlam Institute


Constitutional reform was one of Gough Whitlam's 'abiding interests'. The Whitlam Institute holds many speeches that illustrate his 'passion for the Constitution', and which show the development of Whitlam's thinking on the Constitution, in particular its implications for realising Labor policy.

'Letter of Passion', 1944

This is a letter Gough Whitlam wrote to his wife, Margaret, on 22 July 1944, while stationed in Townsville, showing his strong support for the 1944 referendum.

Chifley Memorial Lecture – The Constitution versus Labor, 1957

Gough Whitlam made a landmark lengthy critique of the insurmountable difficulties faced by Labor governments in Australia due to the constitutional framework within which they had to operate. 'It has been handicapped' by the Constitution, he said.

On the Constitution – 2nd Curtin Memorial Lecture at the University of Western Australia, 1961

Gough Whitlam recalled war-time Prime Minister John Curtin's vision for the 1944 referendum and argued for the need to modernise the Australian Constitution.

Curtin Memorial Lecture, Australian National University, Canberra, 29 October 1975

Gough Whitlam drew analogies between Curtin's time in government during war time and the current situation in the Parliament of Australia.

Dragging the Chain – 2nd Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture, Northern Territory University [now Charles Darwin University], Darwin, 29 August 1997

Gough Whitlam recounted how his experiences in the RAAF during World War II had played a critical role in his determination to work towards Aboriginal human rights, the recognition of land rights and constitutional change.

John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library Inaugural Anniversary Lecture, 1998

Gough Whitlam discussed the significance and contribution of Labor's Prime Minister John Curtin to Australia's war effort and domestic security during World War II, a need for synchronous elections, an Australian republic, federal responsibilities and Aboriginal people. John Curtin, he argued, gave a message to his party, the parliament and the people 'as relevant in 1998 as it was radical in 1945'.

A passion for the Australian Constitution, 2002

Gough Whitlam spoke at the launch of the Letter of Passion exhibition at the University of Western Sydney. He said of the 1944 referendum that 'for many of my generation the proposed referendum rivalled the Beveridge reports in Britain in raising hopes of a better society than we had known before World War II'.

Sydney barrister and quiz contestant

When Gough Whitlam returned from his years of active war service as an air force navigator in 1945, he still had one year of his law studies to complete at the University of Sydney. On 14 February 1947 he was admitted to the New South Wales Bar, and practised in Sydney. The National Archives of Australia holds records relating to the Australian National Radio Quiz in which Whitlam was a successful contestant. He won in 1948 and 1949, and was runner-up in 1950. To win a place on the team that would compete in the 1948 national final, Whitlam faced the question: 'Who was the King who reigned from about 115–63 BC, who fortified himself so strongly against poison by the use of antidotes that he could not kill himself and had to get a Gallic mercenary soldier to stab him, as he preferred death to captivity?' National Archives audio records show Gough Whitlam correctly answering, 'Mithridates'.

In 1951, Gough Whitlam acted as junior to his father-in-law, the well-known Sydney barrister Wilfred (Bill) Dovey KC, in the Royal Commission on Liquor Laws in New South Wales. The records of these are held in the State Records of New South Wales.

National Archives of Australia

The series comprises sound recordings (on 10, 12 and 16-inch discs) of various radio commercials produced on behalf of the Commonwealth Advertising Division. There are defence force and Commonwealth public service recruitment advertisements, as well as commercials for security loans. There are also recordings of radio quiz shows produced to publicise security loans. The recordings have been arranged by the National Archives into groups relating to Commonwealth agencies. Within each group, the recordings are arranged alphabetically by title and numbered individually.
Series: C199
Quantity: 2.9 metres
Recorded by: Recorded by: 1947–60 Commonwealth Advertising Division, Sydney (CA 1100)
6th Security Loan Programme – the first interstate contest in the Australian National Quiz Championship – includes contestant Mr Gough Whitlam (radio commercial), 1948 C199, 27
Transcript of selection from Commonwealth Government Loans and National Savings Organisation, 6th Security Loan Quiz (sound recordings of radio commercials), 1948
Between 1948 and 1950, just as Gough Whitlam was establishing himself as a Sydney barrister, he won the Australian National Radio Quiz. The quiz was sponsored by the federal Treasury in an attempt to encourage people to buy government security loans for post-war reconstruction. Whitlam used his winnings of £1,000 to buy the block of land next door to their house in Cronulla. Prime Minister Ben Chifley was the program's major promoter. He listened to the quiz and discussed Gough Whitlam's performance with his father, Fred Whitlam, then Commonwealth Crown Solicitor, when they met in Canberra.
C199, 28

State Records of New South Wales

State Records of New South Wales
Recorded by:
In 1951 Gough Whitlam acted as junior to his father-in-law, WR Dovey KC, in the Royal Commission on Liquor Laws in New South Wales. This item consists of indexes to the exhibits, witnesses and schedule, as well as a general subject index.
A Royal Commission on Liquor Laws in NSW was established by Letters Patent on 23 July 1951. The Honourable Justice Maxwell was appointed Commissioner. The Commission's final report was published on 25 March 1954. This item is a copy of the final report.
This item comprises press clippings, representations and correspondence, transcripts of evidence, diaries, records of witnesses and exhibits.