Ben Chifley’s Silver Trowels
These two engraved silver trowels are on display in the Parlour at Chifley Home. They were presented to Ben Chifley in 1949 on the occasion of his laying foundation stones for the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra.
Ben regretted that he had never attended university. After Limekilns Public School, he was briefly a student at the Patrician Brothers’ school in Bathurst. Ben continued his formal education from 1902 as a railway apprentice, becoming a first-class locomotive engine driver in 1914. He also continued to educate himself on a broad range of subjects through self-study and extension courses. University, however, was never an option for Ben Chifley.
What Chifley did do, however, was guide the establishment of a new university, the ANU. The process began in late 1944 under Chifley’s direction as the Minister for Post-War Reconstruction. In 1946, the Bill establishing the university was passed during Ben Chifley’s time as Prime Minister.
On 24 October 1949, the foundation stones were laid for the new university’s first three buildings. Prime Minister Chifley ceremoniously laid the stones for two of those buildings, the John Curtin School of Medical Research and the Research School of Physical Sciences. Inscriptions on the trowels record Ben Chifley’s role in the ceremonies. Ben would have felt some sadness when laying the foundation stone honouring his old comrade, John Curtin. Elsie Curtin, John’s widow, was at his side, specially invited to Canberra for the ceremony. Her presence, along with that of Elizabeth Chifley, who rarely went to Canberra, would have contributed to this being a memorable day.
Back home, the trowels would have held special memories for Ben Chifley. A new university, part of his post-war plan for nation building, had been created and his old comrade had been honoured.