Dear Prime Minister: Letters to Robert Menzies, 1949–1966

‘I am sir [sure] you will act as human bean’, wrote one distressed pensioner to Prime Minister Robert Menzies in 1953, pleading for assistance.

Robert Menzies received 22,000 letters during his record-breaking 1949-1966 second term as Australian Prime Minister. From war veterans, widows and political leaders to school students and homespun philosophers. Ordinary citizens sent their congratulations and grievances and commented on speeches they had heard on radio. They lectured him, quoted Shakespeare and the Bible at him and sent advice on how to eliminate the rabbit problem. In Dear Prime Minister, Menzies’ fabled ‘Forgotten People’ write back.

Revealed here for the first time, the letters respond to the royal visit of 1954, Communism, Australia’s British connection and the dire poverty of aged pensioners. For many writers, these were not post-war boom years, but a time of anxiety and conflict, punctuated by fears of war, another Great Depression, or a nuclear Armageddon. Dear Prime Minister is a fascinating insight into the concerns, assumptions and political beliefs of 1950s and 1960s Australians.

‘An elegantly wry testament to a lost era of letter-writing, as Menzies’ ‘Forgotten People’ lay bare their assorted fears, gripes, hopes, sycophancy, paranoia, generosity, smugness, ingrained racism, sectarian prejudices, sometimes desperate poverty – and often atrocious spelling.’ – Richard White

MARTYN LYONS was born in London, educated at Oxford, and since 1977 has been at the University of NSW, where he is now Emeritus Professor in History and European Studies. He has published several books on the history of reading and writing in Europe and Australia, including Australian Readers Remember: an oral history of reading 1890-1930 (1992), A History of Reading and Writing in the Western World (2010) and The Writing Culture of Ordinary People in Europe, c.1860-1920 (2013).

Martyn Lyon will present an RAHS Special Lecture in April, titled Dear Prime Minister: Letters to Robert Menzies, 1949-1966. For bookings and to find out more, visit the RAHS Events Calendar.