Birth and family background
Calwell was born on 28 August 1896 at his parents' home in West Melbourne. He was the oldest of seven children born to Margaret Annie (née McLoughlin) and Arthur Albert Calwell. His father worked as a police officer and retired as a superintendent of police. Calwell's parents were both born in Australia. His maternal grandfather was Michael McLoughlin, who was born in County Laois, Ireland, and arrived in Melbourne in 1847 after jumping ship. He married Mary Murphy, who was born in County Clare. Calwell's paternal grandfather Davis Calwell (or Caldwell) was an Irish American born in Union County, Pennsylvania, who arrived in Australia in 1853 during the Victorian gold rush. He married Elizabeth Lewis, a Welshwoman, and settled near Ballarat, eventually becoming president of the Bungaree Shire Council. Davis Calwell's father,
Daniel Caldwell, had immigrated to the United States from northern Ireland, and served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in the 1820s.
Calwell grew up in West Melbourne. As a young boy he contracted diphtheria, which permanently scarred his vocal chords and gave him a lifelong "raspish, nasal voice". Although his father was an Anglican, Calwell was raised in his mother's Catholic faith. He began his education at St Mary's College, the local Mercedarian school. In 1909, he won a scholarship to St Joseph's College, North Melbourne, a Christian Brothers school. One of his closest friends at school was Matthew Beovich, a future Archbishop of Adelaide. In later life he said "I owe everything I have in life, under Almighty God and next to my parents, to the Christian Brothers". Calwell's mother died in 1913, aged 40, when her oldest son was 16 and her youngest child was only three months old. His father remarried, eventually dying in 1938 at the age of 69.
World War I
Calwell was an officer in the Australian Army Cadets at the outbreak of World War I, and made two unsuccessful applications for a commission in the Australian Imperial Force. After his second rejection in 1916 he made no further attempts to seek active service, being unwilling to join as an enlisted man; however, he was placed in the Army Reserve and remained there until receiving an honourable discharge in 1926. Calwell joined the Young Ireland Society in 1914, and served as the organisation's secretary until 1916. His reputation as an Irish republican brought him to the attention of the military police, which suspected him of involvement in the more radical Irish National Association. His residence was searched on one occasion, and his correspondence was routinely examined by censors. On two occasions there were moves to have him dismissed from the military for disloyalty, but Calwell denied the accusations and there was little proof that he had been actively disloyal.
Public service career
Calwell entered the Victorian Public Service in 1913, as a junior clerk in the Department of Agriculture. He transferred to the Department of the Treasury in 1923, where he remained until winning election to parliament in 1940. As with most of his colleagues, Calwell joined the Victorian State Service Clerical Association. He served as secretary and vice-president of that organisation, which in 1925 was reorganised into the state branch of Australian Public Service Association (a forerunner of the modern Community and Public Sector Union). He was elected as the new organisation's inaugural president, serving until 1931.
Calwell's first marriage was to Margaret Mary Murphy in 1921. She died the following year in 1922, and ten years later, on 29 August 1932, he married Elizabeth (Bessie) Marren, a strong-willed, intelligent and well-read Irishwoman who was social editor of the Catholic weekly newspaper, the Tribune. In 1933 they launched the Irish Review as the official organ of the Victorian Irish Association. Calwell had met Elizabeth at Irish language classes run by the Gaelic League in Melbourne, and retained an interest in and fluency in the language.