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James, Winifred Llewellyn (1876–1941)

by Sally O'Neill

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Winifred Llewellyn James (1876-1941), writer, was born on 20 March 1876 at Prahran, Melbourne, ninth surviving child of Thomas James, Wesleyan minister from Cornwall, and his wife Gertrude, née Peterson, from Yorkshire, England. She was educated privately at St Kilda. After running a teashop in King William Street, Adelaide, in 1901-03, she returned to Melbourne and began writing short stories, several of which were published in the Australasian. Their success encouraged her to go to London.

She arrived there in 1905 and a year later her first book, Bachelor Betty, was published; it ran into four editions in four weeks. This was followed by Patricia Baring (1908), Saturday's Children (1909) and the extraordinarily successful Letters to my Son (1910), sentimental essays couched in the form of letters addressed by a young mother-to-be to her unborn son. The seventeenth edition (1913) was dedicated to the Boy Scouts and had a foreword by Sir Robert Baden-Powell. More letters to my Son, Letters of a Spinster and a novel appeared in 1911. In 1912 she visited the West Indies and Panama. She returned to England, completing a travel book before her marriage on 30 April 1913 at St George's, Hanover Square, London, to Henry De Jan, a merchant of Panama.

Winifred James's next book, which described setting up house in the 'wilderness' of Panama, was written in her customary first-person style: chatty, familiar, yet never carelessly crafted. She had claimed in 1908 that while her stories almost wrote themselves — 'they bubble out so spontaneously' — she worked extremely hard at the technique. When World War I broke out she organized a huge junk-fair to raise money for the British Red Cross Fund. She visited London in 1916 and for an Economy Exhibition arranged a 'working girls' room' furnished on £3 which she also showed in provincial centres. Back in London in 1922 she took a replica of this exhibit to south-west England for a year. She managed an antique shop in London and her knowledge of furniture, china, pictures, brass and curios was reflected in the furnishing of her Chelsea home. Another interest was the cuisine of countries in which she had lived.

In 1927, after unsuccessful suits in New York and New Jersey and three years of dispute, De Jan divorced his wife in Panama. They had no children. Now regarded under English law as an alien, Winifred James turned her energy to publicizing the need for laws to protect the nationality of women who married foreigners. Her case became famous in February 1933 when she went to court for refusing to register with the police as an alien; there were street demonstrations in her support. Eventually in 1935 she was granted a naturalization certificate.

As a writer, Winifred James maintained a rigorous work schedule. In the 1920s and 1930s she contributed articles to the Yorkshire Post, London Daily Chronicle and Evening Standard and published three novels, volumes of essays and travel books. In 1939, ill and alarmed by the onset of war, she returned to Australia, arriving in Sydney on 26 December. She brought with her the manuscript of her last novel, The Gods Arrive (published in 1941), and a half-finished autobiography. She died from cerebral thrombosis in Newington hospital, Sydney, on 27 April 1941 and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • British Australasian, 10 Sept 1908, 15 May 1913
  • Home (Sydney), 1 Dec 1923
  • New York Times, 26 July 1924, 5 Aug, 5 Sept 1925, 3 May 1927, 7 Feb 1933
  • Argus (Melbourne), 6, 7 Feb 1933, 9 July 1935
  • Herald (Melbourne), 20 Jan, 7 Mar 1940
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Jan 1940
  • publisher's note to The Gods Arrive.

Citation details

Sally O'Neill, 'James, Winifred Llewellyn (1876–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/james-winifred-llewellyn-6826/text11813, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 21 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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