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Lawson, Jean (1908–1986)

by Rosslyn McCarthy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Jean Lawson (1908-1986), actor, educator, broadcaster and writer, was born on 17 November 1908 at Salford, Lancashire, England, daughter of Robert Lawson, electrical engineer, and his wife Emily Ann, née Simpson.  The family migrated to Australia in 1914 and, as her father moved about and rose in the Commonwealth Public Service, Jean attended private schools in Adelaide and Melbourne before matriculating from Sydney Church of England Girls' Grammar School, topping the State in physiology.  Winning an exhibition in science, she studied at the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1929).

Stage-struck since schooldays, Lawson became involved with theatre at university.  Although talented and possessing an exceptional voice, she was tall, angular and no beauty.  While teaching at schools, including Kambala Church of England School for Girls, she acted in amateur productions and radio plays.  In 1931 she joined Joan and Betty Rayner’s 'Theatre of Youth' in a caravan tour of south-eastern Australia.  Proving a versatile member of a small company, she took many parts, played the dulcitone, and shopped and cooked as they travelled.

By the mid-1930s Lawson had settled in Melbourne, teaching at Clyde School and Rosbercon College, studying at the University of Melbourne (Dip.Ed., 1939) and working in radio drama.  When the 1937 Victorian poliomyelitis epidemic quarantined children at home, she seized the opportunity to establish an educational program on the radio station 3DB.  Known as 'the girl with a smile in her voice', she began a long association with broadcasting for children.

Lawson enlisted in the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force on 4 May 1942, becoming assistant staff officer at the Royal Australian Air Force school of administration.  Based at Ascot Vale, she worked at the WAAAF training depot, No.18 Radio Station and staff headquarters.  Appointed staff officer in December, she moved to RAAF Command in June 1944 and was in charge of a WAAAF contingent, serving as acting squadron officer from March to October 1945.  On 12 November she was placed on the Retired List.

Back at 3DB, Lawson resumed compering the 'Children’s Session', which flourished after the war, rivalling in Victoria the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s 'Argonauts' and promoting young, talented performers.  Her travel books, European Holiday (1949) and American Holiday (1954), were linked to the show and included experiences that had featured in the program.  She wrote numerous scripts for serials, often collaborating with Irene Shackcloth, the best remembered featuring a child-gang called 'The Fakamagangees'.  For a generation of listeners she was the delightful 'Aunty Jean'.

In 1959, facing competition from television, Lawson resigned from 3DB.  Ever resilient, she was appointed careers counsellor at Melbourne Church of England Girls' Grammar School.  She held the position until her retirement in 1976, serving as acting headmistress in 1964 and contributing to the cultural life of the school.  Together with various community activities, she was a frequent character actress in plays and revues staged by the Tin Alley Players at the University of Melbourne.  A long-standing member of the Lyceum Club (president 1971-73), she was an engaging raconteur.  For much of her life she lived with her parents, and in 1965 joined the Rayner sisters at Vermont.  On 24 June 1986 she died at Canterbury and was cremated.  In early adulthood she had left the Anglican faith for Christian Science but her funeral was conducted at St Dunstan's Anglican Church, Camberwell.

Select Bibliography

  • Listener-In, 10 January 1942, p 12
  • Listener-In, 6 December 1946, p 25
  • J. Lawson, Once It Was Like This! (ms, nd, State Library of Victoria)
  • R. McCarthy, With a Smile in Her Voice (M.Ed. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1996)
  • private information

Citation details

Rosslyn McCarthy, 'Lawson, Jean (1908–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lawson-jean-14067/text25042, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 28 May 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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