Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mathews, Janet Elizabeth (1914–1992)

by Martin Thomas

This article was published online in 2016

This is a shared entry with Francis Mackenzie Mathews

Janet Elizabeth Mathews (1914–1992), music teacher and recorder of Indigenous culture, was born on 18 January 1914 at Wollongong, New South Wales, only child of Irish-born James Wilson Russell, solicitor, and his New South Wales-born wife Mary Irene, née McLelland. Her Protestant grandfather, Charles Coffey Russell, was an occasional fiction writer and author of The Ulsterman (1923), an ethnological treatise on the Northern Irish. Janet was raised at Ardeen, her parents’ home in Smith Street, Wollongong, where she had a governess but was schooled by her mother. Mary Russell was a talented pianist and fostered Janet’s deep engagement with music. When Janet was twelve the family travelled to Britain and Europe, attending many concerts. Heading homeward, she drew inspiration from a fellow passenger, Alfred Francis Hill, who gave lectures and violin recitals during the voyage.

Completing her education at Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Sydney (1927–28), and Frensham, Mittagong (1929–30), Janet focused on the piano, resulting in indifferent performance in other subjects. In 1931 she commenced the diploma course at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, where Laurence Godfrey Smith was her piano teacher and Hill taught harmony. Compositions for two pianos were her great love; she performed with her mother on occasion. With professional engagements forthcoming, she never finished her diploma. She played regularly with the Sydney String Quartet, and formed the first music club in Wollongong.

In 1935 Russell went to London and then Paris where she began a musical collaboration with a distant cousin, Blanche Dassonville, a graduate of the Geneva Conservatoire. The women performed two-piano works, mainly at private functions. Returning to Australia, on 3 December 1936 Russell married Francis Mackenzie Mathews (1903–1982), a mechanical engineer, with Presbyterian forms at her parents’ Wollongong home. They had three children.

Born at East Maitland, New South Wales, on 13 July 1903, Frank Mathews was the second of three surviving children of Hamilton Bartlett Mathews, surveyor, and his wife Enid Chatfield, née Mackenzie, both born in New South Wales. He studied mechanical and electrical engineering at the University of Sydney (BE, 1925), before joining Australian Iron and Steel Ltd in the Port Kembla steel works in 1935. From 1950 until his retirement in 1968 he was chief engineer. Well known in higher and technical education, he played a vital role in improving tertiary training facilities in Wollongong after World War II. He was central to the establishment of Wollongong University College and he served as councillor (1949–81) and deputy chancellor (1976–81) of the University of New South Wales (Hon.DSc, 1962). He was a member of the Library Board of New South Wales and chairman (1966–81) of the Standards Association of Australia.

Like Janet, Frank was descended from Irish Protestants. His father was surveyor-general (1927–36) of New South Wales, and his grandfather, Robert Hamilton Mathews, was a prosperous surveyor and pioneer anthropologist. Janet never met her grandfather-in-law, but the Mathews name, and the connection with the anthropologist, who was still remembered in Aboriginal communities, proved significant when she became involved in Aboriginal studies.

Marriage and the arrival of children effectively ended Mathews’s career as a performer, but her commitment to musicianship was undiminished. From 1954 she taught piano from their Wollongong home; Dutch-born Gerard Willems became her most celebrated student. In the early 1960s an old friend, the Liberal parliamentarian William Charles Wentworth, urged Mathews to become involved in the planned Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (AIAS). Wentworth was convinced that with her musical sensibility she was ideally placed to document Aboriginal song.

Mathews became one of the first generation of AIAS researchers, contributing to the institute’s audio archive as a freelance sound recordist and interviewer. It was a turning point in her life, for her experience and knowledge of Aboriginal people had until that time been negligible. Established by the Federal parliament in 1964, the early AIAS was a product of the assimilationist policies of the period. Until Aboriginal activists forced a reinvention, its purpose was to salvage and preserve ‘dying’ customs as a future national resource. While Mathews was an heir to this orthodoxy, and never queried it directly, her work undermined some cardinal assumptions on which it was based. The salvage project privileged the cultures of Aboriginal people in northern and Central Australia over the long colonised south-east; people of full Aboriginal descent were seen as more authentic than people of mixed ancestry. Mathews’s recordings, all made in New South Wales, often with people of mixed parentage, contain invaluable evidence of post-contact music and other aspects of Aboriginal life.

The AIAS supplied a tape recorder—‘huge, bulky things’ (Mathews 1987, 8)—and trained Mathews in recording techniques. She began her fieldwork in 1964 on the New South Wales south coast in the traditional estates of Dharawal- and Dhurga-speaking peoples. Her first field report intimates the challenges and possibilities of the years ahead: Jimmy Little (father of the popular singer of the same name) played gum leaf; a Wallaga Lake elder, Bert Penrith, spoke fluent Dhurga; elsewhere she encountered obstructiveness, drunkenness, shyness, and suspicion. Descendants of Emma Timbery, who taught Dharawal to R. H. Mathews, were the first to connect Janet to her earlier namesake. They spread word of the association and she found that work on the coast became easier.

Patrician in style and Anglo in accent, Mathews was an unlikely visitor to the often-troubled Aboriginal settlements and former missions. The juxtaposition of class and ethnicity can be heard in the interviews, often with hilarious effect. Where possible, she made an advantage of her incongruity. Known always as ‘Mrs Mathews,’ she maintained the same formality in addressing interviewees who warmed to these basic courtesies. Being mature, upper class, and impeccably respectable, she won the confidence of superintendents and others who still controlled access to Aboriginal people. Police admitted her to their lockups where inmates sang for the recorder. Mathews was intrepid and utterly fearless, willing to comb the tenements of Redfern for interviewees, or drive solo to north-west New South Wales. Attacked by a dog on the Aboriginal reserve at Bourke, she fought to ensure the canine offender was not put down, winning credit from the Aboriginal residents and gaining the trust of informants: ‘the dog episode was quite fortunate for everything except my leg’ (AIATSIS, PMS 4322).

Encouraged by the professional linguists Luise Hercus and Lynette Oates, Mathews expanded her initial brief of documenting music; her tapes contain linguistic and historical data of inestimable value. Between 1964 and 1976 she contributed 180 hours of recordings to the AIAS audio archives, containing testimony from more than eighty Aboriginal people.

Where possible Mathews encouraged people to preserve their culture on their own terms. Jimmie Barker was a Muruwari speaker whom she met in Brewarrina in 1968. He had bought his own tape recorder with the idea of making a ‘dictionary of words’ (AIATSIS, PMS 4322). Mathews corresponded with him and archived tapes that he recorded independently. By 1972 she could advise the institute that Barker had produced more than one hundred tapes containing ‘language, legends, customs and everything he can remember about the Murawari tribe’ (AIATSIS, PMS 4328). Following his death she developed a book from the recordings, The Two Worlds of Jimmie Barker (1977), which awakened many Australians to the racism and violence experienced by Aboriginal people.

After Frank Mathews retired in 1968, he and Janet moved to Sydney, where she remained until her death. She wrote three children’s books on Aboriginal themes and, after Frank died in 1982, arranged for the family’s holdings of R. H. Mathews’s papers to be donated to the National Library of Australia. Survived by her two daughters and son, Mathews died on 1 January 1992 at Neutral Bay, and was cremated. Her last book, The Opal that Turned into Fire, inspired by the writings of her grandfather-in-law, was published posthumously in 1994.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). PMS 4326 (1964)
  • PMS 4322 (1968)
  • PMS 4328 (1972)
  • Koch, Grace, and Luise Hercus. ‘Obituary: Janet Mathews.’ Australian Aboriginal Studies 1 (1992): 106–7
  • Mathews, Janet. ‘A Lifetime of Music.’ Con Viva 1, no. 2 (1987): 6–8
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘AI&S Chief Engineer was a Leader in Education.’ 3 December 1982, 12
  • Thomas, Martin. The Many Worlds of R. H. Mathews: In Search of an Australian Anthropologist. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2011
  • Thomas, Martin. ‘“To You Mrs Mathews”: The Cross-Cultural Recordings of Janet Mathews.’ Australasian Sound Archive, no. 29 (Winter 2003): 46–59
  • Upton, Susan (née Mathews). Personal communication.

Citation details

Martin Thomas, 'Mathews, Janet Elizabeth (1914–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mathews-janet-elizabeth-15479/text26693, published online 2016, accessed online 22 January 2018.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Russell, Janet Elizabeth
Birth

18 January 1914
Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia

Death

1 January 1992
Neutral Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation