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Skillen, Elizabeth (1879–1970)

by Bruce Mitchell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Elizabeth Skillen (1879-1970), educationist, was born on 22 February 1879 at Tangorin, near Maitland, New South Wales, eldest of four children of William Orr Skillen, Scottish born storekeeper, and his wife Una, née Murdoch. She was educated at Dungog Public School and from September 1895 was a pupil-teacher at Clarence Town until December 1897 before returning to Dungog (1898). She won scholarships in 1900 to Hurlstone Training College and next year to the University of Sydney (B.A., 1904).

On graduating with first-class honours in English, Elizabeth Skillen joined the staff at Hurlstone and in 1906 became lecturer in English at the new Teachers' College, Sydney, established at Blackfriars. She took a diploma of education at the university in 1913, soon after the qualification was offered, was promoted senior lecturer in 1916 and visited Britain in 1920. From 1917 she also lectured on English literature for the university's department of tutorial classes and impressed Meredith Atkinson with her ability.

Remembered as 'a dainty, slender, auburn-haired girl', Miss Skillen revelled in 'the mutual trust and respect' created at Teachers' College by the principal, Alexander Mackie, and in the belief that their mission was (in her words) 'to evolve, for the children of New South Wales a teaching service capable of training a fine democracy (We hoped within ourselves the finest democracy on Earth!)'. She had a 'remarkable gift for story telling' which she used to teach small children. In a lecture to the National Council of Women of New South Wales she drew attention to the importance of the oral story to 'the Norse, Greeks, Hebrews, and Celts for the purpose of better expressing national ideas and ideals'. She pioneered Australian Broadcasting Commission school broadcasts in 1934.

To her college students and especially her adult education classes, Miss Skillen managed to impart some of her 'deep love of English literature'. She had learned early that 'if a teacher has something really worth while to communicate and cares deeply for those to whom she would communicate it, a quiet, unobtrusive method is the most fitting'. Further promoted in 1925, she became head of the department of English and was appointed warden of women students in 1936. At her farewell on retiring in 1943, she said that her forty-eight years of service with the department had been 'sheer, delightful fun'. She continued to lecture for the department of tutorial classes until 1953 and was appointed M.B.E. in 1958.

Elizabeth Skillen died at Roseville on 17 February 1970 and was cremated. In a sensitive valedictory Sir Harold Wyndham remembered her humour and the 'genuinely humble person' who could become as hard as Scotch granite on a question of principle. A member of the foundation staff at Teachers' College, known for its quality, Elizabeth Skillen found complete satisfaction in teaching, rather than in pursuing an academic career. Her portrait (1958) by Judy Cassab is held by the Sydney Institute of Education.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Wyndham, Elizabeth Skillen, 1879-1970 (privately printed, no date, copy at State Library of New South Wales)
  • Australian Highway, Feb 1954
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 June 1921, 19 Mar 1936, 27 Aug 1943, 12 June 1958, 19 Feb 1970
  • E. Skillen, letter to H. S. Wyndham, 28 Oct 1958 (DOC 2241, State Library of New South Wales)
  • teachers' records, Dept of Education (New South Wales) archives, Sydney.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Bruce Mitchell, 'Skillen, Elizabeth (1879–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/skillen-elizabeth-8445/text14845, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 20 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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