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Wighton, Rosemary Neville (Wody) (1925–1994)

by Margaret Allen

This article was published online in 2018

Rosemary Wighton, by Hazel de Berg, 1978

Rosemary Wighton, by Hazel de Berg, 1978

National Library of Australia, 48217027

Rosemary Neville Wighton (1925–1994), author, editor, lecturer, and public servant, was born on 6 January 1925 at St Peters, Adelaide, third child of Arthur Seaforth Blackburn, solicitor, and his wife Rose Ada, née Kelly, both South Australian born. ‘Wody,’ as she was known, was educated at the Wilderness School. She later recalled that her father and eldest brother, Richard, were avid readers and had influenced her love of literature. Proceeding to the University of Adelaide (BA Hons, 1945), she won the John Howard Clark prize for English literature (1945) and postgraduate scholarships in arts (1946, 1947), but did not complete a master’s degree. At university she felt she ‘came alive’ (1978). She developed progressive political views, and was ‘caught up in the tumultuous literary events’ (Ward 1994, 11) around the Angry Penguins magazine founded by her friend Max Harris.

On 22 May 1948 at St Peter’s College Chapel Blackburn married Dugald Craven Wighton, a medical student. She tutored in English at the university, both before and after her marriage. While caring for her young family, one of whom had special needs, she also worked in the Mary Martin Book Shop and edited two literary journals: the Australian Book Review (with Harris and briefly Geoffrey Dutton) from 1962, and Australian Letters (with Harris, Dutton, and Bryn Davies) from 1963. Together with her pioneering editorial work, she contributed reviews, often under pseudonyms such as ‘Martha Lemming.’ Outspoken in her opinions, she enjoyed spirited and passionate debate about politics, social issues, and literature. Through ABR she and Harris campaigned against literary censorship and the Anglo-American domination of the Australian book trade. Ultimately their views diverged and publication ceased in 1973.

Dismayed by the condescending reviews of children’s literature she read and was called on to edit, Wighton campaigned to have it recognised as a serious genre of writing. Her study Early Australian Children's Literature appeared in 1963, and she selected stories for inclusion in her collection Kangaroo Tales. She reviewed children’s books for the Australian Broadcasting Commission and from 1971 to 1979 lectured in children’s literature at Salisbury Teachers’ College (later College of Advanced Education). Continuing her broader interest in literature, she served on the Writers’ Week committee of the Adelaide Festival of the Arts Inc. from 1966 (chair, 1976–80). Appointed to the Literature Board of the Australia Council (1974–78), she returned as its chair in 1984. Over the next six years she led with a ‘strong and forthright style during a period of considerable change’ (Shapcott 1994, 9) that saw writers’ studios established in Paris and Rome, and more funding for non-fiction fellowships. A strong supporter of the arts, she was a board member of the State Theatre Company of South Australia (chair, 1988–93), the Adelaide Festival (1978–94), and the Australia Council (1987–90).

In June 1979 Wighton was appointed as women’s adviser to the premier, one of only a few senior women in the State public service. Working with the Corcoran, Tonkin, and Bannon governments, she characterised herself as someone who toiled behind the scenes without public crusading. She listed her achievements as the establishment of the Adelaide Women’s Community Health Centre, the increase in the number of women’s advisers in the public service, and harnessing academic research to strengthen laws against domestic violence. She was also appointed to the State Sex Discrimination Board (1979) and the Federal Family Law Council (1983). From 1984 to 1988 she was deputy director-general of South Australia’s Department for Community Welfare. She initially focused on policy development around aged care, ethnic affairs, and childcare. In 1985 and 1986 she was a panel member of a review of adoption law that led to significant reform.

Warm, compassionate, and capable, Wighton deftly balanced her family responsibilities, employment, and board memberships, claiming ‘I thrive on being pushed’ (1985). Throughout her career she had supported her husband’s medical practice and together they ran cattle on a property at Dingaledinga. She was appointed AO in 1990. In retirement she wrote a family history, Peeling the Onion (1993). She died of breast cancer on 7 February 1994 in the Mary Potter Hospice, North Adelaide, and was cremated. Predeceased by her husband, she was survived by her three daughters and two sons.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Botten, Christobel. ‘It’s Time to Go: Top PS Woman.’ Advertiser (Adelaide), 12 January 1984, 2
  • Fatchen, Max. ‘Writers, from Day’s Start to End.’ Advertiser, 13 October 1977, 2
  • Hankel, Valmai. ‘Rosemary Neville Wighton, AO (Wody) 6 January 1925–7 February 1994.’ Adelaide Review, no. 124 (1994): 17
  • Kennedy, Alex. ‘Unexpected Adviser.’ Advertiser, 23 May 1979, 4
  • Shapcott, Thomas. ‘A Vigorous Life.’ Age, 12 February 1994, 9
  • Vardon, Sue. Eulogy, 10 February 1994. Transcript. Private collection
  • Ward, Peter. ‘Arts Pioneer Helped to Change Cultural Focus.’ Australian, 8 February 1994, 11
  • Wighton, Rosemary. Interview by Beate Ursula Josephi, 4 July 1985. State Library of South Australia
  • Wighton, Rosemary. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 2 March 1978. Transcript. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia

Additional Resources

Citation details

Margaret Allen, 'Wighton, Rosemary Neville (Wody) (1925–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wighton-rosemary-neville-wody-27655/text35184, published online 2018, accessed online 15 October 2019.

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