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Melicent Jane (Jean) Ellis (1887–1974)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published:

Jean Ellis, c.1945

Jean Ellis, c.1945

photo provided by family

Melicent Jane (Jean) Ellis (1887-1974), founder of the Penguin Club, was born on 23 March 1887 in Brisbane, seventh child of English-born parents James William Ayscough, pharmaceutical chemist, and his second wife Catherine, née Lowe. Jean attended Brisbane Girls' Grammar School in 1899-1901, then lived at home. After the death of her sister, she embroidered church vestments to earn the £50 premium to train as a nurse. Instead, on 25 April 1914 at St Luke's Anglican Church, Brisbane, she married a journalist Malcolm Henry Ellis; their daughter Frances was born next year. Moving to Sydney in December 1920, Jean attended tutorial classes in psychology and economics at the University of Sydney. The family spent 1926-27 in Britain. Back in Sydney, they lived at Mosman; she swam every morning before breakfast, played tennis and sailed their 22-footer (6.7 m), Penguin. Inspired by Zoe Benjamin, she joined the Woolloomooloo Free Kindergarten committee (president 1929-34).

After her divorce in 1939, Jean lived with Frances in a flat at Potts Point. To augment her small income, she lectured on public speaking, chairmanship and committee-procedure to such organizations as the New South Wales College of Nursing and the Council of Jewish Women of New South Wales. Early in 1941 she was asked to establish centres to make large, mesh camouflage nets from sisal twine for the army. She started the Central Netting Depot in the ballroom of Mark Foy's Ltd, soon transferring to Anthony Hordern & Sons Ltd. By mid-1945 she was running fifty centres which had supplied thousands of nets.

In December 1937 Mrs Ellis and her diffident friend Dorothy, wife of C. T. Parkinson, had founded the Penguin Club to train women to speak fluently in public. Jean took over as president next year. She had 'a clear, beautifully modulated voice that carried easily' and insisted on 'the correct use of the English language'. Despite the difficulties of wartime travel, she visited Melbourne (January 1942) and Perth (June 1945) to form interstate branches. As federal president and honorary organizer of the Penguin Club of Australia from February 1945, 'Mother Penguin' forbade changes to the rules and demanded absolute obedience. She tried to attend a meeting daily in Sydney, annually visited country areas and most States and Territories, and twice flew to the Territory of Papua and New Guinea to establish groups in Port Moresby (1968) and at Mount Hagen (1969). Well-known 'Penguins' included Mary Tenison Woods, Gertrude Johnson and Margaret Whitlam.

Forceful, with an agile mind and a 'puckish sense of humour', Mrs Ellis revelled in any mental interplay. She was intolerant of fools and weaklings, abhorred carelessness and vulgarity, and stressed the importance of old-fashioned, ladylike behaviour. Although outwardly reserved and formal, she could also seem 'extraordinarily rude'. She infuriated many by her autocratic demeanour and proprietorial attitude to the club.

Having been a foundation member (1937) of the local British Drama League, she worked for the Industrial Arts Society, the Girls' Secondary Schools' Club and the Victoria League. In 1946 she joined the Australian Institute of International Affairs and served (1947-73) on its New South Wales council. Mrs Ellis was also a member of convocation (1964-74) of Macquarie University. She was appointed O.B.E. in 1963 and was invested by Queen Elizabeth II in Sydney.

Jean Ellis was small, with 'beautiful blue-grey eyes' and an 'Edwardian' appearance. An expert needlewoman, she dressed well—on a shoestring budget: in public her accessories always included a hat and immaculate white gloves. She had a fine contralto voice and enjoyed playing her cherished piano, its top covered with penguins—'big ones, little ones, cloth ones and china ones'. Survived by her daughter, she died on 6 July 1974 at Rose Bay and was cremated. Her portrait (1965) by Andrew Schlecht is held by the Mitchell Library.

Select Bibliography

  • R. M. James, Untamed by Time (Perth, 1987)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Jan 1963, 10 July 1974
  • Herald (Melbourne), 5 May 1963
  • Canberra Times, 22 Oct 1968
  • Mercury (Hobart), 17 Nov 1972
  • Age (Melbourne), 27 June 1973
  • private information.

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Ellis, Melicent Jane (Jean) (1887–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Jean Ellis, c.1945

Jean Ellis, c.1945

photo provided by family

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Ayscough, Melicent
  • Mother Penguin

23 March, 1887
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


6 July, 1974 (aged 87)
Rose Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.