Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Helen Elizabeth Gillan (1873–1955)

by Kate Gray

This article was published:

Helen Elizabeth Gillan (1873?-1955), voluntary worker and social reformer, was born probably in 1873 at Glendonald, Victoria, third of six children of Alexander Gillan and his wife Elizabeth, née Galloway, both from County Antrim, Ireland. Helen was educated at the local school, where her father was a teacher.

One of an expanding number of women to earn their living in white-collar clerical and administrative jobs in the early twentieth century, Gillan was also involved in social reform and welfare through her association with the National Council of Women of Victoria, on which she represented the Women Clerks and Typistes' Association. From 1927 to 1951 she was honorary treasurer of the State branch of the N.C.W. In 1929 she travelled to England and Scotland where she undertook a study of one of her greatest interests, the care of intellectually disabled children; on her return, she spoke on the subject at N.C.W. meetings. Another of her particular interests was the reform of laws relating to marriage and divorce; in 1933 she represented the council at a meeting of the Alimony Reform Association.

That year she became honorary treasurer of the Women's Centenary Council, set up largely by the N.C.W. in protest at the Victorian government's all-male Centenary Celebrations Council. Among other things, the council was responsible for the construction of the Pioneer Women's Memorial Garden in the Domain, Melbourne, and for the publication of the Centenary Gift Book (1934). Her activities extended beyond Victoria: in 1931 she had also been elected honorary secretary of the National Council of Women of Australia.

Gillan's major contribution to public life was her work during World War II with the Women's Voluntary National Register. Recognizing the importance of unpaid labour to the impending war effort, the Federal government established the register on 24 March 1939 in an office in the Melbourne Town Hall. The scheme was administered by the N.C.W., largely through the efforts of Gillan herself as honorary registrar and that of her long-time friend 'Minnie' Williamson as honorary secretary. Thousands of volunteer women workers contributed their labour in the evenings as clerks and typists for government service and production departments. The task undertaken by Gillan and Williamson was a massive one; by November 1944, when it officially closed, the Victorian office had recorded some 30,000 names.

At the end of World War II Gillan compiled A Brief History of the National Council of Women of Victoria, 1902-1945, chronicling the activities of the organization to which she had contributed so much. In 1945 she was listed among a handful of N.C.W. members who had been awarded the council's gold badge for long service. A bespectacled woman of kindly appearance, Helen Gillan never married, and little is known of her private life or family. In 1951 she retired to Nyora, Gippsland. She died on 30 October 1955 in a convalescent hospital at Loch and was cremated with Methodist forms.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Fraser and N. Palmer (eds), Centenary Gift Book (Melb, 1934)
  • A. Norris, Champions of the Impossible (Melb, 1977)
  • K. Darian-Smith, On the Home Front (Melb, 1990)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 27 Mar 1929
  • K. F. Gray, The Acceptable Face of Feminism: The National Council of Women of Victoria, 1902-18 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1988)
  • National Council of Women of Victoria papers (held by the council, Melbourne).

Citation details

Kate Gray, 'Gillan, Helen Elizabeth (1873–1955)', 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

Life Summary [details]


Glendonald, Victoria, Australia


30 October, 1955 (aged ~ 82)
Loch, Victoria, 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.