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Francis James Gillen (1855–1912)

by D. J. Mulvaney

This article was published:

Francis James Gillen (1855-1912), by unknown photographer, c1900

Francis James Gillen (1855-1912), by unknown photographer, c1900

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 38781

Francis James Gillen (1855-1912), ethnologist, was born on 28 October 1855 at Little Para, South Australia, eldest son of Thomas Gillen, agricultural labourer, and his wife Bridget, née McCan. His Irish parents had migrated to Australia in the year of his birth and settled at Clare. One of his brothers, Peter Paul Gillen, became commissioner of crown lands.

Gillen joined the public service in 1867 as a postal messenger at Clare. He was transferred to Adelaide in 1871, combining work as a telegraph operator with evening study at the South Australian School of Mines and Industries. He was the duty operator in 1874 when news was transmitted from Barrow Creek telegraph station of the fatal Aboriginal attack there. Gillen began work on the overland telegraph line in 1875, culminating with his appointment as Alice Springs post and telegraph station master in 1892. On 5 August 1891 he married Amelia Maude Besley at Mount Gambier; they had six children.

Gillen's boisterous Irish humour, his championship of Home Rule, his genial administrative efficiency in the Centre's senior command, combined with a sense of justice for Aboriginals, made him a celebrity. He hosted the earl of Kintore during his 1891 journey, and assisted the Horn Scientific Expedition to Central Australia in 1894. An inveterate gambler in mining shares, he promoted the Arltunga goldfield, but his Wheal Fortune syndicate lost heavily and share losses explain the sale of his ethnographic collection to the National Museum of Victoria in 1899. He donated further material in 1902.

As Alice Springs special magistrate and Aboriginal sub-protector, Gillen strove to ameliorate racial issues at a time when 'dispersal' was a convenient euphemism for murder: he travelled unarmed, and charged the notorious mounted Constable W. H. Willshire with Aboriginal homicide. Although Willshire was acquitted, he did not return to Alice Springs.

Gillen met the anthropologist (Sir) Baldwin Spencer in 1894, when Spencer was his guest after the Horn expedition departed. In Gillen's convivial, smoke-filled den, Spencer absorbed the protector's ethnographic lore. As editor of the Horn expedition volumes, Spencer prompted Gillen to contribute, and later urged fuller publication.

During the summer of 1896-97, Spencer returned to Alice Springs, where Gillen 'arranged' the performance of complex Aboriginal ceremonies. Their book, The Native Tribes of Central Australia (1899), won them acclaim overseas and influenced contemporary anthropological theory. (Sir) James Frazer became their patron and, following his petition to the South Australian and Victorian premiers in 1900, Gillen and Spencer obtained a year's leave. Next year they crossed the continent and attracted popular interest. Their last joint field-work occurred during a brief trip in 1903, north-west of Lake Eyre. These expeditions were published as The Northern Tribes of Central Australia (1904). The success of their anthropological team had depended initially upon acceptance by Aranda elders of Gillen's authority and paternalism.

Gillen wrote over 150 lengthy letters to Spencer by 1903, mostly ethnological in content and now in the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford. Spencer adapted this discursive material and stimulated Gillen to cross-check and supplement it. Although four titles were published under their joint authorship, Spencer was sole author and all the theory was his. At the 1900 Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science congress, Gillen was ethnology and anthropology section president; he also delivered several public lectures in South Australia and his important ethnographic photographs are in the South Australian Museum.

Family considerations forced his reluctant transfer as postmaster to Moonta in 1899 and to Port Pirie in 1908. His health failed and, from 1911, he was confined to an invalid chair. He died at Woodville on 5 June 1912, from a neurological disorder, aggravated by depression following the fatal accidental shooting of his eldest son. A Catholic, Gillen was buried in Sevenhill College cemetery near Clare.

Select Bibliography

  • W. F. Morrison, The Aldine History of South Australia (Syd, 1890)
  • W. B. Spencer and F. J. Gillen, Across Australia (Lond, 1912)
  • Gillen's Diary: The Camp Jottings of F. J. Gillen on the Spencer and Gillen Expedition Across Australia, 1901-1902 (Adel, 1968)
  • D. J. Mulvaney and J. H. Calaby, 'So much That is New': Baldwin Spencer, 1860-1929, a Biography (fMelb, 1985)
  • Quiz (Adelaide), 11 Sept 1903
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 6 June 1912
  • Register (Adelaide), 6 June 1912
  • F. J. Gillen, 1875 diary (South Australian Museum).

Citation details

D. J. Mulvaney, 'Gillen, Francis James (1855–1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Francis James Gillen (1855-1912), by unknown photographer, c1900

Francis James Gillen (1855-1912), by unknown photographer, c1900

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 38781

Life Summary [details]


28 October, 1855
Little Para, South Australia, Australia


5 June, 1912 (aged 56)
Woodville, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.