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Jeannie Gunn (1870–1961)

by Sally O'Neill

This article was published:

Jeannie Gunn (1870-1961), by unknown photographer

Jeannie Gunn (1870-1961), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B27404/7

Jeannie Gunn (1870-1961), author, was born on 5 June 1870 at Carlton, Melbourne, fifth child and fourth daughter of Thomas Johnstone Taylor, from Chapelton, Scotland, and his wife Anna, née Lush, from Ilchester, Somerset, England. Jeannie's father and grandfather were ordained Baptist ministers; her father served at Sandhurst (Bendigo) and Melbourne, but later went into business, and for some twelve years before his death in 1909 was on the staff of the Argus.

Jeannie was educated at home by her mother and at 17 matriculated at the University of Melbourne. In 1889 she and her sisters opened 'Rolyat' school at the family home in Creswick Street, Hawthorn. When it closed in 1896 Jeannie became a visiting teacher; her subjects included gymnastics and elocution. She was tiny, about 5 ft (153 cm), energetic and determined. Former pupils recalled listening for her light, springing step; outings with her were as 'exciting as setting off to the moon'.

In the late 1890s she met Aeneas James Gunn, eight years her senior; they were married with Presbyterian forms at Rolyat on 31 December 1901. Son of Rev. Peter Gunn (d.1864), who had migrated from Scotland in 1841 to minister to the Gaelic settlers around Melbourne, Aeneas was running the Prahran Free Library and writing articles for the Prahran Telegraph when Jeannie met him, but he had spent most of the 1890s in northern Australia. With his cousin Joseph Bradshaw ('a buccaneer of the old school') he had helped to establish sheep and cattle stations on the Prince Regent and Victoria rivers. He had explored the coast by sea and contributed his findings to scientific and geographical journals; on 25 November 1895 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, London. Just before his marriage he had become a partner in Elsey cattle station on the Roper River, some 300 miles (483 km) south of Darwin. He was to be the station's new manager, and on 2 January 1902 the couple sailed for Port Darwin.

In Palmerston (Darwin), Jeannie was assured that as a woman she would be 'out of place' on a station such as the Elsey, where news of the boss's marriage had already caused alarm. Nevertheless she insisted on accompanying her husband. Her pluck in tackling the journey, her sense of humour and her fine horsemanship won her the admiration and friendship of the stockmen. Unfortunately outback life lasted only thirteen months for the Gunns. On 16 March 1903 Aeneas died of malarial dysentery. In April Jeannie returned to Melbourne, where she lived with her father at Hawthorn.

In the next few years Jeannie wrote the two books that made her famous. Encouraged by friends who had read her letters and heard her tell stories to their children, she wrote (as Jeannie Gunn) The Little Black Princess: a True Tale of life in the Never-Never Land, about Bett-Bett, an Aboriginal child at the Elsey. The book was published in London and in Australia in 1905, with a new and revised English edition in 1909. In 1908 she published (as 'Mrs Aeneas Gunn') We of the Never-Never. Although entitled a novel, it was a re-creation of actual events; her main concession to fiction was the use of stylized names to veil the identity of her characters. It remains a fresh, affectionate and minutely observed account of tropical outback life which Australian readers readily assumed as part of their heritage. By 1945, 320,000 copies had been sold. In a plebiscite reported by the Melbourne Herald in 1931, Jeannie Gunn was ranked third among Australian novelists after Marcus Clarke and Rolf Boldrewood.

Both her books were adapted for schools; We of the Never-Never was translated into German in 1927. Over the years newspapers and magazine articles chronicled the fortunes of the Elsey characters; Jeannie outlived all but Bett-Bett. She wrote no more books although she planned one on the Aboriginal John Terrick and another on the Monbulk district of the Dandenongs, where she often stayed. In 1909-12 she travelled overseas, returning to live with her sisters at East Melbourne and later Hawthorn. During World War I and after, she was active in welfare work for soldiers, ex-servicemen and their families, especially those of the Monbulk area. She was patron of many fund-raising activities associated with ex-servicemen and in 1946 she helped to organize a club room and library for the Monbulk sub-branch of the Returned Sailors', Soldiers' and Airmen's Imperial League of Australia. In 1939 she was appointed O.B.E.

Jeannie Gunn died at Hawthorn on 9 June 1961 and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery after a service at Scots Church. Her estate, which included substantial royalties from her books, was valued for probate at £12,181.

Select Bibliography

  • I. Nesdale, The Little Missus (Adel, 1977)
  • Woman's World, 1 Sept 1927
  • Walkabout, 1 Nov 1944
  • Argus (Melbourne), 2 Dec 1905, 13 Nov 1908, 2 Feb 1909
  • Herald (Melbourne), 2 June 1931, 29 Jan 1940, 9 Oct 1948
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 11, 18 June 1961
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 12 June 1961
  • Age (Melbourne), 12 June 1961
  • Mrs Aeneas Gunn papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Sally O'Neill, 'Gunn, Jeannie (1870–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 14 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

Jeannie Gunn (1870-1961), by unknown photographer

Jeannie Gunn (1870-1961), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B27404/7

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Gunn, Mrs Aeneas
  • Taylor, Jeannie

5 June, 1870
Carlton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


9 June, 1961 (aged 91)
Hawthorn, Melbourne, 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.

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.