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Jessie Sinclair Litchfield (1883–1956)

by Barbara James

This article was published:

Jessie Sinclair Litchfield (1883-1956), by Lillian Dean

Jessie Sinclair Litchfield (1883-1956), by Lillian Dean

Roderick Collection, Northern Territory Library, PH0110/0588

Jessie Sinclair Litchfield (1883-1956), Northern Territory pioneer and author, was born on 18 February 1883 at Ashfield, Sydney, second child of John Phillips, contractor, and his wife Jean Sinclair, née Reid. The family lived in various country towns until 1895 when they returned to Sydney. Jessie attended Neutral Bay Public School, where one of her teachers was Mary Cameron, later Dame Mary Gilmore.

On 21 January 1908 at Darwin Jessie married Valentine Augustus Litchfield, a handsome miner she had met on a ship to Darwin. They moved wherever the diamond drills were sent, first to West Arm, then to Anson Bay, Brocks Creek, the Ironblow mine, the Union reefs and Pine Creek. Conditions were isolated and crude but Jessie became committed to Territory life. She wrote in 1909 to a Victorian church publication, the Messenger, describing her hardships: 'Chinese and blacks my nearest neighbours', eighty miles (129 km) from town by land, twenty (32 km) by sea, three (4.8 km) from the nearest white woman and two (3 km) from the nearest white man. Her plea for mission stations may have influenced the establishment of the Australian Inland Mission.

When the diamond drills finished, Val found work in Darwin with Vestey's meatworks. By the time of his death in 1931, Jessie, mother of seven, had written Far North Memories (Sydney, 1930) based on life in the diamond-drill camps. A passionate and prolific writer, she completed five books, as well as short stories, articles and verse. She advanced her career as a journalist when, desperately in need of an income, she overwhelmed objections and in 1930 captured the editorship of the Northern Territory Times and Government Gazette. Vigorous, self-reliant and enterprising, she edited the Times until June 1932 when it was purchased by its union-owned rival, the Northern Standard, with which Jessie, vociferously conservative and anti-communist, had fought many an ideological battle. She was Darwin press representative for several Australian and overseas papers, including Reuters for six years.

In February 1942 she was compulsorily evacuated to Sydney where she purchased a small lending library, 'The Roberta', that she reopened in self-built premises in Darwin after the war. A self-trained photographer and historian, she was something of a local expert on Territory affairs. Writing to influential people, she crusaded for Darwin, which she envisaged as 'the Great Front Door of Australia', and for Territory self-government. In 1951, when 68, she unsuccessfully contested the Territory Federal seat as an Independent, campaigning by taxi over 3000 miles (4828 km).

In 1953 Jessie Litchfield was presented with the coronation medal for outstanding service to the Northern Territory and in 1955 became its first female justice of the peace. In 1954 she helped to establish the North Australian Monthly, serving as assistant editor and Territory correspondent. She died on 12 March 1956 at Richmond, while on a visit to Melbourne, and was cremated. Her ashes were scattered over Darwin. Like most strong figures, Jessie had her critics but the flood of tributes included Dame Mary Gilmore's; 'She was a builder, an influence and an historian. Her interest never dulled and her spirit never failed. She personified the true Territorian'.

Her manuscripts and estate of £3000 were left to the Bread and Cheese Club, Melbourne, to establish an annual Jessie Litchfield literary award for Australian literature, preferably dealing with Territory life.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Dickinson, Jessie Litchfield—Grand Old Lady of the Territory (Brisb, 1982)
  • People (Sydney), 15 Aug 1951
  • Bohemia, 15, no 2 (Mar 1964)
  • Canberra Times, 12 Nov 1964
  • Northern Territory News, 4 Dec 1982
  • J. Litchfield papers (National Library of Australia)
  • MS 1424 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Barbara James, 'Litchfield, Jessie Sinclair (1883–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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