Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Shirley Patricia (Pat) Riggs (1921–1998)

by Rod Kirkpatrick

This article was published online in 2023

Shirley Patricia Riggs (1921–1998), newspaper editor and shire councillor, was born on 21 February 1921 at Neutral Bay, Sydney, younger twin daughter and second of three children of New Zealand-born Lawrence Henry Cooper Riggs, railway department clerk, and his Victorian-born wife, Gladys Edith, née Phelps. Pat spent the first years of her life in Sydney, before the family moved to Bathurst in 1933 when her father became manager of the local railway refreshment rooms. Four years later they moved to Kempsey, where her father filled a similar role. Her mother served for fifty years in voluntary capacities with the Royal Far West Children’s Health Scheme from 1932. Educated at Bathurst and Kempsey West High schools, Pat was an excellent swimmer, who competed with success in State championships; aged sixteen, she saved a man from drowning. After leaving school, she attended business college in Sydney.

Returning to Kempsey, Riggs worked as a secretary at commercial radio station 2KM for two years. In 1941 she shifted back to Sydney, where she was employed in the publicity department of United Artists Film Co. Soon after the Japanese entered World War II in December 1941, she joined the Australian Women’s Army Service on 26 January 1942; although eligible for enlistment by age, she gave her date of birth as 21 February 1920. She performed administrative, training, and regimental duties in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, and South Australia. As an acting corporal (March 1942), she also edited the Weekly Whine, a publication for servicewomen, and Off Parade, a monthly. In February 1943 she was promoted to acting warrant officer, class two, and in June was commissioned as a lieutenant. From October 1944 to January 1946 she was program manager with the 1st Australian Broadcasting Control Unit in Sydney. She was demobilised on 8 April.

From 1946 Riggs worked in Perth in radio. She returned to Kempsey around three years later, before travelling to Europe and Britain for two years on a working holiday. Back in Australia in 1953, she managed her father’s Bowraville newsagency until he sold it. She then worked briefly in a factory, and in 1956 joined Kempsey’s broadsheet Macleay Argus; aged thirty-five, she believed herself the oldest cadet journalist on record. Within about five years, she became effectively the editor, but was labelled ‘associate editor’ because ‘they were terrified of women being responsible for anything’ (Riggs 1996). Three years before she retired in 1981, she officially became editor. During her time at the Argus, she won the Walkley award for provincial journalism in 1965 and 1966, and the Prodi award for regional journalism in northern New South Wales in 1968 and 1970. Through the paper she pursued rights for Indigenous Australians before that cause was widely supported.

For many years Riggs was ‘a fierce opponent of the cutbacks, amalgamations, service closures and government policies … seen to be devastating country towns’ (Horn 1998, 14). She believed strongly that provincial journalists and editors should identify with and understand the communities they served. ‘You must have the community’s pulse in your hand all the time,’ she said, adding that ‘you must be among them and you must respond to what they’re thinking’ (Riggs 1996). In the newsroom she expected her journalists to sacrifice other aspects of their lives for the sake of their profession. If they did not, she was capable of ‘reducing staff to tears with a single lash of her tongue’ (Henningham 2007). The Pat Riggs award for the best cadet journalist in the area was named for her.

Riggs was ‘forthright, honest and courageous,’ and possessed ‘a grand sense of humour’ (Horn 1998, 14). She was five feet five inches (165 cm) tall, with hazel eyes. For more than three decades she was a member of Quota International, for which she served as a district governor. In retirement at Crescent Head she served on the Kempsey Shire Council (1983–91). Despite being engaged on three occasions, she did not marry. She died on 12 March 1998 at Port Macquarie, and was cremated; a funeral service was held at All Saints’ Anglican Church, Kempsey. She is well remembered for her front-page Macleay Argus story on 1 April 1969 about the Russian fleet landing at Trial Bay. The associated picture included the Titanic and the Bounty, while the phrase ‘April fool’ was spelled backwards in several places. Scores of locals made haste to the area ‘to see, aid or confront’ (Horn 1998, 14) the non-existent Russians. Her obituary was published in the Australian on April Fools’ Day in 1998.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Henningham, Nikki. ‘Riggs, Shirley Patricia (Pat) (1921–1998).’ The Australian Women’s Register. Published 14 November 2007, last modified 20 November 2018. Accessed 22 August 2023. https://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/AWE2834b.htm. Copy held on ADB file
  • Horn, Chris. ‘Journalism’s Country Crusader.’ Australian, 1 April 1998, 14
  • Kirkpatrick, Rod. Country Conscience: A History of the New South Wales Provincial Press 1841–1995. Canberra: Infinite Harvest Publishing, 2000
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, N388996
  • Riggs, Shirley Patricia. Interview by Rod Kirkpatrick, 17 April 1996

Additional Resources

Citation details

Rod Kirkpatrick, 'Riggs, Shirley Patricia (Pat) (1921–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/riggs-shirley-patricia-pat-33465/text41845, published online 2023, accessed online 5 March 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Birth

21 February, 1921
Neutral Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Death

12 March, 1998 (aged 77)
Port Macquarie, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (leukemia)

Cultural Heritage

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