Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Rowland Skemp (1900–1966)

by Gwenda M. Webb and Peter G. Webb

This article was published:

John Rowland Skemp (1900-1966), naturalist and social historian, was born on 2 July 1900 at Launceston, Tasmania, son of Benjamin Rowland Skemp, a farmer from England, and his native-born wife Florence, née Kearney, a descendant of Van Diemen's Land pioneers William Kearney and Esh Lovell. His father and uncle owned a small farm at Myrtle Bank, near Launceston. At Myrtle Bank State School, Jack was taught by his mother who encouraged his interest in natural history. He went on to Launceston State High School and the University of Tasmania (B.Sc., 1924). Interrupting his studies in 1921, he worked for the Education Department as a temporary teacher in charge of primary schools at Fonthill and Myalla, and as an assistant at Huonville and Burnie High schools. He resigned at the end of 1922 to complete the surveying requirements needed for his degree. After a brief trip to Britain and Europe in 1924, he returned to the family farm. He remained a bachelor.

In 1939 Skemp rejoined the department as education officer at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston. He gave talks on natural history to visiting school parties and toured country schools in northern Tasmania with an exhibition of specimens—live, stuffed and bottled—with which he 'fascinated and bewitched children'. In late 1946 his post was abolished, and he took leave to care for his ailing father and uncle. In 1949 he resigned from the department. His first book, Memories of Myrtle Bank (Melbourne, 1952), a record of his father's and uncle's farming experiences, was a sensitive and amusing depiction of people and life in a rural community. In addition, he edited a selection of his father's verse, Poems of a Pioneer (Launceston, 1954). While employed as a science teacher at Launceston Technical High School (1955) and Scottsdale District School (1955-59), he produced Letters to Anne (Melbourne, 1956), a book based on the correspondence received by his grandmother in 1846-72, and Tasmania Yesterday and Today (Melbourne, 1958).

In his retirement Skemp lived at Myrtle Bank and continued to write about nature and local history. With T. E. Burns, he edited Van Diemen's Land Correspondents (Launceston, 1961), which contained letters from R. C. Gunn, Sir John Franklin, Jorgen Jorgenson, R. W. Lawrence and others to Sir William Hooker, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London. Much of Skemp's other work complemented the Tasmanian school syllabus: 'A History of the North-West Coast', serialized in Tasmanian Education (1962-66), and A History of Deloraine (Launceston, 1964). He wrote three articles for the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Although something of a hermit, Skemp was an empathetic and pleasant man who enjoyed cricket. A member (1932-36 and 1954-66) of the Royal Society of Tasmania, he was also a founding member of the Launceston Field Naturalists Club. He died of cancer on 12 May 1966 at Launceston. His body was bequeathed for scientific research and later cremated; his Myrtle Bank property was left to the Field Naturalists Club; his last book, My Birds (Launceston, 1970) was published posthumously.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Robson, A History of Tasmania, vol 2 (Melb, 1991)
  • Papers and Proceedings (Tasmanian Historical Research Association), vol 3, no 1, 1954, p 12
  • Examiner (Launceston), 14 May 1966
  • Mercury (Hobart), 16 May 1966
  • private information.

Citation details

Gwenda M. Webb and Peter G. Webb, 'Skemp, John Rowland (1900–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


2 July, 1900
Launceston, Tasmania, Australia


12 May, 1966 (aged 65)
Launceston, Tasmania, Australia

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