Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Jean Watson (1908–1993)

by K. A. Johnson

This article was published:

Jean Watson (1908–1993), typist, genealogist, and administrator, was born on 19 December 1908 at Newtown, Sydney, eldest of three children of New South Wales-born parents John Samuel Watson, boot machinist and musician, and his wife Ethel Lilly May, née Clark. Educated at Fort Street Girls’ High School, Jean wanted to study for a bachelor of arts degree at the University of Sydney, but family circumstances and later the Depression made this impossible.

Watson joined the Sydney office of the Royal Exchange Assurance as a typist in 1926. During her thirty-eight years with the company she rose to become head of personnel before retiring in 1965; she was then the most senior woman employed by the firm in Australia. In 1939 she was involved in the foundation of the Business and Professional Women’s Club of Sydney. She was also a long-standing member of the Royal Australian Historical Society, the National Trust of Australia (New South Wales), the Art Gallery Society of New South Wales, and the Garden Clubs of Australia.

In 1958 Watson joined the Society of Australian Genealogists. Founded in 1932, the society had developed Australia’s oldest genealogical research centre and library into the country’s largest. In its Golden Jubilee History, published in 1982, she contributed a chapter titled ‘The Search for a System—1963–1980.’ Typically, she was modest about her own contributions—including attendance four days a week for more than fifteen years without remuneration. She guided the society through a period of significant growth in its activities and standing. As honorary secretary (1963–81), she achieved three challenging moves of the library—in 1964, 1970–71, and 1977–78—as well as ensuring the society continued to function efficiently.

The editors of the society’s journal, Descent, valued Watson’s keen eye for accuracy and her proof-reading skills. A contributor to Descent, she also indexed its first volume and wrote thousands of cards for the society’s general index. She answered numerous queries for the editorial staff of the Australian Dictionary of Biography. In October 1971 she was elected a fellow of the society in recognition of her achievements in furthering its aims through research and publication.

With speed and resolve, Watson overcame two health setbacks—an operation to repair a detached retina in 1972 and a heart attack in 1979—to allow her to return to her work for the society as soon as possible. In 1979 she was awarded the BEM for services to the community. She retired in 1982, after almost nineteen years of service on the society’s council—including as vice-president during her final year—and was unanimously elected a vice-patron.

Keenly interested in English history, Watson was a staunch monarchist. She was an avid reader with an excellent memory, and a good conversationalist who enjoyed the company of interesting people. Theatre and ballet were among her pleasures. She was small in stature, and always well dressed. Her high standards led her to expect the same from others, but she was encouraging, supportive, and loyal to those who measured up. Neat and tidy by nature, she had a carpenter’s eye (as she explained it), straightening pictures when necessary. Until their deaths in 1961, she lived with her mother and younger sister in the family home at Neutral Bay; in 1972 she moved to Goodwin Village, Woollahra. She died on 5 September 1993 at Darlinghurst, Sydney, and was cremated with Anglican rites. The Jean Watson Room at Rumsey Hall, one of the society’s libraries in Kent Street, was named for her.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Johnson, Keith A. ‘Obituary: Miss Jean Watson B.E.M., F.S.A.G. (1908–1993).’ Descent 23, no. 4 (December 1993): 135–37
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Watson, Jean. ‘The Search for a System—1963–1980.’ In Golden Jubilee History: Society of Australian Genealogists 1932–1982, 53–65. [Australia]: Society of Australian Genealogists, [1982]

Citation details

K. A. Johnson, 'Watson, Jean (1908–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 30 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


19 December, 1908
Newtown, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


5 September, 1993 (aged 84)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


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.