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Ada Jean Hounsell Williamson (1891–1977)

by Valerie Lawson

This article was published:

Ada Jean Hounsell Williamson (1891-1977), journalist, was born on 31 October 1891 at Belmont, New South Wales, eldest of five children of native-born parents John Alexander Williamson, contractor, and his wife Ada Mary Theobald, née Hannell. Known as Jean, to distinguish her from her mother, she was privately educated at Newcastle. She began her career as a freelance contributor to the Australian Town and Country Journal, Evening News and Sunday Sun. In 1916 she joined the staff of the Sydney-based Farmer and Settler newspaper, where for two years she conducted the women's page. John Fairfax & Sons Ltd offered her a cadetship on the Sydney Morning Herald in 1918. She soon succeeded Florence Baverstock as social editor, working in a tiny corner of the Herald building, which she maintained was the office broom-cupboard.

Baverstock's daughter Dolly, who worked with Williamson, remembered her as 'a big, lazy, sweet-natured woman' who never seemed flustered. She was easy going, forthright, sometimes bawdy, and jovial with her fellow workers. Often absent from work, due to illness, she was dismissed in November 1919. In a letter begging for reinstatement, she explained that 'last year was an abnormal year for me. The week I joined the staff, my fiancé, Lt Atkinson, died as a result of disease contracted while on active service. Then sickness was rampant in my own home, so that the loss I sustained and general worries all brought about my breakdown, rather than the strenuousness of my duties'. Allowed to continue, she was promoted to 'senior grade' in 1926 and A grade by 1929. She was a staunch member of the Australian Journalists' Association. In 1927 she covered the opening of Parliament House in Canberra by the Duke of York, receiving a special dress allowance of £20.

Williamson joined the staff of (Sir) Frank Packer and E. G. Theodore's new magazine, the Australian Women's Weekly, in June 1933. Expecting to be an administrative editor, she was surprised when asked to take charge of fiction. By 1934, she edited a page entitled 'New Books'. She recalled: 'I didn't like it at first but there came an upsurge of excitement when country women began writing such intimate letters saying how The Weekly enriched their lives—revealing unconsciously their loneliness. I began to think of the shortage of lighter-type reading matter in my family home in the country and my ideas changed'.

In 1936 Packer and Theodore established Consolidated Press Ltd, which took over the Weekly, and in March launched the revamped Daily Telegraph. They appointed Williamson as one of its 'Ten Brilliant Editors', describing her as combining 'a rare understanding of women's interests with a polished newspaper technique'. After organizing the enlarged women's section, she soon returned to the Weekly as fiction editor. She selected weekly serials by such well-known authors as Dornford Yates (1934), Agatha Christie (1943), Duff Cooper (1949) and Georgette Heyer (1954), as well as three or four short stories per issue. Few writers were Australian, although she did include works by Dorothy Cottrell and Nevil Shute in the 1950s.

By the time Jean Williamson retired in 1959 the formula had scarcely changed. Her hobby was breeding prize-winning poultry. She died on 14 January 1977 at the Masonic Hospital, Ashfield, and was cremated. She had never married.

Select Bibliography

  • D. McNicoll, Luck's a Fortune (Syd, 1979)
  • D. O'Brien, The Weekly (Melb, 1982)
  • V. Lawson, Connie Sweetheart (Melb, 1990)
  • Newspaper News, 2 Mar 1936, p 15, 10 July 1959, p 1
  • Journalist, Mar 1977, p 5
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 17 Mar 1936, p 5
  • John Fairfax Group Pty Ltd Archives, Sydney.

Citation details

Valerie Lawson, 'Williamson, Ada Jean Hounsell (1891–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 15 July 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

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