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Fraser, Helen Whitten (1921–2012)

by Andrew Fraser

from Obituaries Australia

Helen Fraser, by Anna Smith, 1959

Helen Fraser, by Anna Smith, 1959

photo supplied by Andrew Fraser

Helen Whitten Fraser MBE was a newsagent and bookseller who came to Canberra when she married the local Member of Parliament.

Mrs Fraser, who has died at the age of 91, continued her connection with words in Canberra, working at the National Library and later as a volunteer at St Mark’s Theological Library, Barton.

Born Helen Rowland in Glen Innes, in NSW’s New England region, she met her future husband, Jim Fraser, when her family invited the then journalist to play tennis on the family court in 1937. She was 16 and he 29.

Their courtship would last 22 years, spanning World War II (in which Fraser served in the 2/1 Field Regiment) and Fraser’s election to the House of Representatives in 1951.

Before her marriage, Mrs Fraser worked in the family business, a newsagency, taking over upon the deaths of her father and uncle (within six months of each other), thereby becoming the only female newsagent in NSW. The fact that she excelled in the role was not enough for the Newsagents Registration Board, which directed that the business be sold to a new (male) owner – but not before Helen had made her case, forcefully, to the then head of the board, Rupert Henderson, chief of John Fairfax & Sons.

The Fraser marriage was in Brisbane, where Helen sold books for a time for Thompsons, and the new bride came to a very different world – Canberra in 1959, on the arm of the small city’s only parliamentary representative.

It was a unique time and place: one MHR, no Senators, no state nor local government. This was going to be a very public existence for the girl from Glen Innes.

Helen became Regional Commissioner of the Girl Guides, where she had to handle the wide bureaucracy that was the Department of the Interior, and patron of many clubs, including football, netball and softball, but particularly bowling (although never having been a bowler herself). While the roles fell to her initially as the wife of the local Member, so loved in them did she become that she was asked to stay on long after Jim’s death. She was made a Member of the British Empire, for community service, in 1970.

After Jim’s death the same year, Helen returned to work, first in the Rare Book and Manuscript sections of the National Library, where she made, and reforged, friendships that lasted the rest of her life.

Helen’s humour was never far from the surface, developed across decades working with the written word, and always deployed incisively.

Whether it was battling the unyielding head of the newsagents’ board, pursuing an errant bureaucrat, guiding a difficult colleague or sticking up for herself, and her nation, against a slightly stuffy official at a Lord’s Test, Helen never backed off.     

She often said more by saying less. When her son, then 18 and recently made a cadet at The Canberra Times, told of the dual requirements for everything he filed, Helen, then 58, and widowed almost a decade, listened carefully.

Everything, the son relayed, had to be able to be understood by “a 14-year-old boy, or a little old lady in Narrabundah’’. This, he felt, was a pretty tough ask.

But Helen nodded knowingly. It wouldn’t be a problem: “You’re not much older than the first one – and you’re living with the second!’’

Helen Fraser is survived by her son, Andrew, daughter-in-law Catriona Jackson and grandchildren Joel, Meg, Charlie and Stella. 

Original publication

  • Obituaries Australia, 2012

Other Obituaries for Helen Whitten Fraser

Citation details

Andrew Fraser, 'Fraser, Helen Whitten (1921–2012)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/fraser-helen-whitten-14663/text25808, accessed 12 December 2018.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2018

Helen Fraser, by Anna Smith, 1959

Helen Fraser, by Anna Smith, 1959

photo supplied by Andrew Fraser