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James, Barbara (1943–2003)

by David Carment

Barbara James, a longstanding and much loved member of the Historical Society of the Northern Territory, died in Darwin after a courageous battle with cancer on 31 March 2003. I valued her as a good friend and a fellow historian for whom I had enormous respect. She was also a journalist, political activist, environmentalist, writer and key figure in numerous community organisations. Her funeral at Darwin’s Christ Church Cathedral attracted hundreds of mourners. There were eulogies from Bob Collins, the only Territorian to serve as a Commonwealth minister, and Clare Martin, the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory. Both knew Barbara well and owed much to her.

Barbara was born on 8 November 1943 at Holdrege, Nebraska, United States of America. Her Swedish ancestors came to Nebraska among the early European pioneers. She was keenly interested in her family history, visiting Sweden to undertake research on it. After receiving a degree in English and Journalism, she travelled to Australia in 1966 and came to live in Darwin a year later. Finding work as a journalist, she became very interested in Northern Territory history and from the late 1970s wrote many well-researched and popular newspaper articles on local historical topics. In the mid 1980s she completed a Northern Territory history subject I taught at the Darwin Institute of Technology although I learned much more from her than she did from me. She was an energetic and effective office bearer in the National Trust of Australia (Northern Territory), a founder of the Professional Historians Association (Northern Territory) and an Australian Heritage Commissioner.

She was typically modest about her historical work, sometimes commenting that she was conscious of her lack of a postgraduate qualification. Academic and professional historians, however, had a particularly high regard for her research and writing. Perhaps her most noteworthy contributions were in the area of women’s history. Her award winning book No Man’s Land: Women of the Northern Territory appeared in 1989 and was a best seller. It will re-appear soon as a revised edition. Other important contributions included Elsie Bohning: The Little Bush Maid (1990), Occupation Citizen: The Story of Northern Territory Women and the Vote (1894-1896) (1995) and (with Helen Wilson) ‘Fit for the Gentler Sex’: A Social and Site History of the Settlement of Darwin and its Environs. A Commemoration of the Contribution Women Have Made to the Territory (1997). She worked as a historian for the Northern Territory Trades and Labour Council regarding International Women’s Year and undertook research on women pioneers such as Esther Meaney and Eileen Fitzer. Barbara, Helen Wilson and I shared a strong interest in the colourful ‘father, brother, uncle, aunt’ of  nineteenth century Darwin, John George Knight, that resulted in our joint publications Territorian: The Life and Work of John George Knight (1993) and The Real Live Resident: The Annotated Letters of John George Knight (1994). Barbara and I also jointly edited the second volume of the Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography (1992). She made a remarkable contribution to all three volumes of the Dictionary, writing 39 articles for it. Her Darwin’s Hotel Victoria – Its Life and Legends (1990) and The Residency and its Residents: The Story of Darwin’s House of Seven Gable (1990) are fascinating contributions to social history. Other strong interests towards the end of her life were reflected in her chapters 'The Story of a Territory "Object Lesson" in Federation" and ‘Federation and “Faith”: The Story of Darwin’s Wesleyan Methodist Church in the Foundation Years (1897-1902)’ in Lesley Mearns and Leith Barter (editors), Progressing Backwards: The Northern Territory in 1901 (2002).

Barbara was a great supporter of other historians. Generous in making her voluminous research materials available to others, she was also extraordinarily patient with the numerous University History students who sought her help. She was a regular attendee at Historical Society lectures, Northern Territory University History seminars and launches of books on Northern Territory history. Her assistance to historians at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory was of immense value. Much of my own historical work would not have been possible without Barbara’s support. The field of Territory history will be considerably poorer with her passing. She is already very greatly missed.

Original publication

  • Journal of Northern Territory History, no 16, 2005, 2005

Citation details

David Carment, 'James, Barbara (1943–2003)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/james-barbara-524/text525, accessed 16 November 2018.

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