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Jones, Helen Patricia (1926–2018)

Helen Patricia Jones, a fifth generation South Australian, was born on 5 September 1926 in Adelaide, South Australia, the eldest of six children (five daughters and a son) of Arthur and Myrtle Cashmore (née Grubb). Arthur Cashmore, a Master Baker, owned and operated a bakery on Henley Beach Road, Torrensville, not far from the family home at Lockleys.

Helen Jones was educated at Lockleys Primary School and at Walford House School, where inspiring female teachers fostered her interest in English and History. She went on to complete a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Political Science and History in 1948 at the University of Adelaide, whilst working as a cadet in the Barr Smith Library. Her academic mentor was Professor G.V. (Jerry) Portus whose lectures and radio talks piqued her interest in the history of education and labour. By 1950 she had commenced a Master of Arts and had started to lecture at the University in Political Institutions.

In 1949 she married Dr Geoffrey Jones, a radiologist, and, shortly thereafter put her academic life to one side to focus on her husband and their four children, Tom, Rosemary, Philip and Jennifer.

During the mid-1960s Jones returned to the University of Adelaide to complete her Masters in History, submitting her thesis The History of commercial education in South Australia with special reference to women, and graduating, in 1969. She then joined the staff of the Adelaide Kindergarten Training College as a lecturer in history; quickly establishing rapport with her enthusiastic students. During the 1970s she wrote twenty radio scripts for the ABC's education programmes on diverse subjects, partly inspired by Portus' example.

Helen Jones’s research into significant pioneers in women's education and political rights led her to enrol in 1974 as a PhD candidate in History at the University of Adelaide, in the field of education and the status of women in South Australia.

In 1975 Helen Jones became the first woman to join the South Australian Working Party of the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB), a role she continued until 2009.  In this role Helen significantly widened the pool of names for inclusion in the Dictionary, particularly through increasing the number of women whose lives and achievements were to be memorialised. Indeed, during her tenure on the ADB Working Party, South Australia earned the distinction of nominating, and including, a higher proportion of women than any other Working Party. Helen then proceeded to prepare many of the entries about the women whose inclusion she championed, eventually contributing 29 magnificent essays.  As well, Helen was very generous with her time, finding material, and encouraging and helping others (especially rising scholars) to undertake and complete the writing on other subjects she had come across in the course of her research.   

In 1982, Jones was awarded her PhD by the University of Adelaide for her thesis Women's education in South Australia: Institutional and social developments 1875-1915. This would form the basis of her 1985 book, Nothing seemed impossible: Women's education and social change in South Australia 1875-1915. This was the first thoroughly researched study of women's education in Australia, examining both formal education and less formal modes, particularly in the workplace and the home. These themes suggested a broader study with wider relevance and, a year later, Jones produced the landmark publication, In her own name: women in South Australian history. Although this book was apolitical and neutral in tone, her work necessarily made the link between women's education and political action. Jones drew upon the techniques of fine-grained social history, enlivening her account with anecdotes and personal experiences of otherwise overlooked and marginalised women. Her meticulous analysis of the path to political enfranchisement taken by South Australian women (the first in Australia and among the first in the world) stands as a model of such research, founded principally upon primary sources. This book provided inspiration for feminist writers and speakers, as well as for students of social and political history. Published shortly before South Australia's sesquicentenary celebrations during 1986, the book, together with Jones’s service on the Women’s Executive Committee of the Jubilee 150 Board, helped to ensure that South Australian women of substance were recognised in a range of commemorations, as in the series of 150 biographical plaques placed along North Terrace.

Jones’s published research also largely underpinned the South Australian Women's Suffrage Centenary celebrations during 1994 and, in that year, she published a revised and expanded edition of In her own name, subtitled A history of women in South Australia from 1896. The design of the tapestries commemorating the women's suffrage centenary, which hang in the South Australian House of Assembly, drew on this research.

Helen Jones’s academic career was significant and included positions as Lecturer in the Department of Education at the University of Adelaide, and Lecturer at the de Lissa Institute of Early Childhood and Family Studies at the University of South Australia.

Helen Jones’s meticulous research and scholarship resulted in an influential corpus of biography and history illuminating a previously neglected field of Australian historical research. Her careful and balanced accounts of the efforts and achievements of Australian women (and South Australian women in particular) in winning political rights and autonomy during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries represent a crucial resource for subsequent research. Her data-rich analysis, never didactic and rarely political in tone, provides a useful counterweight to more rhetorical accounts.

Helen Jones was recognised for her contribution to historical studies. Her awards included the Tinline Scholarship of the University of Adelaide in 1948, the Chancellor’s Medal from Flinders University in 1994, Membership of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1995, and the Australian Dictionary of Biography Medal in 2009.

Helen Jones died on 6 July 2018, and her life was celebrated with a well-attended memorial service on 19 July 2018.

This obituary draws heavily on both the Biographical Note prepared by Lee Hayes of the Rare Books and Special Collections Unit of the Barr Smith Library of the University of Adelaide (www.adelaide.edu.au/library/special/mss/jones/), the interview with Jenny Palmer included in the J.D. Somerville Oral History Collection (OH 505/7) of the State Library of South Australia (www.slsa.sa.gov.au/archivaldocs/oh/OH505_7.pdf), and on the recollections of members of the South Australian Working Party of the Australian Dictionary of Biography. It is published with permission.

View the list of ADB articles written by Helen Patricia Jones

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

'Jones, Helen Patricia (1926–2018)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/jones-helen-patricia-28201/text35883, accessed 21 September 2019.

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