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Roe, Jillian Isobel (Jill) (1940–2017)

by Beverley Kingston

Jill Roe, 2006

Jill Roe, 2006

ADB archives

When Bede Nairn, one of the editors of the Australian Dictionary of Biography in the 1970s, was casting about for a suitable author for the entry on Miles Franklin, the country girl who became a cosmopolitan nationalist, Jill Roe was suggested as a possibility. Nairn was keen to find a fresh, young, female author. He already knew Roe as the author of earlier ADB entries. She responded with enthusiasm and embarked on what was to become a lifetime's work. Her biography, Stella Miles Franklin did not appear until 2008, but before that she had compiled and published a significant selection of letters from the extensive Franklin Papers in the Mitchell Library and written numerous papers on aspects of Franklin's life and work. She joked, with good reason, that there was no subject where she could not produce a relevant story or quotation from Franklin.

The ADB entry on Franklin, published in 1981, led to further involvement with the ADB. She joined the NSW Working Party, the group responsible for drawing up lists of possible entries and suggesting likely authors, became an editor of the NSW entries, a member of the editorial board and, in 1996, chair of that board. She was the first woman and the first appointment from outside the ANU. This, she perceived as an initial problem, however she was able to forge strong alliances with significant people at the ANU, with the editorial staff in Canberra, and she brought a Sydney perspective to the more cautious world of Canberra. Without her urging, it may have taken much longer for the ADB to join the digital world and go online. It was also due to her strongly egalitarian principles that the ADB became freely available on-line as the great research tool that it is now for students, journalists, and anyone who has an interest in Australia's history and its people.

On her birthday last November, when she was gravely ill in hospital in Woy Woy, she was presented with the ADB's gold medal for long and meritorious service, an award she had instituted many years earlier to honour the voluntary work of long-standing ADB authors and editors.

Born on November 10, 1940, at Tumby Bay on South Australia's Eyre Peninsula, Jill Roe was the youngest of John and Edna Roe's four daughters. Her mother died when Jill was 14 months old and she was sent north to live with her grandmother Heath and her aunt Isie at Pygery. She returned south to the family in time to start school at the one teacher school at Yallunda Flat. After some time at Cummins Area School she moved to Adelaide, first to Unley High, then to Adelaide Girls' High.

She took up a Teachers College scholarship at Adelaide University and was then given an opportunity to study for an MA at the ANU, first with Manning Clark, and then with D. W. A. Baker. After some time teaching in the east end of London she returned to Australia, appointed by Bruce Mansfield to his history staff at the newly established Macquarie University in 1967. There she gradually rose to become Professor and Head of History.

The atmosphere of Macquarie with its intake of mature-age students suited her as did the radical politics of Sydney in the late 1960s. As a student, her energy and originality had gained her a reputation as "Wild Jill". Her strong voice and ability to command the attention of a large crowd now found an outlet in demonstrations against conscription for Vietnam. She was one of the founders of the homosexual law reform organisation CAMP (Campaign Against Moral Persecution) and drawn naturally to women's liberation.

In 1972 she was introduced to Beverley Kingston, a history teacher at the UNSW working on a history of women's work in Australia, later published as My Wife, My Daughter and Poor Mary Ann. They quickly joined forces and thereafter supported each other in life and work. Kingston's domestic and financial skills provided a kind of security Roe had not known since the days with her aunt at Pygery. "Wild Jill" of her student days rediscovered "Jill the swot" who was capable of intense and systematic study.

A small text on the history of Melbourne, based on her MA, was followed by a collection of papers on the history of Australian social policy, much appreciated by the growing discipline of social work. Her work on George Arundale, influential as a theosophist in Australia in the 1930s for the ADB, grew into a history of theosophy in Australia, Beyond Belief, a valuable contribution to religious and cultural history.

In 1975, in search of a quiet place to write, with a legacy from her father, she bought a fibro cottage at Pearl Beach. Thereafter, weekends and vacations were often spent there at her desk on the verandah. From her home in Paddington, within walking distance of the Mitchell Library, the energy of "Wild Jill" was now channelled into various groups that kept history alive in Sydney. With Max Kelly and others she founded the Sydney History Group in the 1970s. Later she was an early supporter of the NSW History Council. The Australian Historical Association absorbed some energy. In 1994-95 she spent a year at Harvard in the Chair of Australian Studies, making friends, winning allies, and taking the opportunity to work in the Christian Science Church archives in Boston on Australian connections.

In 2003 it was decided that the time had come to finish her book on Miles Franklin. The Pearl Beach cottage was modernised to make it more comfortable and the Franklin book was published at last in 2008. It has contributed in part to the revival of interest in Franklin and to the growing prestige of the annual Franklin prize for Australian literature. For this she was honoured as an Emeritus Curator by the State Library of NSW in July 2017.

As a schoolgirl living in the Helping Hand Hostel while studying at Adelaide Girls' High, "Jill the swot" had produced a prize-winning study of her corner of Eyre Peninsula for the geography leaving examination. At university under the influence of Hugh Stretton, however, she abandoned geography for history.

In retirement she became increasingly interested in how her experiences as a girl, and her memories of Eyre Peninsula related to her professional work as an historian. Her last book was a labour of love. It also became a struggle against time as her health began to fail. During her final year she endured lengthy stays in hospital. Our Fathers Cleared the Bush. Remembering Eyre Peninsula, inspired in part by Miles Franklin's Childhood at Brindabella, appeared in September 2016. In November she had her wish to return from hospital to Pearl Beach with Bev and Freya, the "killer cat". She died there on January 12, 2017, aged 77.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 April 2017

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Beverley Kingston, 'Roe, Jillian Isobel (Jill) (1940–2017)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/roe-jillian-isobel-jill-27117/text34662, accessed 23 November 2017.

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