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Kathleen Mollie Gillen (1908–2009)

by Harriet Veitch

There was a lot of history in Mollie Gillen's life. Not just her own, from Sydney to England to Canada as a war bride and renown as an author, but in her work, which covered such subjects as the First Fleet, fellow author L.M. Montgomery and Queen Victoria's father.

Perhaps her best known book was The Founders Of Australia (1989), which earned her an honorary doctorate and is considered one of the greatest contributions to the early history of white settlement.

The book was the result of 20 years of work that started when she was tracing the history of her First Fleet ancestor John Small, which also ended up as a book, The Search For John Small (1985).

Gillen compiled biographies about everyone she could on the First Fleet, writing on little cards that she filed in cut-down cereal boxes. One accident with a match could have destroyed the whole thing but she pressed on regardless. Pressing on was something Gillen was good at; her life wasn't always easy.

Kathleen Mollie Gillen, who has died aged 100, was born in Sydney, the daughter of a doctor, Robert Woolnough, and his wife, Bertha (Youdale). The parents and a baby brother died in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, leaving Mollie and her younger brother and sister, Jim and Marj, to be raised by Bertha's sister, Edith.

Mollie started writing as a child and took a prize as a teenager for a ghost story with a happy ending. She went to Loreto Normanhurst, graduated from the University of Sydney with a BA in 1930 and worked in Sydney and as a country governess for a few years before going to London.

In 1939 she met Orval Gillen, who was in England with the Royal Canadian Air Force. They were married in June 1940, and in February 1941 she sailed to Canada.

Her husband arrived in Canada later that year and was posted to air force bases in Ontario and then Montreal. By 1949, now with two children, they were living in Ottawa and Gillen was writing for newspapers and magazines. By the mid-1950s, she was working in the information division of the Department of Public Works and teaching fiction in a university extension department.

In 1960, Gillen published her first novel, Star Of Death, a thriller set in Britain and Australia, but her marriage broke down. She then met Phil Murphy and in 1961 moved to Toronto to be with him. She and Orval never divorced but she lived with Murphy until his death.

In Toronto, Gillen worked at Chatelaine magazine, where she wrote an award-winning three-part series on one of the richest local families, the Masseys. This was so successful Gillen turned it into a book, The Masseys: Founding Family (1965). It was followed by The Prince And His Lady (1970), about Queen Victoria's father, and The Assassination Of The Prime Minister (1972), a biography of Spencer Perceval.

In the early 1970s Gillen and Murphy moved to London, where she wrote The Wheel Of Things (1975), a biography of Lucy Maud Montgomery, the Canadian author of Anne Of Green Gables, and Royal Duke (1976), about one of George III's sons.

Then she started work on the John Small book. For years she toiled away in the National Archives at Kew, the British Library and other, sometimes dusty, collections. Small was a British marine who turned to highway robbery and was sentenced to hang; the sentence was commuted to transportation and he came to Australia on the First Fleet.

By the time the book was published in 1985, Gillen was well on her way to her major work The Founders Of Australia, a biographical dictionary of the First Fleet - soldiers, sailors and convicts all. In 1983, Gillen won a grant to help with her research and came to Australia with Murphy. He died of an asthma attack on the night they landed.

After six weeks' work, Gillen returned to London but couldn't face life there without Murphy. She returned to Toronto and completed the book. She started work on a history of the Royal Navy in the late 18th century, which was never finished.

Gillen made her last visit to Australia was in 1995, when she was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters by the University of Sydney and made a Member of the Order of Australia. Until 2000, although legally blind with macular degeneration, glaucoma and cataracts, she made an annual trip to Britain for research and to visit friends and family. In 2002 she moved into a nursing home.

Mollie Gillen is survived by her daughter, Barbara, sister, Marjorie, four nephews and a stepdaughter. Orval Gillen died in 1995 and their son Ian in 1996.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Harriet Veitch, 'Gillen, Kathleen Mollie (1908–2009)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Woolnough, Kathleen Mollie

Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


31 January, 2009 (aged ~ 101)
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.