GILLEN, Francis James (1855-1912)

GILLEN, Francis James (1855-1912)
eldest son of Thomas Gillen, was born at Clare near Adelaide on 28 October 1855. The year of his birth is sometimes given as 1856, but the earlier date appears to be more likely. He entered the post and telegraph service on 15 January 1867 and, after occupying various junior positions, became an operator on the trans-continental line on 1 April 1875. On 1 December 1892 he was promoted to the position of post and telegraph master at Alice Springs and there, when the Horn expedition came to Central Australia about 18 months later, he met Professor, afterwards Sir, W. Baldwin Spencer (q.v.), the zoologist to the expedition. Gillen had been studying the aborigines for some time and the result of his work was incorporated in Part IV of the Report on the Work of the Horn Scientific Expedition to Central Australia. Spencer was able to suggest to Gillen various lines of inquiry, and two years later came back to Alice Springs to take up with him the study of the Arunta tribe. Writing to the Rev. Lorimer Fison (q.v.) Spencer mentions that Gillen is called "the Oknirrabata", which means "great teacher". He goes on to say that Gillen knew the language deeply enough to understand most of what was said. Gillen in fact knew more than the language of the simple folk around him; he understood their feelings and was an example to everyone in his treatment of the aborigines. The result of their studies was The Native Tribes of Central Australia, which was published by Macmillan in 1899 with both names on the titlepage. In 1900 Gillen was elected president of the anthropological section at the meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science held at Melbourne and enjoyed the experience very much. To Spencer's regret he had been transferred from Alice Springs to Moonta in 1899, but in 1901 he was given leave by the South Australian government to join Spencer in an expedition which took them up to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Both men were full of energy, and they did an enormous amount of work endeavouring to obtain information from the natives. The climate was very trying, but they escaped serious illness and three years later The Northern Tribes of Central Australia appeared. Gillen remained at Moonta until July 1908 when he became postmaster at Port Pirie. In that year Spencer was hoping to arrange to go with him to Western Australia, but Gillen's health began to fall and it was found to be impossible. In 1911, although his mind was quite clear, he was weakening physically, and he died on 5 June 1912. His wife, formerly Miss Besley of Mount Gambier, three daughters and two sons survived him. A brother, Peter Paul Gillen, who was for many years a member of the South Australian legislative assembly, predeceased him.
Gillen was a first-rate departmental officer and while living in Central Australia was appointed a special magistrate and sub-protector of aborigines. His special distinction came from his great knowledge of native manners and customs. Spencer valued this so much that not only was Gillen's name placed on the title-pages of the books written before the year of his death, it appeared also as joint author of The Arunta which was published in 1927, 15 years after. Writing to his widow Spencer said: "I look back on his friendship as one of the greatest privileges and blessings of my life."
Gillen was "impetuous, generous, witty, and bubbling over with energy", but always extremely modest about his own achievements. The negatives of his remarkable collection of photographs of aboriginal life are now the property of the South Australian government.
Marett and Penniman, Spencer's Last Journey; Spencer's Scientific Correspondence; The Advertiser, Adelaide, 6 June 1912; The Register, Adelaide, 6 June 1912.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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