Francis James Gillen

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Francis James Gillen
Francis James Gillen (B-38781).jpeg
Born(1855-10-28)28 October 1855
Died5 June 1912(1912-06-05) (aged 56)
Scientific career
FieldsAnthropologist, ethnologist

Francis James Gillen (28 October 1855 – 5 June 1912), also known as Frank Gillen and F.J. Gillen, was an early Australian anthropologist and ethnologist. He is known for his work with W. Baldwin Spencer, including their seminal work The Native Tribes of Central Australia (1899). They both worked in central Australia, where Gillen was employed as a telegraph station master, with the Arrernte people and other Indigenous Australians.

Life and career[edit]

Francis James Gillen was born on 28 October 1855 at Little Para, South Australia, the eldest son of Thomas Gillen and Bridget (nee McCan).[1] He was also known as Frank.[2]

He entered the public service in 1867, and was employed as a postal messenger at Clare. He was transferred to Adelaide in 1871 where his duties also included telegraph operation. In 1875, Gillen became involved in the construction of the Australian Overland Telegraph Line, and was stationed at Charlotte Waters telegraph station from 1875-1892.[3]

He was appointed the Alice Springs post and telegraph Station Master in 1892. At the time Alice Springs was part of South Australia and Gillen, who by virtue of his office held the collateral positions of Special Magistrate and sub-Protector of Aborigines, was effectively the administrator of central Australia.[4]

During his time at Alice Springs he became involved with Aboriginal Australians and in 1894 assisted the Horn Scientific Expedition to Central Australia, soon after which he met Walter Baldwin Spencer. After witnessing and documenting the Engwura festival - a series of public and restricted ceremonies performed by Arrernte people men in 1896 - they worked together to write The Native Tribes of Central Australia (1899).[4] The German anthropologist Moritz von Leonhardi was very much inspired by this publication. Later, together with Carl Strehlow Leonhardi partly opposed Gillen’s and Spencer’s theses.[citation needed]

In 1900 Gillen was elected president of the anthropological section of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science held at Melbourne.[citation needed]

Gillen was 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.[citation needed] In this journey, the Arrernte artist Erlikilyika (also known as Jim Kite) acted as their guide, interpreter and research assistant.[2] Their journey led to the publication of The Northern Tribes of Central Australia (1904).

Gillen's final fieldwork endeavour with Spencer was to Peake, South Australia, where they camped for a number of weeks gathering further information on Arabanna people for inclusion on their 1904 publication. Gillen was also listed as a co-author of Spencer's The Arunta published in 1927.[citation needed]

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 fail and it was not possible. In 1911 he was weakening physically, and he died on 5 June 1912.


His wife, formerly Amelia Besley of Mount Gambier[1] (and step-sister to "Pado" Byrne, telegraph master and scientist at Charlotte Waters for 50 years), three daughters and two sons survived him. A brother, Peter Paul Gillen, who was for many years a member of the South Australian House of Assembly, predeceased him.[citation needed]


John Mulvaney, considered the "father of Australian archaeology", described The Native Tribes of Central Australia (by Spencer and Gillen, with input from collaborators Paddy Byrne, telegraphist at Charlotte Waters, and Ernest Cowle, police officer at Illumurta Springs) as one of Australia's most influential books in the history of ideas".[5]

Varanus gilleni, a species of Australian monitor lizard commonly known as the pygmy mulga monitor, is named in his honour.[6]

Selected works[edit]

  • Spencer, Walter Baldwin; Gillen, Francis James (1899). The Native Tribes of Central Australia. London: Macmillan. Was available in eBooks@Adelaide from 2014 to 2020.
  • Mulvaney, John; Morphy, Howard; Petch, Alison (editors) (1997). My Dear Spencer: The Letters of F. J. Gillen to Baldwin Spencer. South Melbourne: Hyland House. 554 pp. 2001. ISBN 978-1864470222.


  1. ^ a b "Gillen, Francis James (AA 108)". South Australian Museum. Retrieved 18 May 2019.
  2. ^ a b "Jim Kite Alyelkelhayeka Penangke, Artist (circa 1860 - circa 1945)". Museums Victoria Collections. Retrieved 17 May 2019.
  3. ^ Baldwin Spencer, Walter (1901–1902). Gibson, Jason (ed.). "Walter Baldwin Spencer's Diary from the Spencer and Gillen Expedition, 1901-1902". Edited and annotated by Jason Gibson; transcribed by Heather Milton. Museums Victoria: 11, footnote 26. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  4. ^ a b Mulvaney DJ (1983). "Gillen, Francis James (1855–1912)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. Retrieved 31 July 2016.
  5. ^ Williams, Robyn (3 December 2000). "From the frontier: Professor John Mulvaney talks about his book: "From The Frontier - Outback Letters to Baldwin Spencer" (transcript)". ABC Radio. Ockham's Razor. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 21 May 2019.
  6. ^ Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael; Grayson, Michael (2011). The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. xiii + 296 pp. ISBN 978-1-4214-0135-5. ("Gillen", p. 101).

Further reading[edit]