Francis James Gillen

Archive Collections / Francis James Gillen
Born : 28 October, 1855
Died : 05 June, 1911

Francis Gillen was born at Clare, South Australia on 28 October 1855, the eldest son of recently arrived Irish immigrants Thomas Gillen and Bridget (née McCan). He left school aged twelve, but his life-long appetite for reading compensated for a short education. Commencing work as a postal messenger, he spent his career in South Australia’s Postal and Telegraph Department. In 1875 Gillen joined a party of newly appointed telegraph operators to staff telegraph stations on the Overland Telegraph Line. He served as telegraph operator at the Charlotte Waters station from 1875 until 1890, when he was promoted to manage the Alice Springs station, until his southern assignment to Moonta in 1899.

Gillen’s decade at Alice Springs transformed the course of Australian, and world, anthropology. He formed a good rapport with the Arrernte people of Alice Springs, largely through his direct, good humoured humanitarian approach, but also through an uncompromising fairness towards white and black in the region in his dual roles as special magistrate and Sub-Protector of Aborigines. His actions in arresting the policeman W.H. Willshire for murdering two Aboriginal men in 1891 helped to create a bond of trust with the Arrernte. In turn this enabled Gillen to deepen his research into Aboriginal traditions, ceremony and belief. After meeting the museum zoologist Walter Baldwin Spencer during the 1894 Horn Scientific Expedition (AA139; AA309), the pair formed a remarkable partnership, focused on the intensive documentation of ceremonies and their connections to mythology and kinship networks. Their core research at the Engwura ritual cycle in 1896, which Gillen facilitated at the Alice Springs Telegraph Station, generated dozens of glass-plate negatives (AA108/41) and field notebooks (Special Collections, Barr Smith Library (; also Spencer’s collection in Museum Victoria; see ). From this data, and from Gillen’s careful responses to Spencer’s subsequent queries, came the ground-breaking Native Tribes of Central Australia (London, Macmillan, 1899), which became acknowledged as the era’s most influential anthropological text.

During 1901-1902 Spencer and Gillen undertook their most ambitious expedition, travelling by buggy and wagon with two Arrernte men, Erliakilyika (Jimmy Kite) and Parunda (Warwick) and a police-trooper, Harry Chance, from Oodnadatta to Borroloola. This was a unique opportunity to study and compare Aboriginal social groups across Central and northern Australia, before cultural change transformed ancient traditions. The Northern Tribes of Central Australia was published under Spencer and Gillen’s authorship in 1904. Many of Gillen’s photographs from this expedition are preserved in the Museum’s collections, together with one of his field notebooks (the bulk of his 1901-1902 diaries and notebooks are held as PRG159 in the State Library of South Australia).

Spencer and Gillen returned to fieldwork in 1903, with a short expedition to Peake Station, in Arabana country in northern South Australia, and continued their collaboration and friendship (see My Dear Spencer: the letters of F.J. Gillen to Baldwin Spencer, Hyland House, Melbourne, 1997) until Gillen’s tragically early death in 1912, aged just 56. Gillen had married Amelia Besley in 1891; they had six children, five or whom survived to adult-hood. Their descendants have retained a strong connection with Frank Gillen’s life and achievements, and have played a key role in preserving his photographic and documentary heritage.

The Australian Research Council-funded website, ‘Spencer and Gillen. A Journey through Aboriginal Australia’ (, has the objective of presenting all of the known records and collections gathered by Spencer and Gillen during their influential partnership. This website has been developed as a collaboration between Museum Victoria, the South Australian Museum, the Australian National University, the Northern Territory Library, Australian Capital Equity and the Barr Smith Library, with the support of the Australian Research Council.

Gillen’s Australian Dictionary of Biography entry appears at:

Philip Jones, 2014

Inventory Listings by Series
Prepared ByGeorge Smith, Kim Little, Rebecca Jury and Lea Gardam