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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Gladys Dorothy O'Shane (1919–1965)

by Ysola Best

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Gladys O'Shane, n.d.

Gladys O'Shane, n.d.

Gladys Dorothy O'Shane (1919-1965), Aboriginal political activist, was born on 22 September 1919 at Mossman, Queensland, sixth child of Queensland-born parents Edgar Davis, labourer, and his wife Caroline, née Brown. An official pencilled the word 'half-caste' beside her name in the register of births. Gladys's family lived at the Yarrabah mission, near Cairns. She attended primary school for a few years before being employed as a domestic servant. At the Assembly of God Tabernacle, Cairns, on 26 October 1940 she married Patrick James O'Shane. Described as 'well-travelled' and 'well-educated', O'Shane was a 27-year-old militant trade unionist who worked as a canecutter and later as a wharf labourer. The young couple moved to Mossman, but returned to Cairns about 1946 to give their children the chance of a better education.

Gladys encouraged her children to read newspapers and discuss current affairs. Sent to secondary school, her eldest daughter Pat 'brought home the novels of Charles Dickens' which she and her mother read and talked over 'for hours'. Gladys took paid domestic work in hotels. She taught her children that they were 'as good as anybody else'. About 5 ft 10½ ins (179 cm) tall, alert, agile and attractive, she overcame her shyness, joined the women's auxiliary of the Waterside Workers' Federation of Australia and addressed strike meetings. In 1959 she and Pat became members of the Communist Party of Australia.

By 1961 Gladys was president of the Cairns Advancement League, which was affiliated with the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders). In May that year it was alleged that Pastor Eric Kernick, superintendent of the Hopevale Lutheran mission, Cooktown, had mistreated two young Aborigines, Jim Jacko and Gertie Simon. The league mounted a campaign for an inquiry. J. O. Lee, a magistrate, was commissioned by the Queensland government to investigate the incident. The league secured Fred Paterson as legal adviser to Jacko and Simon. Mrs O'Shane attended the hearings and asked the government to widen the terms of reference of the investigation. Lee found Kernick's action in flogging Jacko 'inexcusable'. The affair drew attention to the arbitrary nature of the laws applying to Australia's indigenous people. In 1963 O'Shane helped to circulate a petition throughout the Torres Strait Islands calling for Queensland's discriminatory legislation to be abolished; more than one thousand signatures were gathered. The State government was forced to review the Aboriginals Preservation and Protection Acts (1939-46) and the Torres Strait Islanders Acts (1939-46).

Suffering from renal disease, O'Shane died of cardiac arrest on 29 December 1965 at the Base Hospital, Cairns, and was buried in Martyn Street cemetery; her husband, two daughters and three sons survived her. The 1966 annual conference of the F.C.A.A.T.S.I. noted the passing of one of the 'leaders in Aboriginal advancement'. She had inspired her children to be active in education, law and Aboriginal affairs. Her daughter Pat became a magistrate and chancellor of the University of New England.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Mitchell, Tall Poppies (Melb, 1984)
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 22 Aug 1961
  • National Times, 26 Dec 1982-1 Jan 1983
  • Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, 9th Annual Conference on Aboriginal Affairs, Reports and Recommendations, 1966 (typescript, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Library).

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Ysola Best, 'O'Shane, Gladys Dorothy (1919–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Gladys O'Shane, n.d.

Gladys O'Shane, n.d.

Life Summary [details]


22 September, 1919
Mossman, Queensland, Australia


29 December, 1965 (aged 46)
Cairns, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

kidney disease

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Key Organisations
Political Activism