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Wilf Douglas










Wilfrid Henry Douglas ("Wilf") (4 July 1917 – 22 March 2004) was a missionary, linguist and translator, and carried out important early work on many indigenous Australian languages.

The son of Henry and Mina Douglas, he was born in Belfast in 1917. 

Belfast Telegraph" of Saturday, May 25, 1929.

Overseas League Spirit

Ulster Boy for Avustralia

Wilfred Douglas, aged 11, was the guest of honour at an informal social meeting of the Overseas League on Friday afternoon.

Wilfred is the adopted son or "godchild" of the Ulster branch of the League, and his godparents are sending him to the Fairbridge Farm School, Western Australia, there to be trained to uphold the honour of the British flag and to help develop the resources of the Empire.

Wilfred sails for his new home on Monday.

Lady Katharine Hamilton, President of the League, wrote regretting her inability to be present, but she sent her godson a silver watch, which was presented to him by the Rt. Hon. H.M.Pollock.

Sir Frederick and Lady Cleaver, Lady Byers, Mrs John M'Conigal, Miss M'Connell, Mr Robert Baillie, Mrs John M'Connell, Miss Corry, and the energetic Hon. Secretary, Miss Cowan, were amongst those who attended the little ceremony in the Club's headquarters at the Carlton.

Douglas came to Australia at the age of 11, sailing for Australia with 30 other boys destined for Fairbridge Farm School at Pinjarra, Western Australia. After two years at Fairbridge he went to Perth to work on a poultry farm, then ticket writing until 1937 when he entered Perth Bible Institute.

In 1938 at the age of 21 he went to the siding of Badjaling in the Western Australian wheatbelt as a school teacher for the United Aborigines Mission (UAM) and in those early days started to take an interest in the language of the Noongar people who lived at Badjaling.

After a period in the Australian Army from 1941–45, working at Hollywood Military Hospital, Karrakatta Military Camp and Rottnest, he went to Gnowangerup Mission then in 1945 married Elizabeth Weir. The following year after the birth of their son, John, they went to the Kimberley, and it was at Sunday Island that Wilf attempted to translate verses from the Bible into the Bardi language. This struggling attempt, initially with John 3:16, led to a long association with the Wycliffe Bible Translators through their annual Summer Institute of Linguistics and a lifetime of Bible translation and detailed study of Aboriginal languages.

After he undertook some linguistic studies at Sydney University, an opportunity arose in 1951 for the Douglas family to go to Ooldea on the Transline in South Australia to do language work with the UAM. Here he worked for the first time with speakers of the Western Desert Language and produced a phonology and grammar. A year later they moved to Warburton Ranges and during this time their second son Robert was born. It was here that he produced his works Introduction to the Western Desert Language (pub. Sydney Uni 1957) and his Illustrated Topical Dictionary of the Western Desert Language (1959). Wilf’s concern for the establishment of an indigenous Church with a Bible in its own language became a central factor in his work, leading to the establishment in 1955 of the Western Desert Bible School and Translation Centre at Mt Margaret.

In 1957 the family moved to Kalgoorlie and the following year Wilf established the UAM Language Department which he headed up for another 24 years, until the establishment of the Aboriginal-run Ngaanyatjarra Bible Project. The Language Department provided oversight of Bible translators in the Western Desert and Kimberley regions of Western Australia and led to opportunities for many hundreds of people in these regions to read and understand the Bible in their own language.

Douglas continued his work with the Noongar language and in 1968 he published his The Aboriginal Languages of the South-West of Australia (AIAS press).

He also carried out work in the Geraldton region on Wajarri (which he spelled 'Watjarri').

In 2002, the Bible Society in Australia presented him with the Elizabeth Macquarrie Award for his contribution to Bible translation.

Douglas continued his work throughout his life, continuing work on a new edition of his Illustrated Dictionary of the South West Language until just before his death.




His son Rob Douglas writes: Decades before Mabo and the word “Land Rights” had become commonplace in Australia, Wilf Douglas was asked for help in identifying sacred sites between Laverton and the WA-NT border. The Irish-born missionary, linguist and Bible translator replied in characteristic fashion with the words: “Every square inch of land in that area is sacred”.

It was such high respect for the Aboriginal people, their culture and their language that set Mr Douglas apart and was a feature of more than 60 years tireless work, learning and understanding Aboriginal languages, and the people who spoke them. Years spent sitting on the ground in dusty Aboriginal reserves and camps around Australia resulted in significant technical studies being produced of languages as varied as the Western Desert languages of Central Australia, the Nyoongah language of the South West of WA and the Watjarri language of the Murchison region of WA. Although he never went to high school, Mr Douglas lectured in universities and mentored PhD students. Beyond technical studies he felt a deep and lasting duty to share the Christian Gospel wi=top>

After his first attempts at learning Nyoongah at the West Australian wheatbelt siding of Badjaling at the age of 21 and a stint in the army, Mr Douglas, his wife Beth and baby son John, found themselves in the Kimberley with the United Aborigines Mission and it was while they were working on Sunday Island at the mouth of the King Sound that he succeeded in his first stumbling attempts at translating the Bible into Bardi. This interest in linguistics attracted opposition from some who believed that such an emphasis on Aboriginal languages would “take the people back to heathenism”, but Mr Douglas persisted at linguistic courses conducted by the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) and Sydney University to expand his new found linguistic skills.

The mission asked the Douglas family in 1951 to work at their mission station at Ooldea, a railway siding between Port Augusta and Cook on the Transline in South Australia. Here he made his first serious breakthrough in understanding what he described as the Western Desert language, eventually producing a grammar and phonology for what had previously been an unwritten language.

From the sandhills of Ooldea, came a move to Warburton Ranges in the central desert, where major works were achieved including an Introduction to the Western Desert Language (pub. Sydney Univ. 1957) and an Illustrated Topical Dictionary of the Western Desert Language, (1959).

Wilf was a regular tutor, and for some years Principal, of SIL training courses in Melbourne and later Brisbane. In 1966 he attended Wycliffe Bible Translators’ Course in Mexico which enriched his own skills and enabled him to check with translations into Central and South American languages.

Only a fortnight before his death, the second edition of the Illustrated Dictionary of the South West Language was published by a valued colleague, Dr Toby Metcalfe. In 2001, Mr Douglas had been presented the Bible Society’s Elizabeth Macquarie Award for his lifelong services to translation. It reads in part: “Many Aboriginal Bible translations owe their existence to his dedicated enthusiasm and many Bible translators owe their skills to his faithful teaching.”


Woodrow Craig Douglas
Woodrow Craig Douglas

•  Wilfred's brother, Woodrow Craig Douglas was killed at sea when his submarine, HMS Tigris, was sunk off the coast of Italy in 1943. He had recently married.


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