Elizabeth Wood-Ellem

Dr Elizabeth Wood-Ellem (10 September 1930 8 September 2012) was a Tongan-born Australian historian actively engaged in the life of Tonga[1] and author of the definitive biography of Queen Sālote Tupou III of Tonga.[2]

Birth and family

Born Elizabeth Olive Wood near Nuku'alofa, Tonga, she was often known as Bess or Pesi Wood. She was a daughter of Reverend Dr A. Harold Wood OBE (1896–1989), a renowned Methodist then Uniting Church minister and educator, and medical Dr Olive K. Wood (née O'Reilly), who were Australian missionaries in Tonga 1924-37.[2] She had five brothers and sisters, including Janet Secomb, herself a missionary to Tonga, actor Monica Maughan and Uniting Church minister and hymnologist Rev. Dr H. D'Arcy Wood.


Moving to Australia in 1937, Elizabeth was educated Methodist Ladies' College in Melbourne where, in her final year, she topped the state in Greek and Roman History.

At Melbourne University, she majored in English and History, gaining a BA in 1953, and would later undertake her PhD there.


Wood-Ellem earned her living as a book editor and indexer, initially at Angus & Robertson in Sydney, then London (1960-1972) with Macmillan and Paul Hamlyn, and later worked freelance. She was also appointed an archivist at King's College, Cambridge University, to sort and catalogue the papers of British novelist E. M. Forster after his death in 1970.[2] Churchill College, Cambridge, then engaged her as Assistant Librarian for Archives to catalogue Sir James Grigg's papers and A.V. Alexander's correspondence.

She completed a PhD in Tongan history in 1982 at the University of Melbourne and remained a Senior Fellow there at the time of her death. She published her biography of Queen Sālote of Tonga in 1999. Fairfax’s Pacific correspondent Mike Field has said of it:

‘If I were nominate a single, superb book on the Pacific, Queen Sālote of Tonga: The Story of an Era 1900-1965 is one of the finest pieces of historical research and insight, anthropology and understanding of Tonga that you’ll ever find. You don’t even have to be vaguely interested in Queen Sālote, but in how Tonga works.’

Notable books she edited include The Songs and Poems of Queen Sālote (2004) and Tonga and the Tongans: Heritage and Identity (2007).

In 2008, King George Tupou V recognised her singular contribution to Tonga by bestowing on her the title of Commander of the Order of the Crown of Tonga.[2]


Notable books she edited include:


  1. Tongan royal historian Dr Elizabeth Wood-Ellem dies, (11 September 2012, 17:29 AEST), Radio Australia
  2. 1 2 3 4 Wood, H. D'Arcy; Ball, O. (5 October 2012). "Historian lauded for book on Pacific". The Age. Melbourne: Fairfax Media. Retrieved 23 November 2012.
  3. Newell, William (2004-04-01), "Elizabeth Wood-Ellem. Queen Salote of Tonga: The Story of an Era, 1900-1965.(Book Review)", The Australian Journal of Anthropology, Australian Anthropological Society, 15 (1): 122(2), ISSN 1035-8811
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