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

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Martha Campbell (1936–2014)

by Mark McGinness

Martha Campbell, by Sue Edgar, 1985

Martha Campbell, by Sue Edgar, 1985

The Australian Dictionary of Biography has been hailed as a national treasure. In half a century of sustained scholarship, the ADB has so far recorded 12,500 Australian lives in 19 volumes. Over 46 years, under the first five general editors, Martha Rutledge, as subeditor, checker, research editor and author, became the backbone of the ADB.

She is credited as the author of 172 articles (only the late Gerry Walsh surpassed her with 198) but as a member of staff from 1967 to 2002, researching, editing and rewriting thousands of entries, Rutledge could have claimed authorship of at least as many.

The ADB was a perfect home for this sixth-generation Australian with a passion for history, a great pride in her family story, and an abiding reverence for the English language.

Martha Dorothy Rutledge was born on September 22, 1936, the elder daughter and the first of three children of Colonel Thomas Rutledge, a grazier, veteran of Gallipoli and former MLA, and his wife Helen, daughter of Sir Colin Stephen. The ADB said of the Colonel: ‘His opinions were respected and influential despite a reticence that inhibited familiarity.’ Helen Rutledge was a formidable figure; a great grand dame – clever, witty, and an author herself; she sat at Sydney’s pinnacle, having grown up at Rona, the gabled mansion of Sydney stone built by her grandfather, E.W. Knox, on the top of Bellevue Hill. It was her family that inspired the impudent verse ‘Up on top of Bellevue Hill/Among the scrub and rockses/God knows the Stephens/And the Stephens know the Knoxes’.

Part of every holiday was spent at Rona, and occasionally at Palm Beach. But home for Martha was ‘Gidleigh’, Bungendore, the Rutledge family property since 1874. After a series of governesses and lessons from her mother, a tutor in Bungendore and a stint at Ascham, young Martha boarded at Frensham. Neither musical nor sporty, she was not happy there. However, she excelled academically and won an Iris for History. In 1954 her parents took her to Europe to further her studies in foreign languages. She also took in Royal Ascot but there was nothing frivolous about her. She attended the University of Sydney (BA, 1959) and enjoyed Women’s College.

After a year abroad she enrolled at the ANU and, to gain a university post, completed an MA on great-great-grandfather Sir Alfred Stephen’s divorce law reform.

In 1966 Rutledge became a tutor at ANU’s History Department. Its head, Manning Clark, told her brother, who was visiting, ‘Her room is down there next to the fire extinguisher. We keep her there because she is such a fiery person.’ But in fact as women’s subwarden at the university’s Burton Hall, she was widely loved: ‘the most un-wardenly warden’.

In 1967 Rutledge joined the editorial staff of the ADB. This would be her life’s work. Her first life was her great-great-uncle, Billy Rutledge, merchant, banker, and settler. (‘He was warm-hearted, courageous, generous and outspoken, with a vigorous and energetic personality, which became a legend in the Western District. Despite his explosive temper he was loved and respected, if not always respectable.’)

Rutledge specialised in the 19th century: on her kin – pastoralists, judges, knights – and their friends. Despite her affection for her distinguished family, she was scrupulous with her sources and cautious in her judgment. Through her scholarship, she made the apparently lofty Knoxes and Stephens real. Sir Alfred Stephen (1802-1894), a great chief justice: ‘Handsome, sprightly and joyous, with wit and charm ... Stephen had faults: among them were ‘his great failing in meddling in matters that did not concern him’ observed by Therry, and his ‘overweening vanity’ noted by ‘Cassius’ ...’

Great-grandfather Edward William Knox (1847-1933), chairman of CSR, was ‘a shy man, who would never speak on the telephone, he was happiest among his relations’. But her range was not confined to family. She encompassed actors, actresses, comedians, singers, authors, cameramen – even a convict and bushranger; and Percival John Galea (1910-1977), ‘gambler and illegal casino operator’.

In 1970 Rutledge married Charles Campbell. Sir Robert Menzies toasted the bride and groom. They were kindred spirits, dedicated to books, antiques and their garden. They were third cousins once-removed, in fact – both descended from Robert Campbell, who arrived in Sydney in 1798 to develop a trade in livestock. Their union was described by their two sons as ‘the result not so much of courtship as osmosis’, while Charles’ obituarist summed them up as ‘together – amply framed, clever, generous, witty and gently wise – they became a much-loved couple, hospitable in their sharing of food, wine, friendship and wide-ranging conversation’.

Campbell had inherited Woden, the remains of the family holdings, most of which became Canberra, and he and Martha moved there in 1972 on the death of his father. It flourished under their care. An old ADB friend recalled Rutledge’s ‘devotion to Woden, the house, its interior, and its garden, despite the early problems of chronically malfunctioning pumps, kangaroos in the swimming pool, orphan lambs to keep warm in the kitchen stove (there were the legendary lambs Bella and Sandy, who thought they were dogs and, as free-range adults, terrorised visitors)’.

At the ADB Rutledge noted that her job had grown ‘like Topsy’: first writing entries under the first editor, Douglas Pike and later subediting and checking under successive general editors.

While ‘more by dint of their skills than design’ five of the seven ADB staff in 1971 were women, by 1986 they were wondering if it was ‘significant that we are all women’. They were well-qualified researchers doing specialist work and responsible for an array of publications while supervising graduate students and sitting on selection panels, yet their work was not given its due in public sector terms. They were eventually promoted from research assistants to research officers; they got a pay increase, but they remained classified as general staff in an ‘odd academic cul-de-sac’.

Rutledge became the most senior of the research editors, mentoring newer staff members. Her long tenure fostered among the staff a sense of community and pride in the ADB. In 1998 when the fourth general editor, John Ritchie, mounted an endowment campaign, Rutledge contacted her old school and family friend, the splendid Caroline Fairfax Simpson, ‘who cared about the past’ and contributed $100,000 when the dictionary most needed it.

Many lives do not lend themselves to it, but some of Rutledge’s entries sparkled. Lyndall Barbour (1916-1986), radio actor, was ‘dedicated to her career, Barbour did not marry. In her later years she became a recluse and spent much of her time in her North Sydney flat enthusiastically watching cricket on television, revelling especially in the batting of Greg Chappell’. And Gwendolen and Nesta Griffiths: ‘The sisters invariably changed for dinner and swept into the kitchen to cook in long dresses ... Taller, and more astringent, exacting and down-to-earth than her sister, Gwendolen was the kinder; Nesta, who asked impertinent questions and indulged in malicious gossip about those of whom she disapproved, could look almost vixenish.’

Rutledge’s last entry, in 2008, six years after her retirement, as her health declined, was her uncle, Sir Alastair Stephen, solicitor and company director. Of his father, her grandfather, Sir Colin Stephen (1872-1937), solicitor and horseman, she had written: ‘Stephen had a “shrewd and analytical mind”, a high conception of duty and a capacity to master detail. His versatility, experience and ‘formidable strength of character’ led many to seek his advice.’

This description might have applied to his granddaughter, who, for nearly half a century, quietly, carefully burnished a national treasure.

Martha Rutledge is survived by her sons Patrick and Daniel, two grandsons, her sister and her brother. Charles died in 2011.

Original publication

View the list of obituaries written by Martha Campbell

View the list of ADB articles written by Martha Campbell

Citation details

Mark McGinness, 'Campbell, Martha (1936–2014)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 27 May 2024.

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