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Cumpston, Helen Ida (1910–2005)

by Mollie Bouquet

Helen Cumpston, 1991

Helen Cumpston, 1991

ANU Archives, 1885/12989

Born Helen Ida Dunbar on 28 January 1910 at Catamaran in southern Tasmania, Helen in later years recalled travelling north by boat to school in Hobart, the boat summoned to the appropriate pier as required. The daughter of school teachers, her superior intelligence and enthusiasm for learning must have been nurtured from her early years. At the Church of England Girls Grammar Collegiate School, her progress was marked by awards in various disciplines and led to an outstanding record at the University of Tasmania while she supported herself financially by teaching French, Latin and history at her old school. In 1931 she graduated, the first woman to receive the LLB degree from that university, winning also the prize for the final-year student completing the best four-year course. But these were the Depression years and Tasmanian solicitors were reluctant to hire females, so she turned to school teaching in Launceston and in-service training at the University of Tasmania library.

The year 1935 saw the beginning of her long association with Canberra when she became a clerk in the public service and completed a course at the National Library. By 1938 she was Senior Librarian in the then Department of Commerce and was also lecturing in modern history at the Canberra University College, which consisted in those days of only part-time students.

Always physically energetic, Helen enjoyed the bush and mountains around Canberra and it was presumably through bushwalking, skiing on Franklin, etc., that she met John Cumpston, son of the first Federal Director-General of Health and from 1935 a member of the then Department of External (now Foreign) Affairs. In May 1940 they married at St John’s Church in Canberra, the same church where on 15 July 2005 her family and friends paid tribute to her remarkable life.

These were the war years. John enlisted in late 1940 and until 1943 served with distinction in the Middle East, including at the siege of Tobruk. Helen remained in Canberra with their twin children, Mary and Richard, and no doubt faced with her usual equanimity the rigours of life in the small city the capital then was, while making strong, lasting friendships. On his return to Canberra in 1943, John was posted to Brisbane to the South-west Pacific Allied Geographical Section. There was no question of Helen and the children not joining him. They returned to Canberra two years later when their second daughter, Margaret, was born and John resumed his career in External Affairs. From 1946 to 1957, Helen was a diplomat’s wife, supporting her husband’s postings, first in Chile, then in New Zealand and later in New Caledonia. By that time the family had grown to four, with the birth of their second son, William, and Helen faced the inevitable problems associated with the education of diplomats’ children.

In late 1957, back in Canberra, Helen embarked on another career, this time as an administrator at The Australian National University. Appointed as a Graduate Assistant in the office of the Registrar, then Ross Hohnen, in 1963, she held the position of Assistant Registrar until her retirement in 1975. In later years, Ross often recounted with glee his colleagues’ reaction to the appointment of a ‘blue stocking’. Her legal training proved invaluable in a period that saw more and more litigation. She played a role in the concentrated discussions leading up to the amalgamation of the Canberra University College and The Australian National University. She prepared the agenda for meetings of council along with some of its committees and saw to the actions arising out of them, always quietly efficient and sensitive to the nuances of discussion. She oversaw the preparation of statutes and had responsibility for public relations, publications, ceremonial and policy regarding halls of residence and affiliated colleges. She always readily provided advice to her colleagues on the legal ramifications of proposed or past actions relating to academic staff and students. That advice was always tempered by a profound understanding of what a university was about.

Along with her fellow administrators, Helen lived through the turbulent period of student unrest in the 1970s, culminating in 1974 with the raid on the university telephone exchange and occupation of the Chancelry. In August of that year, a group of students marched on the Chancelry ‘only to find the doors locked and the Acting Registrar, the diminutive Helen Cumpston, barring their way’, as recorded in The Making of the Australian National University: 1946–1996 by Foster and Marghese. A nice touch on this occasion was that, when Helen was unable to activate the ‘bull roarer’ to make her voice audible, one of the student ringleaders came forward, politely turned it on, then stepped back into the throng to allow her to continue the address in measured tones.

Unknown to any perhaps except the recipients, Helen continually exercised her compassion in practical support of her staff and colleagues in their hour of need—for instance, the casserole of food to the suddenly widowed father of young children, the constant hospital visits to the mother of a colleague.

On retirement from the University, she continued her association with the academic world through a temporary appointment as Assistant Secretary to the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee and also with the Churchill Trust.

She continued to exercise her formidable intellect by playing bridge regularly, keeping up her love of Classics as a member of the ANU Latin poetry reading group, assiduously researching when well into her 90s and attending University of the Third Age courses especially on Shakespeare. She herself ran a Greek drama group for the University of the Third Age on more than one occasion. This was coupled with extensive travel, particularly after her husband died in 1986, travel that inevitably included energetic pursuits such as walking tours in Europe, white water rafting in North America, tree-top walks and, in Australia, trips highlighting her love of Australian fauna, exemplified by her superb native gardens. In 2004, she characteristically celebrated her 94th birthday with a hot-air balloon ride over Canberra.

It was a long life, covering virtually the whole of the 20th century and extending into the present. She combined brilliantly the traditional role of marriage and family, during wartime and in different countries, with a successful career in a period when such was not always easy for a woman. Her four children achieved outstanding careers, helped undoubtedly by her continued support, which spread to her 10 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren and will continue to bear fruit. Her friends will always cherish her memory and be grateful she allowed them to savour such a wonderfully rich personality.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Mollie Bouquet, 'Cumpston, Helen Ida (1910–2005)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/cumpston-helen-ida-32587/text40444, accessed 19 August 2022.

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