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Isobel (Belle) Low (1922–2020)

by Angela Neuhaus

Belle Low, by Rob Little,

Belle Low, by Rob Little,

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-759

Belle, as she was always known, was born in a remote farmhouse in Northumberland, the northernmost county in England. The second of seven children, her extended family peopled the surrounding hills. Family life revolved around the seasons, the farming community and the Presbyterian Church, and she remembered her early years there with great affection and nostalgia.

At the onset of World War II, she was sent to train as a nurse in the dockland port of Hartlepool, and at war’s end as a midwife in the slums of Dundee. A friend persuaded her to join the British Colonial Service and together they accepted posts in remote Zanzibar. (Belle had never heard of it and had to check where it was.) Now part of Tanzania, it was then an Omani Sultanate and an important staging post for trade and communications along the east coast of Africa. Belle worked in the government hospital and spent a year as the only white woman on the adjacent island of Pemba running its small health facility. The island was only accessible by an overnight journey by dhow and, like Zanzibar, was primarily Muslim. After the rigors of the war and the post-war deprivations in Britain, she thrived on the expatriate lifestyle in this exotic paradise.

Zanzibar was a rich source of colonial archives for historians and, in February 1952, Anthony Low, then a young lecturer in history at Makerere College in Uganda, paid a three-week visit. Belle and Anthony met and very quickly became engaged. Anthony sent a telegram home saying simply: ‘Engaged to Belle Letter follows’. He returned seven months later, and they were married in the Anglican Cathedral on 6 September. Belle left the island, where she had been so happy, on her wedding day and never returned.

The first six years of their married life were spent in Kampala living on the campus surrounded by other expatriate families and by the Halls of Residence for the first generation of East African university graduates. Angela, and 20 months later twins Penny and Adam, were born in the local CMS mission hospital in Mengo. With a growing family, Anthony supplemented his meagre income by working as a ‘stringer’ for The Times of London. On what was to be a fateful occasion, he met Sir Keith Hancock who was heading up a mission from London following a constitutional crisis. When Hancock returned to Australia, he wrote and offered him a job in the fledgling ANU history department, which Anthony gratefully accepted.

The small family sailed from England in 1959 and moved into a house on the campus. They arrived in the middle of the night after a long and exhausting journey down the mostly dirt road from Sydney. All Belle’s— ever the farmer’s daughter—reservations about ‘living in a city’ were dispelled the next morning when opening the curtains revealed nothing but open sheep paddocks, a cricket pitch and a lazy river crossed by an old white wooden bridge. She knew she could be happy here. They were later to have a bird’s eye view from that window of the new Lake Burley Griffin filling those paddocks in 1964.

Anthony’s quiet charm and intellect and Belle’s energy and enthusiastic vivacity made them a popular pair. They were amongst the youngest staff to live on the campus itself, but they were warmly embraced by the distinguished group of near neighbours, among them the Melvilles, Passmores, Partridges, Spates, Germaine Joplin and Hodgkins. Belle joined the ANU Women’s Club and became an active committee member of the Ladies Drawing Room. She made many lifelong friends and, when Theaden Hancock was dying of cancer, she nursed her at home until her death, firmly cementing the bond between the two families.

In the wider community the family attended St John’s Anglican Church in Reid, and they returned there whenever they were living in Canberra. Belle and Anthony both served on committees and as sides people, helped with the annual fete and Christmas party, and in retirement Belle established a monthly after service lunch. Their remains now lie in the churchyard along with countless friends and Canberra pioneers.

The family had not been settled long when the historian Asa (later Lord) and Susan Briggs moved in next door for a sabbatical. Asa, who was actively recruiting for the new Sussex University, invited Anthony to become the founding Dean of the School of African and Asian Studies. Not wanting to break his commitment to Hancock, Anthony eventually agreed to go in 1964. With the help of a small legacy, they bought their first house, but, with Anthony working long hours and the children dispersed to different schools, Belle struggled to find the same sense of community and purpose that Canberra provided, and nine years later they happily returned to ANU when Anthony was appointed to head the School of Pacific Studies. They moved to Garran and Belle, re-energised, re-established her links with the Ladies Drawing Room and the Women’s Club and started working as a Ward Clerk in the newly built Woden Valley Hospital. She also joined a ‘Literature Group’. No ordinary book group, it met every week at a member’s house. Strict rules of procedure were followed and it was not for the faint-hearted, but Belle relished it and returned again in retirement.

Eighteen months later, Anthony was unexpectedly appointed Vice- Chancellor and they moved into the official Residence in Balmain Crescent. With new responsibilities, Belle immediately went out and bought two new suits and reluctantly gave up her job at the hospital. Her energy, warmth and kindness were great assets in her new role. She and Anthony resolved to get to know as many staff as they could and she concentrated on supporting the Ladies Drawing Room and the Women’s Club. She was particularly upset when the latter’s Balmain Crescent clubhouse was taken over by the University and fought hard to acquire another dedicated space for them in University House. She took piano lessons, decided to learn Hindi so she could communicate with the wives of Anthony’s students, and when the new Australian Art Gallery opened she eagerly undertook the rigorous training and became a volunteer guide. A long-term supporter of the YWCA, she was also asked to join their local International Committee.

On the completion of his seven-year term, Anthony was appointed Smuts Professor of Commonwealth History in Cambridge and subsequently president of the graduate college, Clare Hall. This time they both enjoyed the chance to be in England again, and Clare Hall offered the perfect blend of intellectual, social and international life that by now so suited their combined skills and personalities. Belle, ever resourceful, became an active member of the National Association for Decorative and Fine Arts and completed an Open University Arts degree. They renovated a 17th-century cottage and enjoyed seeing more of Adam, who was living in London, and their wider family and friends.

But by now Canberra was well established as ‘home’. Penny had married there and had two children, and Angela had followed suit and added another grandchild. On Anthony’s retirement in 1994, they returned and moved this time to Mawson, where they were to spend the next 16 years. They rekindled many longstanding friendships, most notably at a monthly ‘Adelaide lunch’ at Peter and Lena Karmel’s, and re-established many old interests including annual holidays in the Snowies, season tickets to the music school and membership of the art gallery.

Belle returned to the Ladies Drawing Room and Literature Group, started a monthly coffee morning for their neighbourhood and joined an aqua aerobics group to keep fit. Then, sadly, Anthony was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and to Belle’s great consternation it was clear they would have to move once more. They spent their last years together in the Goodwin home in Ainslie. She stayed on after Anthony’s death in 2015 and came to love the many new friends they made there.

Belle was a woman of great warmth and charm, with a great capacity for friendship. She had a strong social conscience and a commitment to community, and she loved welcoming people of all ages and backgrounds into her home. She and Anthony shared a deep and abiding love, and he always said she was the kindest person he ever met. His students, many of whom were from Africa and South East Asia, all remembered her with great affection. She provided so many of them with a home away from home and a listening ear and they all appreciated her warm smile and motherly kindness and generosity.

The farmer’s daughter from the quiet corner of England would never have imagined what her life would have in store for her, but those happy roots, an adventurous spirit and a long happy marriage provided a firm bedrock for her full and generous life.

Citation details

Angela Neuhaus, 'Low, Isobel (Belle) (1922–2020)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/low-isobel-belle-32796/text40796, accessed 15 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Belle Low, by Rob Little,

Belle Low, by Rob Little,

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-759

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Smails, Isobel
Birth

6 November, 1922
Northumberland, England

Death

25 November, 2020 (aged 98)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

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.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Occupation
Key Organisations