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Rosina Ruth Park (1917–2010)

by Patricia Maunder

Ruth Park, John Mulligan, 1962

Ruth Park, John Mulligan, 1962

National Library of Australia, 24574252

In 2006 the author Ruth Park was included in The Bulletin's list of 100 most influential Australians. Her prolific output was widely enjoyed, especially the Muddle-headed Wombat books and radio plays for children, and her debut novel, The Harp in the South, the winner of The Sydney Morning Herald's literary competition in 1946.

A staple of Australian school syllabuses, this story changed the lives of Park and her author husband, D'Arcy Niland.

Inspired by the Surry Hills slums in which they lived after their marriage, the novel provided desperately needed funds and recognition that led to enduring success for both writers.

It also changed Sydney, shocking the city's citizens into acknowledging its slums and influencing the state government's decision to demolish squalid Victorian terraces. Impoverished residents were moved to housing commission high-rises – which Park later questioned.

Poverty was a constant for Park until her first novel's success. Rosina Ruth Lucia Park was born in Auckland on August 24, 1917 (though many years are given, her family says this is correct), one of two daughters to a Scottish bridge builder and road maker, Melville Park, and his Swedish wife, Christina. She endured the privations of the Depression and World War II.

As a child, Park was deprived of books, which she craved. In A Fence around the Cuckoo (1992), the first volume of her autobiography, she said this forced her to study the people around her. She developed an ability to vividly capture character. Another key influence on her early development as a writer was her father, with whom she was close. ''He was a storyteller, which is all I've ever wanted to be,'' she wrote.

After the Parks were bankrupted during the Depression, they lived with the families of Mrs Park's numerous sisters. Ruth's education was disrupted; extreme poverty prevented her from taking a scholarship. When she returned to a humble Catholic college, she was obliged to wear the nuns' hand-me-down underwear.

Park avidly contributed stories to the children's pages of New Zealand newspapers. This led to a lowly job at the Auckland Star, where she later became the children's section editor. War prompted the demise of the children's pages so Park moved to the newsroom, where it was clear women journalists were unwelcome.

Contacts made through her internationally published freelance writing enabled Park to line up a job at a San Francisco newspaper, but the attack on Pearl Harbour three days before she was to sail sank this plan.

Park turned her sights to work in Sydney. She had visited once before and met another young writer, D'Arcy Niland, with whom she had been corresponding for some years at the behest of nuns at their respective schools.

Their relationship did not begin auspiciously – Park dropped Niland's first letter, unopened, into the bin – and when he proposed marriage she was reluctant to accept; she wanted to pursue her career and feared the same fate as many women she knew whom marriage had swallowed ''like a tide of mud''.

However, Park wed Niland, who later wrote the acclaimed novel The Shiralee, three weeks after moving to Sydney. They remained together for nearly 25 years and had five children: Anne, Rory, Patrick and twins Deborah and Kilmeny. His death in 1967, aged 49, ''nearly killed her'', Park admitted in a rare interview in 1992.

Niland, who had been rejected for military service because of the heart condition that eventually killed him, was called to labour for the war effort soon after their marriage. He worked the shearing circuit around rural NSW; Park joined him, undertaking menial jobs including shearers' cook.

Together with D'Arcy's brother Beresford (who married Park's only sibling, her younger sister, Jocelyn), the Nilands moved into tiny rooms in Surry Hills when they returned to Sydney.

Park had brushes with Depression-era suicides but it was in this suburb of crime and poverty that she witnessed murder, including the shooting of a US deserter by military police in 1944.

While she was out with baby Anne, the soldier fell at her feet, ''his blood splashing over the pram and me'', she wrote in the second volume of her autobiography, Fishing in the Styx (1993). Park also unwittingly lent a hammer to a man who used it to murder his girlfriend, then promptly returned it to her.

The Nilands eked out a living as freelance writers during this time. Park's The Harp in the South, which won a £2000 Sydney Morning Herald literary competition then was published as a novel in 1948, turned their careers around but also attracted controversy. Its frank representations of child abuse, abortion and prostitution prompted angry letters to newspaper editors.

Park's subsequent work included Poor Man's Orange (Harp's 1949 sequel), the children's novel Playing Beatie Bow (1980), and The Companion Guide to Sydney (1973), which reflected her love of history and of her adopted home town.

Among her many literary accolades was the 1977 Miles Franklin Award for the novel Swords and Crowns and Rings, and in 1987 she was made a member of the Order of Australia.

After more than 30 years in Sydney, Park moved to Norfolk Island in 1973, returning in 1985 to live in Mosman. In her mid-60s she lost her Catholic faith, which had until then been a strong influence in her life. She later turned to Zen Buddhism, actively seeking training from spiritual teachers in San Francisco and Japan.

Ruth Park is survived by her children and her sister Jocelyn, 11 grandchildren and four great-grandsons. Kilmeny died last year.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Patricia Maunder, 'Park, Rosina Ruth (1917–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Ruth Park, John Mulligan, 1962

Ruth Park, John Mulligan, 1962

National Library of Australia, 24574252

Life Summary [details]


24 August, 1917
Auckland, New Zealand


14 December, 2010 (aged 93)
Sydney, New South Wales, 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

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