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Heather Gladys Shakespeare (1909–2008)

by John Farquharson

Heather Shakespeare, who has died in Canberra, aged 99, was a key figure in the early days of the Canberra Times, the newspaper which the Shakespeare family established in 1926 to serve what would be the growing community of Australia’s then fledgling national capital.

She, in fact, devoted the greater part of her life to the paper, working shoulder to shoulder with the Shakespeares through the grim years of the Great Depression and the desperate struggle that ensued to secure the paper’s survival.

Mrs Shakespeare, or Heather Cameron, as she then was, joined the Canberra Times as secretary/stenographer to the managing director, Thomas (T. M.) Shakespeare. And there she remained for the next 33 years, becoming in that time company secretary and later a director of the company. She finally resigned towards the end of 1962 when she became engaged to the then managing director and chairman, Arthur (A. T.) Shakespeare, several years after the death of his first wife. They married in 1963.

But that was very much in the future for the skinny, shy 19-year-old farm girl who came to work for the Canberra Times in 1929 after growing up on her father’s sheep property, ‘Weetangera’, in the vicinity of what became the Cameron offices in the Canberra suburb of Belconnen. There she used to roam the hillsides with her twin sisters, Freda and Thelma. She and her sisters and two brothers, Ewan and Bob, were all born on her grandfather’s property, ‘Land’s End’ at Ginninderra. Her grandfather, Robert Kilby, was a British immigrant who landed in Sydney in 1856, eventually owning a freehold property about a mile from the Camerons.

 The Camerons Canberra farming dynasty began when her great grandfather arrived from Scotland. There were 90 Camerons on board the ship, the Boyne, including the ship’s surgeon. Her father, Evan Cameron, obtained one of the first leases issued in the district in 1917 to grow crops and feed. Heather went to Goulburn High School on a scholarship that covered her train fare and boarding expenses. After completing her schooling she returned to Canberra and did a secretarial course. Her first job was with the Queanbeyan Age newspaper, before moving to the Queanbeyan motor garage for 18 months. She then got a job as a stenographer with the Australian General Electric company, in Canberra, because it was nearer home. She boarded in Canberra during the week and went home to Weetangera at weekends, usually riding each way by bicycle. Cycling into the office in the early mornings during the winter months, she used to recall often having arrived with her eyelids and lashes rimmed with ice.

With the onset of the Depression General Electric closed. Casting around for a new job, Heather saw an advertisement in the Canberra Times, by then a daily newspaper, for a secretary to the managing director. She applied and got the job. There she became the quintessential ‘Girl Friday’. She had to turn her hand to help wherever there was a need. Apart from her secretarial duties, which were not confined to the managing director’s correspondence, but also to A. T. and any of the other Shakespeares who required secretarial help. In an interview several years ago, she recalled having been the only girl in the office for some years. It was a very busy job and she often used to have to dash out to help at the counter. From the day she arrived and right through, she looked after the banking and the wages, as well as doing all the Shakespeares’ correspondence (there was the father, who was managing director, and three sons at the paper at that time). 

During the Depression years all sorts of things were done to save money. She remembered how all the envelopes received through the post were slit open, a Canberra Times stamp put on the bottom and they were then used them for writing advertisements. The paper managed in that way through the Depression and even into the war years when paper was equally short.

Of those often difficult years, Mrs Shakespeare in her extended interview, recalled it being said that ‘you could not run a newspaper with only 5000 people in Canberra’ - roughly the population in 1929-30. [In establishing the Canberra Times the Shakespeares had relied on what the public had been told to encourage them to purchase Canberra leases - that all Commonwealth departments would be transferred from Melbourne to Canberra by 1934 and that by 1929 the population would be about 15,000, regarded as the minimum size of a community capable of sustaining a daily newspaper. But by 1929 the transfer program had come to a standstill, the population little more than a quarter of the projected figure].

However, the young secretary soon realised that the Shakespeares were determined to keep the paper going. ‘They practically took nothing for themselves - it was all put back into the business,’ she said. ‘In the early days, T. M. as well as being managing director was also a member of the NSW Parliament’s Upper House - the Legislative Council. During my time at the paper an election came up. He contested it, but was not re-elected. This enabled him to concentrate on the Canberra Times. He used to go out talking to businessmen and selling advertisements. Being in charge of the money side of the business, he had to see we had enough to meet our wages, and sometimes it was very close. Often what enabled us to get by were the advertisements from the picture theatres.’

On the death of T. M. Shakespeare in 1938, Heather became company secretary. She was already doing most of the office work, as well as attending to her duties as stenographer and private secretary.

She attended board meetings and some years later became a company director. As A. T. Shakespeare’s wife, she was privy to the events leading up to the paper’s sale in 1964 to John Fairfax Limited, proprietors of the Sydney Morning Herald. According to Mrs Shakespeare, in her 1996 interview, arrangements for the sale of the paper to Fairfax had been put in place before Rupert Murdoch arrived on the scene to launch his new national daily, the Australian. ‘It wasn’t done in the office, but in our home,’ she recalled.

‘The discussions were with Rupert Henderson, managing director of the Fairfax company, and with one of the Fairfax accountants. Sir Warwick Fairfax was not directly involved, but he did come to afternoon tea one day and brought his wife [Mary] and small son [young Warwick] who was dressed like little Lord Fauntleroy. While I was talking with his wife, I think Sir Warwick and A. T. had “a little session”. When Murdoch came on the scene A. T. knew that everything was planned and in place.’ [This was in accordance with Arthur Shakespeare’s avowed intent to sell to the strongest competitor of anyone who came into Canberra to start another newspaper. Shakespeare had told Murdoch this during the course of an encounter they had at a party where Murdoch had threatened to run the Shakespeares and the Canberra Times out of business, even if it cost him a million to do it].

For Heather, along with a great many older Canberrans, the sale of the paper was a big wrench. But the Shakespeares had a continuing involvement with it for some years, as A. T. became chairman of a small board, which Fairfax set up to oversee the running of their new acquisition. This continued until ill-health led to A. T.’s retirement before his death in October 1975. Even more emotional for Heather, however, was the disposal of the paper to Kerry Packer’s Australian Consolidated Press, in 1988, after the fiasco of young Warwick Fairfax’s takeover and privatisation of his father’s company. Nevertheless, Mrs Shakespeare continued to take an interest in the paper and took part in the celebration of its 70th anniversary in 1996.

Outside the paper, her main interest, apart from family, was in the Canberra and District Historical Society, of which she and A. T. had been foundation members. During her time at the Canberra Times, she joined the Business and Professional Women’s Club, of which she remained an associate for many years. She was also active in the YWCA, being president of the board for five years, from 1955 to 1960. Another great interest was the scouting movement, in which her husband had also been involved. She became patron of the Arthur Shakespeare Foundation for Scouts. She was a member of the Country Women’s Association and a charter member of the Soroptomists Society, of which she was twice president.

Over the years, she gained something of a matriarchal status in the city whose growth had been so much a part of her life. But with the Shakespeares she will be forever identified with the Canberra Times which, from its founding, always had a vision for the city as the national capital and did so much to promote it.  

She is survived by, two step-daughters, Elizabeth Hamilton, of Pretty Beach, NSW, and Margaret Meek, of Albion Park, NSW, and their families.

Heather Gladys Shakespeare, born 25 July 1909; died 28 September 2008.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Shakespeare, Heather Gladys (1909–2008)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 1 March 2024.

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