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Campbell, Elizabeth (Bessie) (1870–1964)

by Paul Comrie-Thomson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Elizabeth (Bessie) Campbell (1870-1964), banjoist, was born on 21 July 1870 in Melbourne, daughter of Irish parents John Christopher Campbell (d.1912), wig-maker and hotelkeeper, and his second wife Eliza, née McMullen. Her father was born in Dublin and worked for Madame Tussaud, before migrating to Victoria about 1849. He continued his trades and exhibited wax-works; in the early 1870s the family moved to Sydney.

In 1884 Bessie went to London with her parents; she recorded that she 'took a great fancy to the five-stringed banjo' and was taught by Joe Daniels. After returning to Sydney next year, she learned for three months from the American Hosea Easton. In the early 1890s she studied under Walter Stent who taught her different American 'systems of finger-picking' (playing different arpeggio arrangements with the thumb and fingers); she deplored people who used a plectrum.

Bessie Campbell began to appear in concerts for charity about 1891. In September 1893 she played a solo at the American Banjo Club's concert at the Centenary Hall, York Street, in aid of the Seamen's Mission. By 1897 she had been acclaimed as 'Australia's greatest lady banjoist', had become the first female member of the American Banjo Club (founded by Stent in 1892), and was receiving 'six to eight letters a week for concerts great and small'. In April 1904 she was paid five guineas for appearing at the Bathurst agricultural show. Billed as 'The Banjo Queen', in 1907 she toured the northern rivers with the National Concert Company: one critic found her 'a wonder for she plays the banjo with so much ability as to render it almost a classical instrument'. Nevertheless she had had to contend with a good deal of prejudice against it.

At this time Bessie had 'a petite, pretty figure … soulful eyes, and the peach bloom complexion of an Andalusian … quick nervous ways that betray an inexhaustible amount of activity, and much talent'. She liked to include Christy-minstrel songs and African American spirituals in her repertoire and was often accompanied on the piano by her sister Fanny. She made friends with many theatre people, such as Nellie Stewart. During World War I, at the peak of her professional career, she gave frequent performances for servicemen and the Australian Red Cross Society.

After the war Bessie held benefit concerts for the Western Suburbs Leagues Club and the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League. She was also involved in charitable work for Burwood Municipal Council and in the 1920s was the honorary secretary of the Wanderers' Club. By the early 1930s arthritis was making it difficult for her to play and she never made commercial recordings. During her latter years she shared a house at Burwood with her brother Jack, who had also been involved in show business for J. C. Williamson's. She was a great follower of cricket.

Bessie Campbell did not marry but she had never lacked suitors. She died on 28 April 1964 at Burwood, and was buried in the Anglican section of Rookwood cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Shearston, ‘Bessie Campbell: Australia's queen of the banjo’, Australian Tradition, Oct 1966
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 14 Sept 1893
  • Clarion (Grafton), 2 Jan 1907
  • private information.

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Citation details

Paul Comrie-Thomson, 'Campbell, Elizabeth (Bessie) (1870–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/campbell-elizabeth-bessie-5486/text9329, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 17 October 2018.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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