This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000
Margaret Loch Kiddle (1914-1958), historian, was born on 10 September 1914 at South Yarra, Melbourne, eldest of four children of John Beacham Kiddle, solicitor, and his wife Mauna Loa, née Burrett. Town-bred, Margaret was fourth-generation Australian, proud of her pioneering forebears. Like her father's family, she was tall, carried herself beautifully and was superb on horseback. A grimmer inheritance was the kidney-disease that was to kill her.
She was educated privately and at St Catherine's School (1921-26), Melbourne Church of England Girls' Grammar School (1927-33) and the University of Melbourne (B.A. Hons, 1938; M.A., Dip.Ed., 1947). During World War II she worked on prices-policy research for (Sir) Douglas Copland. In 1946 Kiddle became a tutor (later senior tutor) in the department of history. She stayed there for the rest of her life, save for a year (1952) spent document-hunting in Britain and another (1954) working as a research fellow at the Australian National University, Canberra. Her publications included Caroline Chisholm (1950), three books for children—Moonbeam Stairs (1945), West of Sunset (1949) and The Candle (1950)—and her posthumous masterpiece, Men of Yesterday, A Social History of the Western District of Victoria 1834-1890 (1961), defiantly completed just before she died.
Kiddle earned most of her living by university teaching, which she took seriously and greatly enjoyed. Nevertheless she always said that she was 'not an academic'. She may have meant that her foreshortened future precluded any career-planning, as it excluded marriage; certainly she meant that she had no taste for 'academic' theorizing about history. She enjoyed her time at the A.N.U., where she predictably made many friends, but she would not take seriously her colleagues' admiration for her work.
Her talent took time to mature. Despite Kiddle's love for history, which was encouraged by Gwenda Lloyd at M.C.E.G.G.S. and then by Professor Max Crawford, her examination results, affected by illness, were mediocre. The Chisholm biography was rather wooden, perhaps because she could not find the private papers which might have transformed it. In 1949 a family friend suggested that she write a book about Western District society. Kiddle had a vision of the questions that might be answered if the settlers' own letters and diaries could be collected to throw light both on their Anglo-Celtic origins and on their colonial experiences. It took her the rest of her life to convert that vision into the manuscript that became Men of Yesterday.
Her letters show how well equipped she was for her work. Helping her siblings through family crises, she revealed herself as courageous, generous, commonsensical and indomitably realistic. She was a gifted raconteur, recognizing the tragic, and savouring the comic and the preposterous. She had a penetrating eye for people and a loving, attentive eye for landscape, which she had to see for herself: 'imagination is not enough'. In the search for documents, her 'true-blue merino' ancestry and her father's gift for friendship opened many doors. Burdened by illness, she was astonished in 1954 at the work she had already done.
At times the book seemed uncontrollable, 'an amorphous mass'. Then it crystallized: 'the people . . . are almost speaking for themselves now'—and their world took shape. With an impressive control of illuminating detail, she wrote about the relationships between human beings and the land into which they came. She took in her stride the most outrageous of personalities—'I seem to have an affinity for publicans and sinners'. The Aborigines were integral to her history, and despite the title (a quotation) so were the women. She did not romanticize. The settlers' faults and follies were part of their reality, and though she agonized over the chapter on morality, she refused to soften it.
Kiddle planned other books, but by 1957 time was running short. Sustained by blood-transfusions, she held on until her manuscript was finished. The least vain of authors, she then listed some essential revisions, and told her literary executors to use their own judgement. She died of renal failure caused by polycystic kidneys on 3 May 1958 at Richmond and was cremated.
Friends (notably Professor John La Nauze) prepared her draft for publication. The royalties on her books, bequeathed to the history department, have among other things endowed an essay prize named in her honour, but her best memorial remains Men of Yesterday, of which she wrote: 'if I've done nothing else, I've at least tried to cock a snook at destiny, & that, I think, is a good thing to do'. It sold 15,000 copies and has become an Australian classic.
Alison Patrick, 'Kiddle, Margaret Loch (1914–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kiddle-margaret-loch-10734/text19023, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 31 July 2015.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000