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Shepherd, Catherine (1901–1976)

by Gillian Winter

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Catherine Shepherd (1901-1976), playwright, was born on 28 October 1901 at Enkeldoorn, Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), only child of English-born parents Edgar David Shepherd, Anglican clergyman, and his wife Margaret. The death of her father, when Catherine was an infant, left her mother in straitened circumstances. Margaret took her daughter to England and lived with relations in Yorkshire. Catherine was educated at Howell's School, Denbigh, Wales, and (on a scholarship) at University College, London (B.A., 1923; Dip.Ed., 1924). She travelled extensively during the 1920s before migrating to Australia with her mother and settling in Hobart in 1931. By 1936 she had begun writing scripts for the Australian Broadcasting Commission; she also taught at the Collegiate School for girls in the late 1930s.

Olive Wilton, the Hobart Repertory Theatre Society's dynamic producer, met Shepherd in 1937 and was immediately impressed with her script for a three-act play, set in Van Diemen's Land. Wilton produced Shepherd's Daybreak to critical acclaim in Hobart in the following year. The play won a competition run by the Australian National Theatre Movement. It was performed on stage around Australia, broadcast in 1938 on the A.B.C., published twice (Melbourne 1942 and 1946) and presented in Hobart in 1954 as part of Tasmania's sesquicentenary celebrations. In 1943 Shepherd had directed the H.R.T.S.'s production of her play Delphiniums, which was published in Six Australian One-Act Plays (Sydney, 1944). Gracious, unassuming and gentle, she continued to be actively involved in repertory theatre, usually in backstage capacities, which probably suited her shy disposition. Her other well-known stage play, Jane, My Love, was commissioned for the jubilee of Federation celebrations (1951) in Hobart: based on the lives of Sir John and Lady Franklin, it attracted only qualified enthusiasm from local audiences. She adapted it for radio, renaming it The Franklins of Hobart Town.

Radio plays and serials, Shepherd's main body of work, brought her a national audience. With a gift for creating dialogue, she adapted novels such as Charles Dickens's David Copperfield and wrote dramas based on the lives of literary and historical figures. Leslie Rees considered that she made a 'sustained and important though never spectacular contribution to stage and radio drama', and that she wrote with 'probing thoughtfulness' about the human condition, the search for self-realization and 'the need for freedom in a wide social sense'. Shepherd preferred writing for radio rather than the stage because it provided greater scope for freedom of action and movement, and reached a wider audience. She published one novel for children, Tasmanian Adventure (London, 1964).

An executive-member (1947) of the Hobart branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, Miss Shepherd was made a life member in 1975. She died on 18 February 1976 at St Ann's Rest Home, Hobart, and was cremated with Anglican rites. Her estate, sworn for probate at $58,353, was bequeathed to St Ann's. Edith Holmes's portrait (1956) of Shepherd is held by the Art Society of Tasmania: it captures her meditative reserve, and also suggests courage and humour.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Rees, The Making of Australian Drama (Syd, 1973)
  • M. Giordano and D. Norman, Tasmanian Literary Landmarks (Hob, 1984)
  • Mercury (Hobart), 24 Sept 1951, 21 Feb 1976
  • Saturday Evening Mercury, 7 Aug 1954
  • Hobart Repertory Society records (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

Gillian Winter, 'Shepherd, Catherine (1901–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/shepherd-catherine-11677/text20867, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 3 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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